Fighting for the Soul of Public Education

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Demonstration in support of UC Santa Cruz graduate instructors, striking for Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) allowances. Photo by Ali Fuat Yuvali

The administration of the University of California, Santa Cruz announced on Friday, February 28 that it would fire fifty-four graduate instructors who are on strike at the University. The announcement comes as the latest move in a nation-wide wave of strikes over teaching salaries that have not kept up with the cost of living, and over the very concept of value of accessible public education.

The central demand of the UC Santa Cruz graduate workers’ strike is a living wage that keeps up with the soaring cost of housing in their high-priced seaside community. Graduate workers typically pay 50 to 70 percent of their income, and in some cases even more, for housing. After failed attempts to get the administration to address the issue, in February the graduate workers called for a strike, demanding $1,412 more per month. By the University administration’s own estimation, nearly one in three graduate students on campus experience food insecurity.

Frustrated with the lack of response from University officials to this cost-of-living crisis, hundreds of graduate workers walked off the job in a wildcat strike, an action not sanctioned by their union, United Auto Workers (UAW) 2865. Tensions escalated further when a militarized police force arrested 17 strikers, who were blocking traffic in a peaceful demonstration near the campus entrance.

Students and workers at other University of California campuses have engaged in actions supporting the strikers, including a sit-in at UC San Diego and a protest at UC Los Angeles. More than 3,600 university faculty from across the country have signed an online statement of solidarity with the strikers. As part of their strike, some Santa Cruz graduate instructors decided to withhold Winter Quarter grades. The administration announced 54 of those strikers would lose their jobs, in a move a Chronicle of Higher Education reporter called “extraordinary.”

Protesters at the “Doomsday March” at UCSC on February 21. Photo by Ali Fuat Yuvali

With the dismissal of the 54 students, hundreds of graduate workers at Santa Cruz have pledged not to work during the next academic quarter, and the UAW has filed unfair labor charges against the University and is considering a UC system-wide strike.
While the battle over a living wage for graduate workers continues in California, these issues are not just a crisis in higher education. Public educators in K-12 schools face similar problems. Here in Illinois, a 2018 study by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents and Schools found that 85 percent of districts experienced a “major or minor problem with teacher shortages.” In central Illinois, 89 percent of schools reported “significantly fewer qualified applicants” for vacant teacher positions.

In Springfield, the legislature has scrambled to address the teacher shortage. One measure passed in 2019 removed the requirement for teacher applicants to pass a basic skills test that had been shown to have a negative impact on candidates of color attempting to enter the classroom. Candidates still have to pass grade or subject tests relative to their teaching. More recently, an effort is being made to break down barriers for retired teachers to reenter the classroom on a substitute basis.

But just as in Santa Cruz, one of the biggest barriers to pursuing a career in teaching in Illinois remains the failure of the profession to keep up with the cost of living. In Chicago last October, the issue of affordable housing was at the forefront of an 11-day teachers’ strike in the third-largest school district in the nation. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) argued that teachers could not make ends meet on their salaries, and also that students were facing a homelessness crisis. As a result of their strike they won a 16 percent raise over a five-year contract, as well as tangible resources for homeless students.

In 2009, members of the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois struck for two days over the threat of a tuition waiver rollback and the increasing inability of working-class graduate workers to access higher education. That year there were only five strikes in the nation of 1,000 workers or more, according to the Department of Labor, in what was a low tide of labor militancy at the start of the Great Recession.
Three years later the CTU went out on strike, led by a new progressive Caucus of Rank and File Educators, in a work action that tied teachers’ concerns to community concerns. During that strike, thousands of CTU strikers and supporters marched through the streets of downtown Chicago, their red t-shirts becoming a powerful visual symbol of the potential power of organized labor.

In February, 2018, West Virginia teachers walked out across that state, and the “Red for Ed” movement was on the march. That same month, GEO members at the University of Illinois campus were back on the picket line, this time for two weeks. Teachers in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, Colorado and Los Angeles joined the picket lines, for livable wages, affordable health care, and basic supplies and textbooks in classrooms throughout the country.

The banana slug is the mascot of UC Santa Cruz

The recent strike in Santa Cruz is the latest chapter in this story—a story that labor historians Bob Bruno and Steven Ashby have called a “fight for the soul of public education.” It is also a fight for the soul of the labor movement, and the basic idea that workers should be able to have decent housing and access to health care in exchange for their labor. The front line of that fight is in Santa Cruz right now, and all working people should be paying attention.

Dr. Stephanie Seawell Fortado is a Lecturer at the University of Illinois Labor Education Program, providing workshops and extension programming for unions and the general public on the Champaign-Urbana campus and throughout Illinois. Before joining the University, Stephanie served as the Executive Director of the Illinois Labor History Society (ILHS), the oldest state-wide labor history not-for-profit in the United States. She completed her PhD at the University of Illinois, where she studied African American working class and social movement history. Stephanie is currently working on her first book, with the working title Race, Recreation and Rebellion, which looks at struggles over public space during the Civil Rights Movement in Cleveland, Ohio. She is a past President, Treasurer, Bargaining Team and Strike Committee member of the Graduate Employees Organization 6300, of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and former delegate to the Champaign County Labor Council. She is currently a steward and organizing chair of the newly formed Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition, IFT Local 6546.

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