Dylan Kupsh

Dylan Kupsh is currently enrolled in a graduate program focusing on
Computer Science at UCLA. During COLA, he was in his 3rd undergraduate
year where he was a double major in Computer Science and Sociology.
During his time at COLA, he helped lead many graduate students in
creating events for COLA. He was one of the individuals who devised
the Ortega strike: All Smiles, No Swipes that fed thousands of
students by encouraging students to walk into Ortega and eat.


My name’s Danyela Ornelas. I’m currently interviewing Dylan Kupsh regarding his role in the COLA. So what year and major were you when you first joined COLA?

COLA was my third year. I was a computer science and sociology major.


Did anyone introduce you to COLA?

Not really. I was really involved in the union prior to that and so I was like up to date. And so, you know, everyone, right when I started, it was all of us sort of making it happen.

Yeah, I think that was really difficult to just plan as you go on.

Yeah. It was scary, too, because I was a union officer at the time and I kept getting emails from people in the union saying, don’t say anything about COLA, don’t do anything about COLA.

I know that’s been really scary, especially when harsh punishments were being given to UCSC COLA organizations as well.

But I remember we first started in the fall of that year and it was more like UCSC rebelling against the union. And then it kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger until it like, dwarfs everything else.

Okay. So I know you mentioned that you were also part of the union, but was there anything else that caused you to join the organization and what exactly was your role in this?

Yeah. So as a little background, I was in USLAC, which is the undergrad student labor organization, and then I was also in Students for Justice in Palestine and UAW 2865. And so I was doing a lot of the organizing work on campus with the union UAW. I did a lot with AFSCME Strikes in the past. A lot of my role was trying to constantly expand COLA and also helping out a lot with logistics and planning and relaying what I learned from the AFSCME strikes to COLA– what we’ve learned was successful and what was less successful and also trying not to repeat mistakes that others made.

Yeah. What was the most significant protest to you?

For me, the most significant one was the Blackout day.

Oh, that’s right.

You know, like the days before I was like, oh, this might not be that big. We’ve only been getting like 200 people up the picket line. But then the day of, there were so many people. I think we made a smart decision and we went through the library which made the line go on for like 5 minutes. So there was a constant stream of people marching for COLA. And it was like, Wow, we really did that.

That’s incredible. That’s so inspiring. I understand that your Cheadle hall strike was a tad controversial but regardless it was pretty major.

Yeah. The second part of the Cheadle Hall strike was more impromptu.

Are there any current plans for COLA to bring more awareness to this organization?

I mean, we never really got the goal that we wanted, which is COLA. We were not pushing strong enough, I think. And then the other thing is just that it takes a lot of effort to get to the university and to strike. And I think we would have gotten it like if we were able to get like one or two more quarters. I think that it would have just continued to grow a lot. To the point where we were like Santa Cruz and actually shutting down the campus where people can’t get in and stuff. But I still want that goal.

Yeah, that’s a very important goal. Would you say a factor in not achieving a COLA was due to possibly the pandemic?

Oh, it was totally the pandemic. 100% the pandemic. I think it’s different when you’re at your own campus, like when we’re at Santa Barbara and we can talk to everyone. And everyone at Santa Barbara was on a very similar page about COLA and, or most of the people I talked to. But then when we get into these union conversations, it’s like a bunch of infighting and it’s exhausting. And it’s like people on my campus were wanting to do this and then saying, “Oh, you have to do something else”. And people here weren’t very receptive to that. Yeah, but I do think the pandemic played the biggest role though. Yeah.

Yeah, I remember I was a freshman when this happened, so I remember it being a huge explosive thing and then by spring quarter it just disappeared. I couldn’t believe the university is really failing their own TAs, their own students despite their goal of education.

It was close, I think. I think it’s harder to strike online, but I think we got really close to being able to do it again. But yeah, that was how it ended.

So how do you feel as one of the COLA representatives about the current housing crisis going on at UCSB and in Isla Vista?

Inevitable. I think it’s like the university’s own problem where instead of actually doing their job and building housing and actually trying to host students, they put all of their money in some millionaire to try to fix all their problems, which will probably never come to
fruition.

Yeah. Funny enough, my, my follow up question was going to be, what is what are your personal thoughts on Munger Hall?

Yeah. Yeah, it’s kind of funny because Santa Barbara really needs housing and there’s so many places to build housing. And they haven’t been building housing for like so many years. And then they get this Munger Hall proposal, which is some billionaire (woooo) and then the other proposal that they keep spouting– the Ocean Road one– I remember it receiving a lot of criticism because it was going to cut down the eucalyptus trees and the tunnel. They were going to take out the tunnel. They’re really trying hard not to build housing.

Oh, it’s absolutely crazy. If there is one thing you could change about COLA what would it be?

I mean, not to have the pandemic, I think, would be the biggest one, but outside our control. You know, personally, I think I should have been like start more active from the beginning. But yeah, I don’t know really what to change about the overall movement. I guess there’s a lot of things I think should have played differently around internal racism. And I think there is a lot of interpersonal conflict toward the end that I wish would have changed.

Do you have any final words you’d like to say regarding COLA or to the university?

I don’t think it’s going away. I think it’s going to be continued in a year or in a few years. I think that at some point everyone’s going to say we’re fed up with being so ridiculously underpaid for the work that people do at the university itself. And I think when it comes back, it’s going to be stronger because it’s not just going to be mainly grad students. I think it’s going to be more demanding. I think the university has done a pretty poor job treating workers during the pandemic and after the pandemic. I think every single worker has been basically screwed over by the university, besides, like top professors and administrators. So I think it’s going to get worse.

Does it make you upset as a graduate of UCSB, as an alumni, that there’s still no significant change?

Yeah, well, I’m at another UC, so I’m getting the same problems.

Oh, no.

Now I’m a grad student and I have to live with this poor wage.

And a quick follow-up question. I would love to hear more about the Ortega: All Smiles No Swipes event.

Yeah, yeah. We heard that they did like eight of these at Santa Cruz. And there was someone from Santa Cruz who came down to Santa Barbara for a day. And they told us, you have to do this. And then on the other side, I was friends with AFSCME. The people who worked in the Dining Commons, their organizer, and he was also telling me about other campuses and the mistakes that they made with this. I think it went horribly wrong at Berkeley. So we got together with a group– there was like 30 of us or something– and we spent a whole day planning this out piece by piece. I guess I was the one who led a lot of it because I was the only undergrad that really knew the dining commons. And we did it before with AFSCME where we would go into the dining commons and do protests inside. It’s just a lot different when you’re letting people in for free. But it was really crazy how… I guess I was surprised at how simple it was. We just like went in at the start of the dining period, instantly like take over– the management or whatever was stunned. They didn’t hear anything about it and… I was expecting them to pull food and stop service, but they kept serving. And then lines start pummeling. There were a few people that we
assigned to do, like, social media stuff, and they did an excellent job. And we did a good thing. We were constantly talking to the workers behind the counter. And it was weird too, that the police response at Santa Barbara was different where they only sent an undercover cop who was really easy to spot and like, didn’t do anything.

Really. I didn’t know that.

Yeah. They had, like, a plainclothes cop that they sent and it was kind of funny because it looked like she was trying to dress up, like, as a college student. But you could tell a mile what she was. And yeah, I think it was like one of the best actions because it’s not only like helping food security, which was like a tenet of COLA with housing security, but it also had a direct financial impact on the university where if we kept doing that, you know, it has a big demand. And we were very close to doing it again. It’s just the pandemic.

If I may ask, what dining commons would you have chosen next, or would you have stuck with Ortega?

So we chose Ortega because it’s the easiest to take over. There’s one entrance and by the time you’re inside Ortega, they can’t lock you out. The problem with a lot of dining commons is they just close the door when you’re trying to get in, so you have to shimmy your way in. At DLG there’s that little turntable and they block you from entering.

Yes, I know exactly what you’re talking about.

