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A photograph of people marching and holding signs that say “UAW On Strike Unfair Labor Practice.”

Academic workers at the University of California, Santa Cruz began striking Monday.

UAW 4811

Graduate student workers, postdoctoral scholars and other academic employees began striking Monday at the University of California, Santa Cruz. It may be only the first UC campus where workers walk off the job for the same unorthodox reason: to support pro-Palestinian protesters, including union members who have been arrested or disciplined for their participation.

UAW Local 4811, a UC systemwide union that says it represents 48,000 workers, including those who staged the historic 2022 strike for better pay and other benefits, is organizing this new walkout. Scores of pro-Palestinian protesters have been arrested on UC campuses, though it’s unclear how many are union members. The union has denounced the UC system on its website for “summoning the police to forcibly eject and arrest UAW Local 4811 members in retaliation for those employees engaging in peaceful protest activity demanding work-place related changes.”

The union hasn’t announced where it plans to call out workers next. Union members authorized Santa Cruz’s strike to last through June 30, said Rebecca Gross, a teaching assistant and one of the top UAW 4811 leaders at that campus. Union members teach, grade and research, and their work stoppage could cause turmoil: At Santa Cruz, spring quarter classes end June 7, final exams are June 10–13 and grades are due from instructors on June 18.

Other campuses are also approaching the busy ends of their academic years. The University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Merced have already had their spring semester commencements, but summer classes could be disrupted.

UC officials are crying foul on the union’s reasoning for the walkout, while expressing concern for what it could mean going forward. “This strike is illegal,” Melissa Matella, associate vice president of systemwide employee and labor relations, said in a statement Thursday preceding the strike. Matella said it “sets a dangerous and far-reaching precedent that social, political and cultural issues—no matter how valid—that are not labor-related can support a labor strike.”

The union has filed unfair labor practice charges against the system, but the UC system announced it filed its own charge Friday, asking the California Public Employment Relations Board to send the union a cease-and-desist order. A UC spokesperson told Inside Higher Ed in an email Monday that “to deliver on its academic mission, the university cannot create the precedent that issues that fall outside of employment matters and are not in our collective bargaining agreements—no matter how deeply those issues are felt—can be the cause of a work stoppage.”

The system’s contracts with the union contain blanket no-strike clauses. But despite the broad language of that prohibition, Gross said a strike is allowed because the university committed unfair labor practices. In UCLA’s Daily Bruin student newspaper, Noah D. Zatz, a UCLA law and labor studies professor, also argued that legal precedent allows for an unfair labor practice strike, despite the clause.

In fact, Gross said the union has filed another unfair labor practice charge against the system for telling employees the strike is illegal. “Workers were put in an unsafe working environment on their own campuses and their own places of work,” Gross said. “I find it sort of offensive that the university would try to scare workers out of striking by saying this is an unlawful action because it’s really not up to them to decide that.” 

The union’s unfair labor practice charges accuse the university system of favoring anti-Palestinian over pro-Palestinian speech and changing “workplace free speech policies without providing notice or bargaining.”

On its website, the UAW local calls for UC to provide “amnesty for all academic employees” and students “who face disciplinary action or arrest due to protest.” It’s also calling for “divestment from UC’s known investments in weapons manufacturers, military contractors and companies profiting from Israel’s war on Gaza”; for disclosing “all funding sources and investments” in a public database; and for allowing “researchers to opt out from funding sources tied to the military or oppression of Palestinians.” As part of that latter call, the union says the system “must provide centralized transitional funding to workers whose funding is tied to the military or foundations that support Palestinian oppression.”

But the union casts these as “additional actions” the system should take, not necessarily the demands of the strike. Gross said the strike isn’t about Israel and Palestine, but about the alleged unfair labor practices (ULPs). “The ask is that the university come and negotiate with us in good faith over specifically amnesty and the right to free speech, which is what we filed the ULPs over,” she said.

“Workers were brutalized and maced by police at their place of work,” Gross said, saying the system “made it a labor issue when they took this type of action against workers.”

An Unusual Strike

UAW 4811 is carrying out what the UAW calls a “Stand Up Strike.” Instead of a simultaneous systemwide strike like the one these same workers carried out in 2022, UAW 4811 is calling on its members on individual UC campuses, starting with Santa Cruz, to walk out. The strategy echoes the successful one that UAW’s traditional autoworker members staged against the big three U.S. automakers in 2023.

The unusual strike comes at an unusual, and worrisome, time, as universities have called in outside police agencies to break up demonstrators’ encampments in multiple states. At the University of California, Los Angeles, counterprotesters attacked an encampment on April 30, and campus police didn’t immediately intervene. The next day, campus police and outside cops, armored in riot gear, cleared the encampment and arrested more than 200 people.

But while the fracas at UCLA garnered the most national attention, it wasn’t the only UC campus where pro-Palestinian protesters were recently arrested. At UC San Diego, police arrested more than 60 people while clearing an encampment on May 6, according to a message from San Diego campus Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. He said the demonstration “posed unacceptable hazards for health, fire safety and security.” And last week, The Los Angeles Times reported that hundreds of officers representing about 10 different agencies stormed an occupied building at UC Irvine and also cleared an encampment there, arresting at least 50 protesters.

Gross said such actions violate union members’ right “to go into your place of work and express your right to exercise free speech and peacefully protest—that was challenged and met with police violence.” She added that “there were UAW 4811 members in these protests.”

But Gross said there has been no “police repression” at Santa Cruz—in fact, its encampment is still standing. So why has Santa Cruz walked out first? “I think that we’ve shown that workers here are prepared for a long-haul strike,” noting that Santa Cruz employees opposed ending the 2022 strike. She suggested that it also may have been easier to organize Santa Cruz’s more than 2,000 union-represented workers to walk out first, compared to the 10,000 at San Diego.

Gross said Monday morning that there were at least 1,500 academic workers withholding their labor; neither the UC System nor Santa Cruz provided an estimate. “We have no plans to walk back on the job until the university resolves these unfair labor practices,” she said.

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