“Whose University? Our University!” The Struggle for a COLA at UC Berkeley

Photograph Source: Kevin Gong – CC BY 2.0

On March 5th, in the midst of a campus-wide march and rally, a student protester at UC Berkeley walked into the bustling Free Speech Movement Café, a study spot that borrows its name from Cal’s legendary 1960s anti-war protests. “Fellow students!” she shouted, climbing on top of the counter.

“Today, you will witness the largest protest you have seen during your time at UC Berkeley. We are shutting down the campus in solidarity with the grad students at UC Santa Cruz who were fired while striking for a cost of living adjustment. Please join us in demanding a COLA for all!”

The room full of students was uncomfortably silent. During the midterm week at Berkeley, many are studying for difficult courses that prepare them for cut-throat professions. The protester chanted “Spread the strike!” as she left the cafe, with not a single student following behind her.


Six days before the rally, fifty-four graduate students at UC Santa Cruz were fired by UC President Janet Napolitano and Executive Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer after a months-long wildcat strike.[1] Their demand? A cost of living adjustment (abbreviated as COLA) of $1,412 a month to help pay rent in Santa Cruz, an expensive and gentrified city in which UC graduate students make, on average, only $21,000 a year.[2]

Following the firings, the demand for a graduate student COLA quickly spread from Santa Cruz to other UC campuses in Berkeley, San Diego, Los Angeles, Davis, Irvine, and Santa Barbara.

However, undergraduate support for COLA has been mixed. There seems to be a division between those who see graduates as fellow students and workers engaged in parallel lives and struggles, and those who see them as the customer service representatives of academia. These two views, backgrounded as they are by a class divide, raise complex questions as to the essential function of the university. Is the university a machine, and the undergraduates its products, as Mario Savio argued back in the 1960s? Or is it, in the neoliberal model, a business, the undergraduates being its eager consumers, thus owed a product by their reticent graduate instructors?

Those of us who support the graduate students have formed a well-sized undergraduate coalition and organizing committee to organize in solidarity and further expand the demands for a COLA to meet our needs as well. Others have literally and metaphorically stayed sitting in the cafe—hardly the first consumers to have treated a fight for a living wage as a nuisance more deserving of complaints to the manager than about the manager.


This undergraduate coalition, dubbed COLA for All, aided in organizing the March 5th campus shutdown in solidarity with underpaid graduate students. The rally began on Sproul Plaza, the site of Mario Savio’s 1964 sit-in, with a series of speakers: graduate students, undergraduates, Black student groups, advocates for Palestine, and local civil rights organizations.

Marches circulated simultaneously around the campus to draw in students and disrupt academic and administrative activity. Art-builds and speeches held down the fort on the plaza. A group of students set up a mobile kitchen to serve free soup and salad. A hand-sanitizer dispenser was nabbed from a nearby building to keep it all up to code.

The rally was filled with Bernie Sanders support, taking the form of stickers, pins, and signs. Although Bernie’s electoralist struggle for socialism has limitations, watching undergraduates organize at UC Berkeley has demonstrated that Bernie’s principal achievement has been providing a nation-wide access point for labor politics.

The notion of antagonism between those who labor and those who profit is no longer as fringe a concept among college students. In particular, the promise of free college tuition has now entered mainstream political dialogues despite being deemed impossibly radical as recently as 2016. This component of Bernie’s platform has deeply inflected the rhetoric of the COLA movement, and “Abolish Tuition” signs are a common sight at the rally. The movement’s name itself—COLA for All—references Bernie’s policy platform stylizations, like Medicare for All, College for All, and Housing for All. The recent decline of his campaign has not decreased the fervor of many of his supporters, who will continue the struggle for adequate living conditions well beyond the parameters of the voting booth.


A week before the March 5th protest, while graduate students held a rally, a group of undergraduates followed the model of actions at Santa Cruz and occupied the main campus dining hall. Several blocked the stations at which student IDs are checked and money is exchanged, others held open the doors, and “Free Lunch” banners were erected outside. “The graduates aren’t paid enough to live. Let them eat for free, at least,” one student said. Packs of students deployed, doling out disposable plates and wiping down tables, intending to keep impact on dining hall employees minimal. Another student set up a makeshift socialist library on a table, composed of works like Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Leonard Peltier’s Prison Writings. “Liberate the dining hall – Liberate your mind!” read a sign, scribbled in sharpie on the back of a Chiquita Bananas cardboard box.

Many dining hall workers voiced support for the action, including speaking to the fervorous crowd via megaphone. University bureaucrats, however, quickly demanded the workers withdraw the food, more content to waste it and let thousands of students and community members go hungry than to allow them to eat it for free. Undergraduate organizers met with several of the dining hall workers at a later date to discuss their feelings on the action, and to hear their own concerns and priorities. Even if, for the moment, COLA for All seems limited in its horizons to the needs of students, the movement has rapidly formed an understanding of its allies and enemies and a class consciousness that extends beyond academic hierarchy.

In this sense, COLA for All is utilizing the same occupation strategies used by the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s. The demand for a COLA is being used to carve out space for broader discussions that can promote a shared sense of solidarity and common grievance. Joyous occupations of campus spaces allow students to briefly experience a more just University—one that serves the needs of its students and workers, not the interests of capital.

It remains to be seen whether the COLA movement can expand outside of academia (or even succeed within it), but optimists amongst the group believe the demand for a COLA could be the nascent stage of a modern student leftist movement and might improve living conditions in the city of Berkeley at large. Campus shutdowns, occupations, and picket lines not only increase pressure on the administration to grant the movement’s demands but also create healing and energizing sites of anti-capitalist politics.


On March 9th, UC Berkeley graduate students voted for a wildcat strike of their own. Soon after, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ moved all classes online to protect students from COVID-19. Though combating the spread of the virus is undoubtedly necessary, the crisis has functioned as a convenient strike-buster for the University, and the additional decision to replace this semester’s letter grades with pass/fail makes the labor of graduate students effectively invisible. If social distancing continues to be a regular feature of our lives, COLA activists will have to confront a new set of dilemmas: How can a union organize a digital picket line? What does and does not constitute scabbing when all interactions occur online?

While the future is uncertain, it remains clear that the COLA for All movement has tapped into a palpable dissatisfaction with the neoliberal and profit-oriented structure of higher education. The use of a wildcat strike, an unusual tactic in academic labor actions, is proof that students and workers have run out of patience with an institutional insistence on threadbare wages and unpaid labor. The question of who owns, operates, deserves, and profits from the university space are all coming under reinvigorated scrutiny.

Those interested in supporting the UC Berkeley graduate student wildcat strike should visit www.payusmoreucb.com and consider donating to their strike fund.

1. https://news.ucsc.edu/2020/02/news-article.html

2. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/university-of-california-grad-students-striking-for-a-livable-income/

Jack Wareham is a third-year undergraduate at UC Berkeley majoring in Rhetoric. His area of study is the relationship between art and politics. Dylan Burgoon is an undergraduate at UC Berkeley in the American Studies department. Their area of study is primarily American leftism and the history of decolonial struggle.