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University Of California, Santa Cruz, Rehires Student Assistants Fired In Spring

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

When students return to class virtually this fall at the University of California, Santa Cruz, many of them will be taught by graduate students. But many of those grad students had been fired earlier this year for labor actions demanding higher pay. From member station KAZU, Erika Mahoney reports some have now been rehired.

ERIKA MAHONEY, BYLINE: Before the pandemic upended life as we knew it, hundreds of students spent five weeks straight marching and chanting at the entrance to campus.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Down, down, down with UC - up, up, up with the people. Down, down, down with UC...

MAHONEY: The demonstrations, met with heavy police presence, shined a spotlight on grad students trying to make ends meet in an expensive coastal city. At the root of the crisis - the high price of housing. But the strike turned costly for some. The school fired dozens of TAs for withholding grades, part of the protest action. Veronica Hamilton is one of the strike leaders who lost her job. The Ph.D. student considered other ways of earning a living.

VERONICA HAMILTON: I do research on fast food work. And I was thinking, like, well, maybe I would get a job at a fast food place. Probably there will be jobs there because it's dangerous right now.

MAHONEY: At UC Santa Cruz, about one-third of introductory classes have one or more TAs. Each earns tuition remission and health benefits plus a salary of about $21,000 a year.

HAMILTON: And I think my generation is tired. You know, they're tired of student debt. They're tired of exploitation.

HAMILTON: This summer, the university reached a settlement with the Graduate Student Workers Union. UC Santa Cruz spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason says most of the TAs are eligible to get their jobs back.

SCOTT HERNANDEZ-JASON: This settlement is an important step toward rebuilding community trust and moving beyond the discord created by the wildcat strike.

MAHONEY: But not every TA is going back to work. Carlos Cruz was supposed to be in his third year of a history Ph.D. program and working as a TA. But he was suspended.

CARLOS CRUZ: I was, you know, one of the outspoken people on the microphone, on the megaphone.

MAHONEY: Cruz received a letter from the university listing the reasons why he was suspended. Those include grabbing at a police officer's baton and unauthorized entry into a university office. Cruz says he started grad school living in his car then rented a garage converted into a studio for more than $1,500 a month. Raised by a single mom in an immigrant community, he grew up believing higher education would change his life.

CRUZ: But I'm kind of realizing quite the opposite.

MAHONEY: TAs play a central role in the ecosystem of higher education according to John Thelin, a professor at the University of Kentucky who studies higher education and public policy.

JOHN THELIN: Universities get a very, very good deal for having such excellent graduate students and dedicated teachers doing a great deal of essential instruction that the university simply could not operate without.

MAHONEY: Thelin describes grad students as caught between two worlds, heading towards their degree but asked to be full-fledged professionals yet without full pay. Beginning this fall, UC Santa Cruz will offer new support, including an annual $2,500 housing stipend until more campus housing is available. School spokesperson Hernandez-Jason points out, the city's housing crisis is a complicated issue that affects everyone.

HERNANDEZ-JASON: The main way the campus can do its part is to create more housing for students, for employees and, in doing so, help relieve pressure on the local market.

MAHONEY: But Hernandez-Jason says a housing project that would eventually add 3,000 beds has been delayed by a lawsuit over environmental concerns.

For NPR News, I'm Erika Mahoney in Santa Cruz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.