It’s a lot more complicated. And then Carrillo has the long walkways where they see you for 20 seconds as you’re walking down and then you can never get people to Portola. I think we would have done Carrillo because I think we could have gotten away with it. I think, you know, be cautious of like logistics and stuff. But like, Ortega was just the easiest
one, and that’s why we did it first.

Yeah, that makes sense. I understand Ortega got to the point where it reached capacity very quickly. And from what I remember, there were the managers who were kind of complaining about students taking out food. And I understand COLA, you guys were encouraging them to do so.

Yeah, it was really funny, our interactions with the managers. Like the first thing we did is we went to the managers and we were like, everyone needs to be free today. And they’re like, Wait, wait, wait, we have to approve this. We have to go through our chain of command. And we’re like, you don’t understand. You’re not in charge today. We’re in charge. And it was really funny how quickly they realized what was happening. You know, they had
that one person by the thing like counting capacity. I honestly didn’t think it would ever reach capacity. I thought they would just take away food and it would be good for like 30 minutes or whatever. I did not expect to stay the whole dining period too. And it was also cool seeing people take out food. We brought paper plates because we didn’t want to put extra work on the workers here. So we’ll bring our own paper plates and trash bags and stuff. And the managers during the service kept telling us, “Don’t use those plates, don’t use those plates.” And I was like, “Really? You want to put more work on yourselves
here”, you know? And then at the end, we helped them clean up everything. All of us vacuumed the whole place, cleaned up the tables and everything. I think one of them was like, this is the cleanest Ortega has been while. But yeah, no, it was weird.

I assume you also maybe have spoken to some student workers and chefs. What did they say about COLA? And also about the event?

Yeah. So as I mentioned, a big concern of mine was the workers. I heard at Berkeley, they got really scared because of the way that the COLA people did that action. And so the whole time we, we assigned one person to basically be talking to the workers. And I think the problem that we realized after was that they really only talked to the workers
that you can see because like in Ortega, they hide all the workers in the kitchen or whatever. Yeah. And I think a big problem that we had was a lot of the chefs and stuff, they eat leftovers and there weren’t any leftovers. We ran out of food. And so it was
kind of funny because after we did the event, we’re like, you know, maybe next time we have to order catering even though we’re taking over dining commons, we have to order catering for the workers. And we were actually serious. But I think that was a problem for the student workers, I think. There were mixed reactions where some were like– I remember seeing Reddit– and they’re like, please don’t come to our dining common again. Like, we’re overworked. We kept trying to interact with the workers there when we were taking it over. But I guess they don’t really want to say that it’s causing them more work, which is understandable.

I would like to say that that event was the most positively representative for the students. I would just hear students go on and on about your organization because of this very event. You guys got a huge positive reception because of it.

Yeah, it was a really fun action to do. It was one of the most fun. And it was actually, like, really chill. I didn’t expect it to be that chill because we were taking thousands of dollars of food.

They must been so surprised, especially since you mentioned that other UCs have tried and they faced difficulties doing so.

Santa Cruz like did it eight times and so they were experienced. Berkeley I think the problem was that the grad students that planned it didn’t go to the dining commons and so they didn’t know. And they also didn’t really think about the workers inside. At UCLA, it was all undergrads that planned it, so they did good. And yeah, I guess it was trying to make sure that we’re anticipating the people inside. But yeah, it was cool. We were very close to not doing it.

Really, why?

People felt uneasy. Because it’s a really high-stakes action where it’s hard to protect the safety of everyone doing it. And it’s much different because it’s not your safety personally. It’s the people you’re letting into the dining commons. We’re not the ones that are eating the food. Like, I think most of the people in COLA, like the ones who planned it, didn’t really eat. We were letting everyone else eat. And so it’s like a different level of safety where you can never really anticipate what the police response or whatever will be. There was also like, is this too much? And we all tried to come to a consensus with everyone beforehand. And there were a few people who were, like, ambivalent about it. But I think afterward everyone was like, Yeah, that was a big success. Glad we did.

It was a huge success. I know you mentioned that one of the flaws of other dining commons strikes was the fact that there was not enough support. Help from
undergraduates. So would you say that alongside graduate students, undergraduates also played a huge role?

I mean, there wouldn’t be COLA without undergrads. There’s a lot of people on campus that I think are making that mistake, like a lot of worker organizations that are ignoring undergrads. But I think it was quite clear that wouldn’t happen without undergrads. You know, the marches were amplified. The amount of people who are actually quote-unquote on strike was dwarfed by the number of undergrads. The dining common action was me and a few other undergrads. I don’t think it would have happened without us because a lot of grad students just didn’t know the dining commons. It was kind of funny because when you’re first planning this action, we did a whole walk-through of it when the dining commons was closed and no one was there. And we literally rehearsed everything to a
tee and when we were trying to find the building all the grad students were like, “Where is Ortega? I’ve never heard of Ortega before.”

And I thought that was funny because I’d been here for three years. How do you not know where Ortega is or this other dining commons? And they’re like, It’s right next to the GSA lounge. But yeah, I think undergrads played a huge deal, especially at the beginning, too, like the Cheadle Hall sit-in. A lot of grad students brought their sections, and I think that’s what made the difference for the Cheadle Hall thing. And why it was so successful at the beginning was because there were like ten of us sitting in the office and then like one person brought a group of 30 people and did section right in the hallway or whatever. And I think that made it really, really effective.

And besides undergraduate support, what was the faculty reception like?

I think faculty support was it was really good at Santa Cruz. It was instrumental at Santa Cruz. It helped a lot of the wild cats get their jobs back. I was in a lot of those meetings and about them getting their jobs back and realized the arguments that we were making as a union relied upon faculty support and it worked. They got their jobs back. But at Santa Barbara, I personally wasn’t involved in the faculty thing because I think faculty are really hard at Santa Barbara to organize in terms of like who to contact and their position on campus. I think the people who did it did a good job. There were like 30 or 40 professors and they did their own march one day and I thought it was really cool. The faculty in the history department were the main ones pushing forward the faculty for COLA. I don’t envy people who had the role of getting faculty on board.

Were you ever afraid that what happened UCSC to graduate students would happen to UCSB? Was there a threat of losing your job?

I guess talking to a lot of UCSC people, I don’t think they lost pay over that. They lost pay in the intermediate time when they were off their jobs. I think the point about the job loss is that we had a union, we had good appointment section rights and I think most people weren’t concerned about being fired. It was there, but it was also not the biggest concern. I wasn’t nervous about people being fired. I think if they fired them, it would have made COLA ten times bigger. And they didn’t fire them. I guess I wasn’t nervous about them trying to. I imagine if the grading strike went on for a very long time, they would have made an attempt. But from my position, the university didn’t care about the teaching strike. They only cared about them doing the grading strike.

And I feel like UCSB was relatively silent about talking to the school as a whole regarding COLA. How do you feel about that? There were no major messages from Chancellor Yang.

Yeah, I wasn’t surprised. That’s the way that Yang did it in the past. He’s the type of person who won’t say anything publicly. He’ll do it all privately. There were three AFSCME strikes and UCSB never gave a single comment about any of the three AFSCME strikes. And I was like, you know, this is their game plan. I think the administration in the back of their offices was scared to help. Like when we did the sit-in, it was funny because we were in Chancellor Yang’s office and we see one of the workers in the office point out that they got a report from UCOP on COLA. We could see them photocopying it in their printer room and they
whisked it off to another room right away to try to hide it from us. But I thought that was really funny. I think there was there was this fear from the university about if they said anything about COLA, then they would get a union lawsuit like what happened at Santa Cruz with the housing thing. I think they did try to meet with us and I think we did have one meeting with them. The Vice-Chancellor, David Marshall or whatever, had a printout of every COLA story on Instagram. Like he had a folder and he literally printed out every single folder on Instagram. And I thought that was like, yeah, they’re definitely stalking us.

Would you feel that COLA would have grown a little bit larger had the university made any public statements? I understand there was fear of lawsuits, but how do you feel about that?

Yeah. If they tried to fire anyone. I think there’s nothing that you can do to grow it more than doing something like that. I think it would have grown more if they said something.

