UC Santa Cruz academic workers strike over handling of pro-Palestinian protests (LA Times)

Original online here.


UC Santa Cruz academic workers strike over handling of pro-Palestinian protests

Students protest at UC Irvine.

By Howard Blume

 and Jaweed Kaleem

May 20, 2024 Updated 8:58 AM PT

Hundreds of academic workers at UC Santa Cruz became the first to walk off their jobs Monday morning, a rolling strike that could cripple instruction and some university operations as workers allege that their free speech rights were violated during protests that involved attacks on peaceful union demonstrators.

The strike at UC Santa Cruz is the first of a potential series of labor actions that could move across campuses in the University of California system at the critical end of the quarter with finals and commencement in the coming weeks, their union said. The strike is based on the union’s claim that the UC response to campus protests has amounted to unfair labor practices. They are demanding that UC officials negotiate with pro-Palestinian demonstrators, stop what they say are actions hostile toward nonviolent activists and grant amnesty to those facing disciplinary action related to the unrest.

United Auto Workers Local 4811 represents 48,000 graduate student teaching assistants, tutors, researchers and other academic workers, the largest union in the 10-campus system.

“The rights of union members across the UC system are at stake, and workers on every campus are incensed by UC’s conduct and the violence it summoned against the Palestine solidarity protests of which we are a part,” Rebecca Gross, unit chair of UAW 4811 at UC Santa Cruz, said in a statement Monday morning. “Santa Cruz is proud to be the first campus to Stand Up, and other campuses will follow unless UC remedies these charges.”

University officials characterize the job action as illegal because the academic workers have a valid contract with a no-strike clause.

The strike authorization, with support from 79% of those union members who cast ballots, called for university officials to “commit to de-escalation and negotiate in good faith with protesters over their urgent moral concerns.”

The union has cited the violent mob attack on a pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA and subsequent arrests of union members when police moved in to clear the camp, calling the actions “an assault on our fundamental right to free expression.” At UC Irvine last week, police arrested 47 protesters allegedly involved in taking over a building.

Irvine, CA - November 15: Unionized academic workers, student researchers and post-doctoral scholars demanding better pay and benefits rally at University of California Irvine on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022 in Irvine, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)


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In broader terms, pro-Palestinian protesters have demanded, among other things, that universities divest from Israel and weapons companies.

Over the weekend, the UAW 4811 Instagram page forecast potential next targets.

“UCLA next” said one post with an eyeball emoji, while other posts suggested UC Davis, UC Irvine and UC San Diego could be called into the rolling strike.

The union has not formally called for strikes at those campuses.

However, there could be independent action by union members that is not authorized by the union. Some members and pro-Palestinian campus groups have said they will go on strike or protest in support of academic workers in Santa Cruz.

On Instagram, an Academics for Justice in Palestine group at UC Santa Barbara posted that its followers should walk out at 11:30 a.m. Monday: “We walk out in solidarity with our union siblings at UC Santa Cruz who stand up and strike today for free speech, workplace safety and academic freedom! Get ready UCSB… We are ready to strike!”

Unionized academic workers across the University of California’s 10 campuses hit the picket line Monday, Nov. 14, 2022


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UC leaders filed their own state unfair labor practice charge against the union Friday, calling on the labor board to order student workers to “cease and desist” the walkout.

“This strike directly violates the [collective bargaining agreement’s] no strike clauses, and has no relation to UAW members’ employment with the university. Instead, as the UAW and its members’ communications make clear, UAW strikes to support protest activity surrounding the conflict in the Middle East,” UC said in its filing with the state’s labor board.

In a letter sent to graduate student workers on Wednesday, UC officials warned students against striking.

“Participating in the strike does not change, excuse or modify, an employee’s normal work duties or expectations. And, unlike a protected strike, you could be subject to corrective action for failing to perform your duties,” the unsigned letter from the UC office of the president said.

Rafael Jaime, UAW Local 4811 co-president, said in a Monday morning statement that “the ball is in UC’s court — and the first step they need to take is dropping all criminal and disciplinary proceedings against our colleagues. … The faster UC resolves this, the fewer people will have to walk off the job.”

Workers ratified their current contract in late 2022, winning significant pay increases and benefit improvements.

The union argues that the strike is within its legal rights because it’s connected to an unfair labor practice charge workers filed in early May with the state’s labor board.

J. Felix De La Torre, general counsel for the labor board, said that a decision on the cease-and-desist order sought by the university could come early this week. He added that the labor board has also offered a mediator in an effort to help resolve the dispute.

For two weeks, students at UC Santa Cruz, including unionized graduate students, have maintained a pro-Palestinian encampment on campus in support of divestment from Israel. The strike comes as protesters and the university administration have indicated that they’ve reached a standstill. Protest leaders said Thursday that they were “under imminent threat of police sweep” after they said the university gave them formal notice to “cease all camping activities on university property.”

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 31: Gene Block , 74, the current and 6th chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) since August 2007, on the campus of UCLA on Monday, July 31, 2023 in Los Angeles, CA. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)


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Santa Cruz is a smaller UC campus of 19,764 students, with nearly 2,000 in graduate school. In 2020, the university fired dozens of grad students from their teaching assistant positions after strikes there. At least 17 arrests were made during a related student-led demonstration.

Jaime, who is a doctoral candidate in UCLA’s English department, said that to resolve the strike, the union needs “to see a real commitment from the university to respect our rights to free speech and peaceful protest on campus.”

Speaking before the strike decision, Jaime said a strike would mean “all academic work would cease, including research, teaching and grading.”

Student workers will receive $500 weekly in strike pay, or about 33% less than the average teaching assistant makes for a 20-hour work week, he said.

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