Even before the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a global sense of breaking point, the ongoing wildcat strike led by graduate student workers at the University of California felt like the moment when the exploitative system of academic labor in this country would finally crack wide open.
Both the demands of striking graduate student workers at UC Santa Cruz, and the violent response to the strike, reveal the stark nature of the crisis and the stakes involved. The only demand is a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) that would work out to $1412 per month. Santa Cruz is one of the most expensive cities in North America. Graduate student workers are typically paid $19,000 a year after taxes, spending most of those wages on rent. They were, simply asking for the means to live in the city where they teach without suffering from hunger and homelessness.
The UC administration has consistently refused to engage in any negotiations with striking student workers, even once a grade strike began in December. When workers called for a full strike and set up a picket last month, the university summoned riot police. Nonviolent student and faculty protesters were beaten with batons; at least 17 were arrested. An administrator was quoted as saying that policing the strike was costing UC $300,000 per day – even as the university was claiming to have no money for a COLA agreement.
Then, on 28 February, UC fired approximately 82 striking graduate student workers. Among them were a number of international students who found themselves at risk for deportation, as their immigration status was suddenly in jeopardy.
And, in the midst of the greatest pandemic of the 21st century (so far), all 82 fired student workers were stripped of their health insurance.
“In light of the recent developments regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m writing to ask if it is still your intention to terminate the spring appointments of graduate students, thus forcing the loss of our health insurance, effective March 26?” wrote LuLing Osofsky, one of the fired graduate students, in an open letter to the UCSC administration. “I am 8 months pregnant and according to my Notice of Intention to Dismiss, I will lose my job, and thus health insurance, in less than two weeks.”
To sum up: academic workers doing some of the most necessary intellectual work of our time — teaching undergraduate students at a public university — asked for nothing more than a living wage. In response, one of the most “liberal” institutions in the world had them beaten, arrested, fired, left exposed to the whims of Trumpian immigration policies, and told, with actions that spoke louder than words, that as far as the university was concerned, they could all drop dead.
Who behaves this way? Only the gatekeepers of a dying system. But then, as I write this in late March 2020, plenty of systems — including capitalism itself — seem to be on the verge of dying (as do many of us who are the subjects of these systems).
The harshness of the response has not prevented the strike from spreading to other UC campuses, and inspiring solidarity from around the world. To give one example, the Ad Hoc Committee of Scholars 4 COLA (of which I am a member) has called for an academic boycott of UC until the fired students are reinstated. It launched on March 16 and currently has the support of nearly 300 artists, scholars, students, and writers, including Boots Riley, Cornel West, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Françoise Vergès, and Noam Chomsky.
Not surprisingly, the boycott was not front-page news that day. March 16 was also the day that, as one news organization put it, the US was officially “closed for business.” The White House issued new guidelines calling for almost total social distancing; the stock market had its largest one-day fall in history. In California, the order to “shelter in place” had already been given; the University of California, like everything else, was “closed for business.”
How do you boycott a university that’s been closed by a pandemic? Or, for that matter, how do you have a strike in a pandemic? Here is where we come to a political problem that extends far beyond the US academic system, and that has the potential to help determine our post-COVID future, for better or for worse.
The political movements that have posed the greatest threats to regimes of power during our lifetime have followed two possible routes. (I’m simplifying, but maybe a pandemic is a time to simplify.) One route has brought masses of people into the streets. In many instances, the whole point was simply to occupy public space. Part of the power of the recent (ongoing) uprisings in Lebanon is that they brought out roughly a quarter of the country’s population, scattered across cities and regions that typically remain separated, into what became a shared public space.
The other route, equally powerful but assuming the opposite form, has involved withdrawing ourselves — generally in a material way. Withholding labor — the strike — remains the most powerful tool of workers, even in late capitalism; the brutal response to the strike at UC perversely confirms its power. There is also the power of the boycott, whether the systematic boycotts that made up a major part of the US civil rights movement, or the global boycott of apartheid South Africa, or the current grassroots BDS movement against Israeli apartheid. Again, the violent attempts to repress BDS speak to its power and potential.
What becomes of our leverage now, when public space has literally turned toxic, and the institutions we aim to shut down have shut themselves up? That’s one major question faced by strikers, by boycotters, and by anti-capitalist movements everywhere right now.
For those of us currently sheltering in place, PAUSEd, or otherwise quarantined, this is a crucial time to be finding ways to work out new strategies. The UC wildcats, in carrying their struggle forward, provide us with both inspiration and with possible models for what might come next.
In their recent statement, “What does the pandemic change about our strike?,” the strikers offer several arguments for the importance of continuing to strike even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic — including the fact that, as they put it, “precarity itself compounds the crisis.” They conclude with an argument worth repeating, not just in the context of the US academy, but in the largest global political context:
The idea that a crisis is a time when everyone’s interests align in the face of a greater shared danger is a quaint fantasy. This danger is never shared evenly. In the present moment, workers around the world are taking strike action and demanding what they need from their employer to live. They are striking not in spite of the pandemic but because of it. Their demands—our demands—for economic justice are demands to end the intolerable inequality that both exacerbates and is exacerbated by the COVID-19 outbreak.
“These are unprecedented times,” everyone seems to say these days. No doubt. But some things stay the same even in viral times, including the age-old question of the struggle: Which side are you on?