And how do you feel about any negativity towards COLA? I remember looking up news articles about your events and there were many negative comments regarding COLA, calling the organization is kind of a waste of time.


I mean, we got what we accomplished or we got a big movement. I think there were some comments about like the Cheadle Hall lock-out thing that we did that I think were fair. It didn’t go to plan that day. I think that a lot of staff were incensed about the way that we handled a lot of the walkouts. But I think ultimately all the comments that were negative were outdone by a lot. And I would constantly be looking up on like the Daily Nexus and stuff and seeing what people were saying to see if there were any worthwhile criticisms. I think self-criticism is really important and mistakes that we weren’t thinking of that we made. And, you know, I think a lot of them were just like rich alumni saying something about like back in my day or whatever, and it’s ridiculous. But they got kind of outsized by everyone else.

Oh, for sure. I can wholeheartedly say as a current undergrad that the undergraduate is in full support of what COLA had done.

I think undergrad demands were largely left out of COLA. My interpretation of COLA is it’s kind of vague on like what the demand is. I think there was an attempt to really deliberately include more and more undergrads. I think most undergrad positions are way worse than what grad students face. And I think that it’s not as public and I do think it was constantly left out. A bit too much in my opinion. Yeah.

And then I guess the other side of it is the union dynamic. I think a lot of the statewide union leadership really sold out. And it was weird because like at LA, they did a whole thing like, please don’t go on strike. Please don’t go on strike. They’re like, begging us and it’s like, why? Why are they so scared? You know, a bunch of people are getting together, why are you trying to stop that? Internally, I think that was extremely present with a lot of the organizers. Me and Sheila were the two UAW people at UCSB the whole time, and I became the chair of the UAW at UCSB right when the pandemic hit. And it’s like we’re both facing this incredible pressure from not just the university, but UAW itself and UAW trying to cover itself. And I thought that was sort of antithetical to what we were trying to build. I don’t think a lot of people in UAW have really reflected on what they did during that time. And I hope they do. And I hope a lot of people learn from what COLA created, how effective graduate labor is in the university because there’s a lot of people that say you can’t strike unless you get so many people in this department to say, like, I’m not working. But COLA… there wasn’t. I think there were a lot of people, but it wasn’t like half of all TAs were doing this, but like 20 or 30% of all grades were withheld at Santa Cruz.

And that was more than 80% of students or something. It’s like a huge amount of students like were like, “where is my grade? Where’s my grade?” And I think it shows how integral graduate labor is to the university and how easy it is to shut down the university if you just don’t grade for like a quarter the whole university falls apart. And I think that’s kind of a lesson to show how neoliberal the university is, where it relies upon not the actual teaching, where they, they don’t really care as much about the teaching, but the grades. But it’s also, I think, instrumental for the future in trying to get a COLA contract or cops off campus, that you really don’t need 100% of people. You need a really committed group of rank and file people, and they can make a huge impact on the university. And I think it’s understated how much it affected them. And I guess while I’m on that note, I think it also revealed how incompetent a lot of university staff are. And, you know, I went to the lawsuit meeting every single question, the Santa Cruz labor relations person was like, yeah, after COLA, I finally read the UAW bylaws and I’m like– it’s your job! You’re getting paid 100K and you haven’t read the bylaws of the union that you’re supposed to be interacting with.

And it’s how reactive they are. I dealt with the Santa Barbara people for two or three years and they don’t prepare for meetings until like 10 minutes before. A lot of people are
trying to say the university is smart. The university is really playing this strategically. They’re thinking through all of their decisions. They have a ton of time. They’re going through ten chains of lawyers. When I really think the university always waits until the last possible second and they’re not as prepared as a lot of people think they are. I could see during bargaining the UCOP people don’t prepare for meetings, really. They just seem a little overworked, but who cares? Because they’re paid too much. But they’re like preparing like 5 minutes before these meetings and the only time that they actually prepared was during COLA when they were like oh, shoot, we actually have a huge problem where our university is getting shut down. And I think a lot of people still are thinking the university is really, really smart and strategic and stuff. And I don’t think that’s true. I guess that’s my opinion.

Thank you so much for sharing that with me. I understand that university disorganization is honestly a problem. You guys practically went to every meeting. You guys devised a very reasonable list of demands for the university. For them to just kind of glance at it seems kind of insulting.

Yeah, it feels like the university is constantly on PR watch where they’re just doing stuff according to their own interests or whatever. And then finally, when something goes bad, they try to overcorrect. Like, with this Munger Hall, it seemed like for years they were basically like stalling it out, like not doing much. And then, like, right once the stories hit, they’re in full damage control mode. And I don’t think it was strategic. It’s just being lazy.

Yeah. Thank you. Thank you again so much for your time. I really do appreciate it.


Interviewed by: Danyela Ornelas

Janna Haider

Janna Haider is currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the History
Department here at UCSB, researching South Asian immigrants to the
United States in the early 20th century. When COLA started, she was in
her first year of the Ph.D. program and became one of the people who
would report back to the History department about updates regarding
COLA after general body meetings.


So hello, my name is Danyela Nayelli Ornelas. I am part of the Living History Project and I’m currently with Janna Haider to interview her about her connection to COLA. All right. So thank you so much for joining me. I really do appreciate it.

Thank you for having me.

Yeah, thank you. What year were you and what major were you studying when you first joined COLA?

It was my first year of the PhD program in history here. Yeah, I was a small baby. Yeah. So I was very new to campus when it started.

Wow. Were you nervous like it was your first year in your PhD program? Were you nervous to just join like a huge organization that was about ensuring that TAs get the appropriate pay to live in Santa Barbara, essentially?

No. I mean, I was nervous because it was you know, it was a major action. But before I started a Ph.D. at Santa Barbara, I did a master’s at the University of Washington in Seattle. And while I was there, the TAs organized under a different UAW local went on strike. And that was the movement that I was part of. And I also like do have a background in like community organizing. I’ve been in a lot of community organizing spaces before coming here, so it was different but not new, I think was kind of the way that I felt about it.

Yes. You had at least had some background where you felt somewhat prepared, but I understand that you felt somewhat nervous because you just kind of like lunge yourself into this organization when you first started your Ph.D. program, which I imagine
has been wonderful but also crazy at the same time.


Very, very that. Yeah.

So who introduced you to COLA?


At the time I was a member of the Asian and Pacific Islander Grad Student Alliance and now like now three years later, I’m the president of API GSA. But, but at the time I was a member and at the time Vice President Naomi, and I’m going to leave her last name out, she was in the same department as one of the people who was most central to organizing COLA on this campus. And Naomi brought that organizer to one of our general body meetings to explain to us what was going on, because we didn’t know. We didn’t know what was going on. This was before the firings at Santa Cruz. I don’t remember exactly how long before, but this person who, based on their identity categories, was not a member of the Pacific Islanders Grad Student Alliance, came and talked to us a little bit about what was going on and then left. And then as an organization still in our meeting space, we kind of closed the door and try to figure out just like what the hell is going on.

And there was a moment that I really remember. This was before the strike vote was called also because there was a moment where somebody floated the possibility like, oh, are we going to go on strike? And then Naomi said, “oh, we’re not there yet.” And then Dana, who at the time was our president, said, “you say that we’re not there yet, but this morning there wasn’t a picket at Storke Tower, and now there’s a picket at Storke Tower. So like, we don’t know how quickly this is moving.” That was kind of like my first understanding of what was going on. And after that is when I started going to organizing meetings.

Okay. You did mention that you were a part of a few organizations even back in Washington. COLA was not your first experience in this situation. So I wanted to ask what caused you to join the organization?

I was poor and I wanted a raise.

Oh, I hear that.

Like, that was kind of it. And it’s like. It wasn’t my first community organizing thing, so I felt like I kind of knew what to do and what the space would be like. So, yeah. Yeah.

Okay. And what was your role?

I wasn’t in what I would call, like, a leadership position, I guess. But I did kind of become in a leadership position in my own department, which is history. It was me and two other women
of color who were the most central to the organizing in our department after a while. It was a lot of going to general assemblies and then reporting back to the department for a while.

Yeah. So basically you and two other people who remain anonymous were essentially like the speaking heads for COLA for the history department.

Mm hmm. Yeah.

And what was that like? Was the department excited for this organization? Were they a little nervous?

No. This is a department that, like, specifically knows a lot about labor history. Like most of the UAW-2865 head stewards in the past few years have been out of the history department. At some point, there were conversations like “you got to get your department strike ready.” They’re here, like, tell us what to do next sort of thing. Like this was a department that was very ready, ready to go, like from the jump.

Oh, that’s phenomenal to hear, especially as a history major myself. I respect that a lot. Thank you. And did you participate in all the protests? I know you mentioned that they began a few pickets here and there. So I imagine you were in at the very, very beginning. But did you participate in the other events going on?


Yeah, it was. So not all of my memories of the COLA movement are necessarily positive because there were a lot of really white spaces where whiteness kind of became the default action and the first kind of moment that we as a department came to understand that that was what was about to happen was the night that the strike vote was called, we were all in this conference room in the history department, zooming in to the General Assembly. That was happening, I believe, in the GSA lounge when the vote was taken and as a department. And so the way the ballot was set up was there were three options of actions to take. Option one was to immediately suspend classes, go on a wildcat strike, do a full work stoppage and option two was just a grade strike. To continue working through the end of the quarter but promise not to submit grades, and then option three was to do nothing. As a department, we had come together because we knew that those were going to be the options on the ballot. So as a department, we had all agreed and we are the largest department in the Division of Humanities and Fine Arts, so we have a high concentration of graduate students. We had agreed that we were going to rank grade strike first, work stoppage second, and doing nothing third. And so we all got out our little phones and voted on the little Google form.

So what happened was that the grade strike was by far the most popular option, and then the people in the General Assembly space called a full strike anyway. And it was this very, like, this is illegal. Like, we are in breach of our contract right now. And also because it was an illegal strike international students who participated could be subject to deportation. Undocumented students who participated could be subject to deportation. Any of us could be fired at any time, including parents with young children, of which we have a couple in our department. And it was this moment of like, wait, that’s literally not what the numbers are telling you to do, and you’re doing it anyway. And it turned out to be the first in a series
of situations in which white people would do the things that they felt safe doing, which often was not the thing that anybody else would feel safe doing. So it wasn’t this moment of a victory. It was this moment of dread. Like what have we gotten ourselves into? Sort of thing. So I wasn’t TAing that year because it was my first year, but I was doing a supplemental readership for a professor who at the time was my advisor and I was doing the grading for this upper-division class. It was me and another grad student doing all the grading for this upper-division class– the professor wasn’t doing any of the gradings and we said that we were going to grade strike.

We didn’t have the ability to cancel class as graders, but we were out at the picket a lot and I don’t think any history TAs canceled sections except for on very specific days like the day of the march. But I don’t think anyone did a full work stoppage because it wasn’t what we had voted for. It wasn’t what the majority had voted for. And then a bunch of people from the history department kept going to these organizing meetings and being like, for the love of God, what is the plan? And the response that we would get from mostly white people was the plan is to get a COLA by spring quarter. It was winter quarter at the time. And it’s like that is not a plan. That is a goal. It’s not a plan. And it became very, very frustrating. It became exhausting. To those of us who know a thing or two about labor history, like in this department, on this floor, we knew that this was not going to work. But like, as I said in several meetings at the time, my mother didn’t raise a bitch. And if this is what we’re doing, then it’s what we’re doing. And we got to figure out a way to make it work.

Yeah. That must have been completely frustrating. I can’t imagine what the department was thinking at the time, especially when you guys filled out a Google form that said “We’re going to go do this.” And then everyone was like, “No, that’s a good plan. But no…” I remember I was a freshman when this occurred, so I remember strikes, and pickets were the most vocal around the latter half of fall quarter going into winter. As you said, that’s when the grade strike was like somewhat in the works because I remember a few classes that had TAs withholding grades. I can’t necessarily remember if my own TAs were withholding grades, but I would like to say maybe a few professors were in solidarity with you guys. And while they didn’t necessarily take away grades, they did provide forms saying like, please be educated on what they’re doing. It’s very important.

Yeah. Yeah. Most of our faculty in this department, were actually very cool about it because a lot of these faculty or labor historians, where it became difficult was the two largest cohorts in the history department ever are the 17 series of the US History Series and then the 2 series, which is the World History Series. That winter quarter both of the professors of 17B and then whatever 2 class was running really, really wanted all of their TAs to be on the same page and in the 17B TA cohort there was one in particular who really wasn’t, and this guy was the fucking worst. He’s a former cop, he’s former military. He was just is a dick in general, and he was the holdout– like he was the one who didn’t want to go on strike. So it became a very tense situation in that space because the faculty didn’t know what to do and because we didn’t know what to do in a lot of ways. And so it became after a while, it started to feel like we were putting on a really good front like that the strike was going to be successful, that we were going to get our COLA or whatever, whatever. But like all of that was like we were faking all of that. Like, that’s not how anybody felt internally.

Wow. That’s really interesting to hear. I always imagine COLA to be more organized from what I understood from my previous interviews. There was some tension, but I had no idea it ran that deeply.

Yeah. So the last General Assembly meeting that we had before the pandemic was in the San Clemente Hall grad student living community center. So there’s a clause in the TA contract and this is very standard in all labor contracts that says the management of the university cannot negotiate with anybody but the union, and the union cannot negotiate with anybody other than management. And this is very, very common in union negotiated contracts. It’s very common language, but the thing is, since this was a wildcat strike, the union was not involved. The union would be subject to lawsuits by the university if the union got involved. And in fact, there were a couple of lawsuits. The school administration
wanted to deal with somebody, like they just wanted to deal with somebody. So who they wound up dealing with was grad students in various elected positions on campus, like the GSA president was involved, like stuff like that. So then what happened was that those grad student in those elected positions. If the agenda of this meeting had been set up differently, none of what happened next would have happened.

The first question that they asked the body to consider was, do you approve of us as the people that the campus level administration wants to deal with. Do you approve of us to go deal with them? And then the second question was, what do you think we should talk about with them? And if they had reversed those none of this would have happened because it was the first item. “Do you approve” got voted down because nobody knew what they were going to say once they were in there because of the way the meeting was organized. So it got voted down. And then after that, the GSA president at the time, Cierra Sorin, took everything very, very personally. She just ended the meeting in a fit of tears, so we didn’t even get to the next stage. My goodness. Yeah. And that was like fucking 2 hours. It was, it was exhausting.

And then. So, like, we didn’t even get to “what do we even say to administration?” And by then it very much felt for those of us in the history department, that we were better organized than whatever central COLA leadership there was at the time because
this department will not let you graduate with a PhD unless you know how a goddamn union works. It’s just a thing that happens to everybody. I study immigration law, and it’s still a thing that I have to know about because everybody teaches to it. So we had a couple of department level meetings which were like, okay, well, if the University of California Office of the President, with whom we actually have our contracts, is not going to negotiate with us and the campus is not empowered to give us raises, then what are we asking for? As a department we came to the decision that the thing that we have the most power to push for and the thing that the campus level administration has the most power to grant is that they expand graduate student housing.

Right now the deal with San Clemente is that rent is capped at way lower than market value, but the tradeoff is they kick you out after two years. That’s for San Clemente. For family student housing it’s different. They get way longer leases because the University of California being responsible for evicting grad students and their young children is not a good look. But single grad students, whatever, evict them, who cares? So the thing that we were going to ask for was more San Clemente style housing. We had just started organizing other departments to make that ask with us when the statewide stay at home order was issued. And I’ve never been part of a wildcat strike in a global pandemic before. I don’t think anybody had. So there was a solid two weeks where nobody knew what was happening. And also like I think it was week nine when the stay at home order was issued. It was week nine or ten of winter quarter.

It was. From what I remember, it happened in spring. It was like, you know, when they were giving ordinances saying like, oh, we’re going to have an extra two weeks for spring break while we figure out what’s happening.

Yeah. From what I can remember, the stay at home order was issued while classes were still in session, but like, barely. While they were still in session, winter quarter. And so we were one of the last U.C. campuses to shut down. I think Berkeley shut down first because the Bay Area got hit hard really early by COVID and then LA. So we could kind of see other campuses shutting down. We knew it was coming. So the history department came together and we were like we can’t grade strike if there’s a global pandemic. This is not a thing that like these kids like– they might die. Their parents might die, like we might die, like we can’t. This is not the circumstances under which we can withhold grades ethically. We have an obligation to our students. So as a department, we came together. We wrote two statements. One was a public facing statement that we were going to issue to the rest of COLA, and the other was a template letter that every TA was going to send to their students. It was all the same language. It was very unified. And then over the next couple of days before the statewide order hit, we as a department, we got so much shit from other departments. Like we got called scabs. We got called strikebreakers. And it’s like. Nobody knows what the ethical thing to do is under a global pandemic. We had never been in one before. But the ethical thing did not seem to be to continue to give the undergrads a climate of uncertainty. Like that seemed like the wrong thing to do.

Now your hands are basically tied. It’s unprecedented. Like we’ve never, as you said, we never experienced this global pandemic.

Yeah. And then we know that in other departments, the faculty turn to the grad students. Like, “History is like releasing grades– What’s wrong with you?” sort of thing. Which we weren’t proud of and we didn’t do it to put pressure on other departments. But that’s what happened anyway, because again, we’re the largest department in the Division of Humanities and Fine Arts. And I think by the end of winter quarter, maybe 50 TAs across campus withheld grades. So then there was spring break into spring quarter. Just a lot of a lot of Zoom meetings, the possibilities of a digital picket. This is very naive, but I do remember that the idea was floated that when we reopen in-person in fall quarter, we would just open the quarter with a campus-wide shutdown. Then we did the entire next year on Zoom, so that didn’t happen. It was like being on a train and the train is going super fast, but the track is being laid just barely in front of the train. Like you don’t know where you’re going until you get there sort. I don’t know if this is similar to other stories that you’ve heard about COLA, but the way that I remember it is that it was deeply chaotic and deeply racist.

Oh, I did not hear that whatsoever. Yeah, I’m completely interested. One of my questions was how would you describe COLA?

There were some really uplifting and powerful moments. I’m not going to say that it wasn’t. I’m a historian. So in the 2018 round of contract negotiations for UAW 2865. The
bargaining team… did a lot of things wrong. So our contract always expires June 30th, which means that the timing is always awkward because bargaining has to open by March 1st. Because the idea is that you reach a contract before the contract expires so you can just renew the contract. So that didn’t happen. They didn’t reach an agreement by June 30th. No one expected them to. And then they went into summer, which is always difficult from an organizing perspective. Like that summer between expiration and coming back with no contract because no one’s there. Buying is very low. And what happened was during that summer, the bargaining team traded away a provision that would have severely cut the funding for UCPD in exchange for truly the most bitch ass bullshit raise package. It was a 3% rate, like we got a 3% raise every year. Like, fuck you. That’s not cost of inflation. I wasn’t there at the time. This was a year before I got there, but they made that deal during the summer when no one was there to see it happen. It was not a transparent process. So what happens is that the two bargaining teams, management and labor reached what’s called a tentative agreement on the contract. And then the contract goes out to the members and the workers vote on it.

The UAW bylaws say that 51% of workers can approve a contract. The problem is that the UAW bylaws were written imagining… UAW stands for United Auto Workers. That’s who we’re unionized under. So the bylaws were written imagining like one factory as a
local. So all of the workers are talking to each other. They’re all very much on the same page. So achieving 51% is not not hard to do. 51% in either direction, either to approve or to fail a contract. All nine undergraduate serving campuses at the University of California are under the same local, which means that 51% of 19,000 people who live in different places and experience different material circumstances. A 3% raise goes further in Merced than it does in LA. Like those are the people who have to approve a contract. And what happened was that Santa Cruz, which has one of the highest cost of living areas, almost nobody on that campus voted in favor of that contract because a 3% raise would do nothing to help them keep their housing, but the contract passed with a 51% majority. Actually, it passed 52 to 48, which is not good. This is the back story since everyone at Santa Cruz was really disenfranchised with a 2018 contract. That’s why they were the first campus to go on wildcat strike because they were the ones who needed a raise the most. It started out with systemic inequity across U.S. campuses, and that, too, was how it ended.

You did mention there were some significant events that happened, some influential experiences that you faced. Would you mind talking about them, like the most significant that you that you found in COLA despite it being rather chaotic.

The 1,000 person march was very cool to be a part of and it was very cool to see. A lot of our faculty were out there with us, which was really great. I saw a couple of my undergrad students out there. And it was really meaningful. But even then, the cracks were starting to show because the march made its way towards Henley Gate. And there were cops. I remember at the time, I was walking next to one of my friends who was an international student, and he immediately saw the cops and he was like, I need to leave because if I’m arrested, I will be deported. I don’t know that the march organizers had thought of international and undocumented students, both the kind of risk that they would be at and like U.S. Citizens who were parents. We don’t know if they had been told that there were going to be cops, that there was a risk of arrest and they might not have had any plans for child care or the ability to afford child care, which is why we were on goddamn strike. And again, I had been in spaces like that before. So there very much was like me being like, “Hello, white friends, you need to stand in between us and these cops like now.” And they did it. Like, this is not a department of assholes, but while it was a very meaningful moment, it also wasn’t perfect.

Yeah. I remember. I went to a few strikes because I actually had a friend who was part of COLA. I remember joining in that march. So you did mention your undergraduates and how proud you were. Would you mind talking about the undergraduate support? How important was it for COLA to have undergraduate support?

Very much so because a lot of the rhetoric that the university was pushing at us was, how can you do this to the undergrads? Like, how can you make the undergrads feel so unsafe? How can you punish the undergrads? Whatever, whatever. So it was very cool to see like a lot of the undergrads be like “Fuck you I think that they should get a raise and I don’t want my grades actually.” And I just think this happens a lot in higher education labor organizing. The undergrads get infantilized in a lot of ways as if you’re not adults with brains. And also just like the purpose of strikes is to be disruptive. That’s what they’re for. Like, that’s the point.

So just an extra perk for undergraduates to be a little bit more disruptive.

Yeah.

But I assure you, as an undergraduate, as a history major, I feel strongly that I can speak for all the undergraduates that we were in full support of COLA. We understand the importance and it just insulting to hear that that is what the university said. You guys had a reasonable list of demands and very little was met.

And it’s weird now because, like, as a person on the 2865 bargaining team, we’re staring down contract expiration. We’ve got six more weeks under the current contract and it is… It is time to talk about strike readiness and there’s a lot of people who feel like what they were doing and what they wanted to do got cut short before it could reach its full potential. But there’s also a lot of people who genuinely feel deeply, deeply hurt by the way COLA was organized. Yesterday I was talking to a grad rep from a department that I’m trying to organize a town hall with so we can talk about strike readiness and she was like nobody told us that the wildcat strike was illegal because the department in question has a high percentage of international students. Like nobody told us that this was illegal. And they got this very scary letter from the graduate division basically being like, hey, you’re all subject to deportation, by the way, if you do this. So that department, given its demographics, like folded immediately, like stop participating, which was fair. And the way that like white people in central organizing spaces gave them shit was like horrifying to hear about. And so then like in this conversation that I had with this person, I had to be like, okay, so that’s why that was illegal and this wouldn’t be. Workers would be protected if we strike under a contract vote– like that’s very different. But like people were terrorized by the administration and they were guilted over feeling that terror by a lot of white organizers in the COLA space, many of whom then got their asses elected to UAW leadership positions. So now there’s a decent chunk of people who don’t trust the union.

This sounds very frustrating and terrible. The whole point of being a representative is ensuring that you’re the voice for all people. You’re listening intently.

Yeah, I ran for this bargaining team position very much out of spite, and then I got it out of spite. I’m seeing my role here to make sure things are done differently this time, because we have a lot of people who are very justifiably upset, but we also have had a lot of leadership turnover in the last two years. And it’s like, what can we do better now?

So yeah. Thank you so much for that. I imagine it’s not an easy job whatsoever.

It’s not. My sentiment is a minority one on this campus, but it’s not a minority sentiment on the bargaining team overall. The bargaining team is comprised of 18 people because it’s two reps from every undergrad serving campus. It’s a very commonly felt sentiment within the group of people that are actually writing the new contract.

And you mentioned there may be a town hall meeting somewhat soon to talk about strike readiness. Do you feel that COLA will finally rise up once again? Or at least will there be some awareness of this organization?

Yeah, I do. Like the material conditions are worse. Cost of living is worse. We went through a whole pandemic with no increase to our health care. Like, in fact, the dental clinic is being shut down as of June 30th.

I remember that. Like the vision care.

Yeah. And so stuff like that is worse now. And I do think that. Honestly a response that we’ve been getting a lot because we’ve done some like softball events as a union this year, like an April Fools Day party to congratulate the chancellors on their raises and like they’re very poorly attended events, honestly. And the response that we’re getting from people is like, “Call me when you go on strike.” Like, “We’re ready. Just let us know.” So I think yeah, I think it’s coming back and hopefully we can do it better this time.

I hope so too. I almost forgot about the Chancellors’ raise.

Yeah, it wasn’t a uniform raise. Like they all got different amounts again. I don’t know if he got the biggest one, like the biggest one in dollars or the biggest one in percent. But it was one of them. He got a 23% raise. Yeah. So he’s over half a million dollars now.

Oh, goodness. That is. I don’t know how to feel about that.

Yeah.

Oh, my goodness. And speaking of Chancellor Yang, he is a relatively– from what I’ve seen as an undergraduate– a relatively silent person. He likes to do things in private. So how do you feel about his silence? And also the school’s silence to COLA in a public
setting because there’s no messages, no emails, none. Nothing to inform people.


It’s kind of not worth getting upset over. Like we know who this man is. He’s been in that job for, like, 30 years, like, literally longer than I’ve been alive. There’s a pretty common understanding that the person who actually has power on this campus is David Marshall, the executive vice chancellor, but also our job is not to convince them of anything. Our job is to make their lives so uncomfortable that they have to change their behavior. That’s a tactical thing. You know, like, the only way to make your lives uncomfortable is to get as many grad students as possible to understand that there is collective power to be had. And when that collective power is organized well and deployed well, strikes work. There’s a reason that the United States government has spent the last 80 years trying to strip labor unions of of their rights and of their power. It’s because they work. As long as we can remind people of that, I think we’ll be okay.

So how did you feel about the the other events going on? You said the 1,000 person march was was your most significant to you. How did you feel about say the Ortega
All Smiles No Swipes event.


That was great. Give people free food, that should absolutely happen. It’s also an indicator that like the reason that union strikes work where wildcat strikes don’t in a lot of ways is that unions sympathy strike with each other. So like the union that protects janitorial and kitchen and other sectors, that union on this campus is AFSCME. So AFSCME let All
Smiles, No Swipes happen because AFSCME was willing to support the wildcat strike because they were they were the ones who run that and other unions, like other workers, are only legally protected in doing those sympathy actions if the striking parties are
union organized. Sympathy strikes are legal. Anything else is just not doing your job. So like. The UAW absolutely has its problems, but also we’re all safer when we strike under union purview.

Also for in terms of faculty, I understand professors played a role. Would you say you
guys get any support from faculty?


At the beginning. And then when it became clear that we didn’t really know what to tell them because we didn’t really know what we were doing, that support kind of started waning. I said earlier that history grad students would show up places and be like, “What is the plan?” And the answer would be, “the plan is to get a COLA”. And it’s like, I can’t take that back to my professor whose support I’m asking for like. But we, in this department in particular, we had a very young member of faculty who I won’t name– He was the most junior faculty in the 2020 school year. He had been a labor organizer in his own graduate student union. So he very much was like this is the thing that you could try doing, and then he would like leave the room. So the expanded grad student housing thing was actually his idea.

Oh, that’s interesting. So I want to ask you about what you would change about COLA.
Anything in particular that you felt didn’t work as efficiently?


I would have loved to see on the Santa Barbara campus the sort of efficiency that the Santa Cruz grad students had. Like every single thing that happened at Santa Cruz was coordinated and planned ahead of time and had broad reaching consensus. Like,
I would have loved that. And that’s what we’re trying to do now. Like, that’s the goal.

So yeah, would you say there was just too much conflict to really create a sense of unity in COLA?

Yeah. And I think it’s and this is always a thing in social movements like. Activism spaces are not immune from social power dynamics that exist in the society that creates them. It’s why you see so much like misogyny in the Black Panthers. This is just a thing that happens. White people in COLA spaces didn’t want to take criticism, from my recollection. They didn’t want to understand why some of the actions they were taking were more dangerous
for some people than others. And that is definitely something we’re going to have to deal with this time around.

Would you say like you guys are hopefully going to focus more on ensuring the safety for international students?

Yeah, that is a thing that I have made my problem. Like I told you, I ran for the bargaining team out of spite. That’s one of the things that I’m that I’m going to insist on. And it honestly shouldn’t be that hard because there’s a lot of members of the bargaining team who are themselves international students.

Yeah, I can’t imagine how how frightening it was for them to want to fight for what’s right, But also there’s this looming fear of I could literally be kicked out right now.

Yeah. And that’s like, it’s one thing for it to be the international students who are safe to say “I’m not a US citizen.”The undocumented grad students is a whole different thing because they can’t even say that. They’re feeling vulnerable.

Yeah. I’m glad for when COLA does rise up again. Like you at least know what didn’t work last time. What you can focus more on now are your strengths because overall support from all graduate students is ideal, especially for those who, as you said, may not feel comfortable to mention their statuses.

Yeah. So having having a movement with varying levels of participation is not a thing that really existed during COLA, but we’re going to build out this time. So help me God.

Wonderful. I hope so too, goodness. I hope so, too. Especially now, considering you’re still in your PhD program, you’ve seen there’s no real change despite all this work you’ve put in.

Yeah.

That must be incredibly frustrating.


I mean, onto the next, you know, that’s all there is.


So I wanted to ask someone who is part of COLA, how do you feel about the current housing crisis going on in UCSB and Isla Vista?

Bad. I just. It sucks because this cohort was touted as the most diverse class to ever be accepted to the University of California. Two things: by accepting a class of that size without building up the housing infrastructure, the university has created a narrative that, by seeking diversity, it’s disenfranchising people for housing. And the fact that that’s happening on the backs of students of color is terrible. The other thing is that the increased student body size led to an increase in funding and also membership for the UCPD when it’s a class with more people of color than we’ve ever had before. Like. Bad. And there just
doesn’t seem to be a plan to build more housing that’s, like, fit for human habitation. Like, there’s been no ground broken anywhere. There’s been no negotiation with the like four landlords that control everything in Isla Vista. There’s no foresight. When Alameda County sued U.C. Berkeley, a lot of us here were like “do us next.” Like, that would be super funny. It hasn’t happened yet. I can’t imagine it’s not in the works somewhere. But like this is unsustainable and it’s happening specifically on the backs of like brown kids, which is terrible.

Yeah it is. I imagine considering COLA was all about cost of living, it must seem extraordinarily frustrating that… Here we are in a housing crisis. Nothing is being done. Rent is higher.

Yeah, my rent is 43% of my income.

Oh, my gosh. Thank you for sharing that with me. So just one last question. Any final words or any topics you would like to say regarding COLA or to the university itself?

Not really anything to the university because I mean, again, like labor organizer, one of the initial founders of the UAW said that the point of labor organizing is forcing management to say yes when they want to say no, and they will not be persuaded into that. So the goal is not to persuade them. The goal is to make them uncomfortable. And we’re coming.

Thank you. Thank you so much. And thank you for continuing to speak out and help people listen to the people of color, especially for those who are undocumented and who are international students.

Thank you. I’m trying.

Interviewed by: Danyela Ornelas

Kavitha Iyengar

May 14th, 2020


Kavitha Lyengar is the current statewide president of the UAW and resides on the Executive Board with nine other people.  She first took on leadership roles in the UAW in 2016 after several years of union membership. She ran for local campus leadership and then statewide leadership.  In this interview, she describes what drew her to get involved, the inner workings of the UAW, and the union’s challenges and goals moving forward.  She was interviewed by Frances Woo via Zoom.

Transcript

So to start off, can you give a brief description about your position at the UAW?

Yeah, I am the statewide union president, so that means that I serve on an executive board with nine other people who were elected by members across the state. And I’m a grad student and a GSI at UC Berkeley.

Ok. So what made you first want to get involved with the UAW?

Yeah. So I got involved in 2016 when I felt like the left needed to build a lot more power to fight the forces against us. So that’s what made me get first involved. I was in my like second or third year of bad school by then.

When you say, like the forces against you, are you talking about, like, just the UC overall?

Yeah, the UC overall. But I think more importantly, in 2016, I was looking at kind of big right wing attacks on issues I care about, immigrants rights, women’s rights, economic inequality…seemed like it was going to vastly expand. And I think for us to kind of fight back against those conservative forces we need to have strong progressive institutions on the left that bring people together and to which we can have kind of real power. And so I yeah, that’s what made me first get involved, is that being involved in your union, I think is one of the most important things you can do to have kind of shared and big power.

When you first joined, were you like one of the general members of the organization?

Yeah. So, yeah, I joined my first day of grad school. I joined my union, but I wasn’t super involved or going to union meetings until,yeah, my second or third year. And then I, yeah, I started going to union membership meetings and then organizing committee meetings, and then I ran for local campus leadership before I ran for statewide leadership.

How do you feel like the overall, like, vibe of the community in terms of like being in meetings, like the people involved were?

Were? Yeah. So, I mean, right after the Trump election, a ton of people went to union meetings because we’re all, I think, looking for ways that we could come together and have kind of a way to collectivize our efforts. And since then, the unions kind of really grown over the last, now about four years, I can’t believe it’s 2020. Over the last four years, union membership has grown; a lot more stewards and leaders are involved in the union. And I think there’s a real sense among grad workers that when we come together, we can transform our working conditions. And I think we see a lot of that happening right now. We’ve seen that happen over the past few months. I think it’s a real testament to regrowing a union.

Yeah, definitely. So how do you kind of describe the UAW leadership crowd prior to, like you moving up in the ranks?

Yeah, I mean, I think there’s kind of lots of different philosophies for how graduate student unions should work and be run. I experienced a union that’s member-, that’s, that’s membership, whose membership declined for about a decade and who kind of levels of engagement were pretty low in my experience. And so, yeah, I feel like over the last few years, kind of everyone involved in the union has been really dedicated to rebuilding it and really building it up into a strong fighting union.

Yeah, definitely. Were there any changes that you like want to implement moving into your position as president?

Yeah, I mean, it’s really important to me that, like everyone knows they have a union and that they should be a part of it. And that being a part of it means not only kind of signing a membership card, that that’s a really important way for us to have collective power, but it means that there is like someone on the shop floor who identifies as a union leader, someone who is constantly talking with their friends about the union and is making sure that their friends are participating in union actions and efforts and kind of building that structure is kind of been on the top of my list of the most important things we can do, because, you know, to have a really strong and effective strike threat that can win the things we need, like an end to nonresident supplemental tuition, housing stipends, free public transit, which I think we need as part of a green new deal and abolishment of the title nine system as it currently exists. All these kind of really big, bold demands is going to take everyone coming together. And I think that takes building really serious and sustaining structures. So that’s kind of been one of my major priorities, is making sure we can build those structures. It’s also really important to me to get more international students involved in the union. It’s such a huge group of workers, are folks who come from abroad and face all kinds of discriminations in terms of visa, all kinds of discrimination in terms of tuition, like extra tuitions that folks have to pay simply based off of where they’re born. And I think it’s really important in order to fight those issues, to have lots of international students involved in the union to take those issues on. So those two have been really, those two issues have really been at the top of my mind, in addition to, I think, the third big one has been making sure that we have a real political presence in Sacramento. As you know, a public sector union, our boss’s boss’s boss is the governor of the state of California. And so it’s very, very important, particularly looking at COVID right now, that we have a strong coalition with other unions, both to fight on the shop floor, fight against the boss, but also to come together to make sure that the impacts of COVID aren’t on the backs of workers. And so making sure as a piece of that we have a plan in Sacramento to move bills effectively is very, very important.

And what would you say are some of the biggest struggles that you face trying to like get people together and organize?

I mean, I think the biggest hurdle has been just the fact that there was kind of years without structures in the union that really touched everyone’s lives. And so I think just like moving from a place where someone, like doesn’t know about the union hasn’t heard about it, no one and none of their friends know about it and none of their friends have known about it for years, has really kind of built a culture where people really don’t think of it as kind of the air they breathe or something that really matters in a daily material way. And so I think is one of the biggest obstacles is kind of rebuilding from a place of not knowing. Because I think a lot of us come to organizing because it’s, you know, part of the air we breathe for whatever reason. That’s because of the way we were raised or our ideological predilections. But it’s like something that we just think of as a common sense. And I think building that for people in places where it hasn’t been for years is really, has been quite a challenge. And then I think, you know, the other big challenge is that the University of California doesn’t want to treat us the way we deserve. Right. Like that is the other major, major, major challenge is the boss. The question is like, how do you transform the conditions of power to make the, cause the boss to care?

So right now, what are the kind of best methods are you using to kind of like, re-engage people and like we stimulate their culture of caring about the union and knowing about the organization?

Yeah. I mean, I think there’s a variety of tactics we take. I mean, running campaigns about issues that people care about I think is super, super important. And I mean, people are diverse. People care about a lot of different things. So I think it matters quite a bit to have campaigns running on housing stipends and housing issues. I mean, that’s a shared issue that clearly runs across the grad student workforce. But I also have a, we have a committee addressing issues of sexual violence and sexual harassment at the university. We have an international students committee that’s really working on these visa issues I was talking about, um, working on having kind of projects and programs that are really addressing all of those issues I think is really important so we have a way of talking to our co-workers that’s really grounded in something that folks care about. And then, you know, like raising the visibility of the union is always very, very important. And so making sure people kind of know it and see it, but I think kind of at root, the most important thing is identifying people who folks have relationships with because it’s all based on real relationships. That’s what organizing is, and so making sure that there are people who people have real relationships with, who identify and care about the union and identifying those people through kind of different issue campaigns and bringing folks into our kind of broader plan to win, I think is the whole game.

And how have you kind of seen the member engagement increase or just overall shift as your time as president?

Yeah, I mean, I think we’ve seen member engagement increase in a lot of ways. I think we’ve seen at least like and my experience at Berkeley is the most kind of specific, but I mean, over the past few years, I’ve seen more members involved and engaging in union democracy than I have in years. And, you know, we’ve seen member engagement increase in votes and in elections in the union. We’ve seen membership engagement increase in terms of like departmental engagement. We have people who identify as the union in their department and talk with their co-workers who come to union meetings regularly. And I mean, I think the kind of whole COLA movement, while really, you know, the union didn’t, um, organize the wildcat parts of it, I think is really a testament to grad workers coming together and kind of realizing our place as workers in the university and I don’t think that happens without a strong union existing and without kind of a presence of a union that helps people to think through our relationship with the employer as workers, not just as students.

Yeah, definitely, um, and so, yeah, can you give a little more in-depth information on, like, how the union is kind of working through both like the COLA movement and also COVID?

Yeah, yeah, totally. So our union has, the university filed legal charges against the union for supposedly organizing the wildcat strikes. And we have filed legal charges against them for failing to bargain with the union over cost of living issues and for unlawfully disciplining folks at Santa Cruz who were on a wildcat strike. So, you know, our union has fought for decades on cost of living issues. This is, you know, one of the reasons our union was founded in the 90s was because we hadn’t seen wage increases in years. Past living issues have been, you know, a big issue from the very, very beginning of our union. And just, you know, during our last round of bargaining, we tried to bargain over housing stipends and the university said housing stipends are student issue, not a worker issue. And that’s been really core to our nig problem in our union for a long time, is that the university likes to treat as students, not as workers. That’s how the university is justifying giving folks housing stipends at other campuses. They’re saying, oh, these, we did this for you as a student, not as a worker so we’re not going to do it through the union contract. And I mean, all of us in the union know that it’s better for it to be in a union contract. It meansbyou have rights; it means you have protections; it means that it can’t be unilaterally taken away from you. That’s why we want a union. And so there’s a really big issue with the university’s kind of position on this, that this is, my god it’s dark, that this is just a student issue. And so our kind of relationship with the kind of cost of living issues is, you know, run deep in our unions’ DNA for a long time, and right now is taking the shape of union members organizing around an unfair labor practice strike authorization vote, because given the university’s unlawful behavior, union members can decide to go on strike together. And because of the university’s failure to follow the law to bargain with the union about these cost of living issues rather than unilaterally implementing changes that we have no protections over. That’s something that’s, you know, an ongoing effort. And, you know, the kind of timelines and all the kind of plans around that totally transformed because of COVID. So the COVID-19 pandemic, you know, is bringing forth the worst economic recession I’ve seen in my lifetime. I was here, you know, have like…This is worse than 2008. And it’s, the unemployment rates are worse than the New Deal era, you know, or the Great Depression era. This is like really, really bad. And we’ve been working in coalition with other organizations across the state, across the UC, across the country, to call for no austerity, right, in the face of this crisis. We need to have fully funded public institutions. We need free health care. We need paid leaves. We need housing. We need to cancel rent. We need like, all like, it’s really laying bare all the ways in which our system is brok- is broken already. And it’s, like we need free child care, like all these problems that were like, problems before are just exacerbated now. And so I’m really looking forward to the opportunity this affords us to work together with organizations to get more bud-, bigger budgets from the state and from the federal government, to get more research funding, to tax the wealthy, to redistribute wealth in the state of California so it goes to the people who need it, so it goes to public institutions. And I think that’s really one of the major goals and opportunities we have right now, is to come together across all sectors and identities of the working class to really take on the like, right wing corporate forces that, you know, got me involved in my union in the first place.

Yeah, definitely. And can you tell a little bit more about how, like, communication is going right now, like across other collaborating organizations, but also like within the UAW in terms of like the executive board with the other members? And things like that.

Yeah. Yeah. So I’ll start from the shop floor and move up. So, you know, we have stewards in every department talking with their coworkers all the time about what’s going on. We’ve been having phone banks every day for a variety of reasons, to just like be in touch, check in with how things are going, make sure people are doing well, see if they’re having any workplace issues, and let them know about these broader efforts that we’re engaged in on a variety of levels. There’s also, you know, union meetings that happen on each campus every month, things like monthly membership meetings, committee meetings, et cetera. Our statewide leadership, in addition to our executive board, there are elected leaders from each campus who sit on joint council, that group just met last month or last month to talk about kind of how to orient our organizing efforts amidst COVID and these broader fights we find ourselves in the middle of now. And then we also have e-board that meets monthly to talk through our orientation and how we are collaborating with other organizations. I and a few other e-board members have been really involved in the UC Unions Coalition that meets every week or has been meeting every week now given COVID to talk about our shared orientation around demands of the UC, demands of the state of California, and demands of the federal government. So we’re talking about how to collaborate on federal funding like the Cares Act, but in the next stimulus round, making sure there’s lots of money for universities to get research funding, working with the state budget to make sure that the cuts to UC aren’t as deep as the state want. The latest projections I’ve seen are they’re looking at 10 percent budget cuts to the UC from its usual, from, in terms of its state funding, you know, like only, a vast, vast minority of the UC’s funding, like five to 10 percent comes from the state in the first place, but that’s going to be cut by 10 percent, supposedly. And so figuring out how we, you know, have a joint effort to push back against that, and then also really have a united front before the employer who, you know, historically, last time there was a recession, the cuts came on the workers’ backs, and that’s unacceptable. And that’s not the way we, it should go at all. And so we’ve been coordinating at that level. And then also working through coalitions with community and labor organizations across the state for kind of really bold demands around housing and full employment and health care and making sure that we have a shared strategy around like schools and communities first in the medium term, that we need to have a plan that surround reforming Prop 13 and taxing the wealthy so that we can fund things like our public schools with the moneys they deserve and having plans around the Rental Affordability Act so we can have the rent control we need so that the landlords don’t just get wealthier. So we’ve been talking about collaborating on those efforts and also organizing efforts around kind of shared corporate targets. And then we’re also, you know, in conversation nationally with academic worker unions across higher education institutions in the UAW, because the UAW represents eighty thousand academic workers across the nation. And then in conversation with workers who aren’t necessarily just academic workers, but other higher education workers at different universities about how we can have a national strategy around fighting austerity. But like that, all of that stuff only matters if the people at the gr-, on the like shop floor are participating and engaged in it, so that’s why it’s really important that we are building those structures I was talking about and having conversations with people every day to get people engaged in this fight. And so we’re currently talking about launching a big petition around not only our cost of living issues, but what it would take to have a really kind of just recovery and that that would include addressing our cost of living issues, making sure people aren’t laid off, making sure international workers don’t face xenophobia that is unmerited.

In terms of resources, how is it like organizing like these different levels of, like collaborations and organizing with, within the UAW, and also like all these outside organizations as well?

What do you mean by resources? Like how do we, like, divide energy between all of this stuff? Because like. Yeah. Yeah, totally. Right. Like the questions, like priorities and time and how we can do all these things.

Yeah.

I mean, like I said, the most important stuff is the shop floor organizing and so that’s where I think most people spend their time and effort. And there is a, kind of, smaller group of us between the executive board and the joint council who are part of these more like statewide national conversations and finding ways for our union to usefully plug in. But really, all that stuff is only meaningful if union members are really engaged and involved. So that’s where the vast majority difference time is being spent.

Yeah, definitely. Um, yeah. Well, those are all of my questions. Do you have any questions for me?

No, no, not at all. Yeah, I. Well, I guess like. So what else are you. Yeah. What are the other kind of moving parts for your like trying to do a deep dive on the history of grad student organizing?  So the way we were kind of like structuring it is we basically are going to like old newspaper articles and we also got access to the old UAW contracts so that we can kind of like point out like what advances that grad’s in organizing has made in terms of like contractual efforts and also interviewing, like old UAW members or grad students for their perspectives on, like, the fight. And also just like the inner workings of the UAW. So seeing how it’s like progressed at the years and like, well, parts of it kind of worked. What did it do that the overall, like, presentation of the information that we find is like a mix of providing a blueprint for future leaders, but also like recognizing that, like we have done all this work already, especially because organizing is definitely hard work and it’s super easy to get discouraged. But especially because, like for students that only go to school for like four years, it’s really hard to see like a super tangible change within that amount of time. So, yeah, just kind of like showing students that, like, it can be done. Like this is how much this is how far we’ve come. There’s so, so much more that we have to do. But we can get there, you know. Yeah. Have you been really good article that I like to show people? The history of our union is that S.F. Gate article about our recognition strike when we first formed our union. Six thousand out of nine thousand teachers going on strike together to win our right to unionize. And I find that to be a really kind of useful historical perspective on kind of like that type of power we have to build to really like the University of California.

Yeah, I’ll double check it out. Yeah. Yeah.  Well, thank you so much for meeting with me. And I if you like, I can send you an email and the articles up so you can check it out. Also, are you okay with being quoted in some parts of the article?

Yeah, yeah. That would be totally great. OK, perfect. Well, I hope you have a great day. Thank you. Meeting with me. Absolutely. Wants to be nice. Thank you. Bye bye.