Strike FAQ: a Guide for Rank-and-File Workers and Organizers at the UC (UCLARNF)

Original online here.

Strike FAQ: a Guide for Rank-and-File Workers and Organizers at the UC

We are indebted to the creators of the 2022 Rank-and-File FAQ guide, which we have modified for the 2024 strike authorization vote, which comes in response to the UC administration’s violent suppression of the Palestine solidarity encampments at multiple UC campuses.

Disclaimer: This is a FAQ compiled by rank-and-file workers to expand on questions fellow rank-and-file workers may have about a strike authorization vote and a potential strike. UAW 4811 leadership has also released a FAQ, which is available here.

Part 1: Strike Basics 

What is a strike? 

A strike is a coordinated stoppage of work aimed at pressuring an employer to meet worker demands. If the administration does not meet our needs in bargaining, Academic Student Employees, Student Researchers, Postdocs, and Academic Researchers will stop our paid work until the administration concedes. We will also set up picket lines on campus in order to disrupt the everyday business of the UC, demonstrate our collective power, and increase the pressure on the administration.

Why does a strike work?

Strikes work because employers depend on the labor of their workers (us) to operate—and the UC is no exception. If workers withhold their labor, core functions of the university cease. Graduate student workers are central to the daily operation of the university; alongside our lecturer and researcher colleagues, we teach the majority of the classes across the UC system and make up the vast majority of one-on-one interaction with students. We therefore have the leverage to get our demands met: if we withhold grades and refuse to teach or do paid research we make it impossible for the UC to function normally.

What is a strike authorization vote? 

A strike authorization vote (SAV) is how Academic Student Employees, Student Researchers, and Postdocs give our bargaining team the authority to call a strike if circumstances justify. The vote does not mean that we will necessarily go on strike, but that we have reserved the right to do so if the UC continues to refuse to meet our needs. This vote is conducted through an anonymous ballot that you will receive by email along with information about the voting period.

It is extremely important to vote YES when you receive the SAV. Without a strong majority YES vote, there will be no incentive for the administration to agree to a fair contract. A strong YES vote also signals to the bargaining team that our membership is ready to strike.

**Note: only current union members are able to participate in the SAV and eventual contract ratification vote. If you are not yet signed up as a member (or if you’re not sure whether you are a member), and you are, have been or may one day be a TA, tutor, reader, GSR, fellow, trainee, postdoc, or academic researcher, you can join UAW 4811 here. 

You do not need to be currently working in order to vote (i.e. if you are on fellowship, doing field work, in absentia, haven’t started working yet but may at some point in the future, etc., you can vote as long as you are a member.)

Why is a strike authorization vote (SAV) being called right now?

Zionist counter-protesters violently attacked the UCLA Palestine Solidarity Encampment on April 30 and May 1. Rather than protecting UCLA workers’ right to peacefully protest, UCLA did nothing, allowing these attacks to go on for hours. On May 2nd, UCLA administration sent hundreds of police officers to forcibly destroy the encampment and arrest peaceful protesters. UCLA workers are being attacked, both at their place of work and in the case of May 2nd, by their employer, creating unsafe working conditions and a hostile work environment. In response, our union has filed Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges against UC’s actions against peaceful protesters- including UAW 4811 members. These ULP charges include: retaliation and discrimination against UAW Local 4811 members for engaging in protected concerted protest activity in violation of the Higher Education Employee-employer Relations Act (HEERA); unilaterally changing its employee workplace speech policies without giving the Union notice or the opportunity to bargain in violation of HEERA; unilaterally changing the terms and conditions of employment related to teaching and work obligations without giving advance notice to UAW Local 4811 or the opportunity to bargain by canceling classes, switching to remote instruction, and delaying previously scheduled midterm examinations. You can find more information about the ULP here.

Furthermore, UAW 4811 has demonstrated our supermajority support for an immediate ceasefire and our longstanding affirmation of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. We are calling for a strike in solidarity with the UCLA Palestine Solidarity Encampment, not only to affirm the right to peaceful protest, but also to support the demands laid out by UCLA Students for Justice in Palestine and the UC Divest coalition.

What are our demands?

While the UAW 4811 demands do overlap with demands from the student encampment, there are specific policy and labor issues that we believe are necessary to address at UCLA that are not included in the union’s official demands. We have compiled an extended list of demands for UCLA. You can find out more information about the UCLA rank-and-file demands and how they incorporate and expand upon UAW 4811’s demands here.

When will a strike authorization vote (SAV) happen? 

The current strike authorization vote (SAV) is scheduled for Monday, May 13 to Wednesday, May 15, 2024. If two-thirds of those voting vote yes, the SAV passes and the executive board has the authority to call a strike.

What is our timeline?

UAW 4811 leadership is urging all campuses to be strike-ready as early as May 15, when our SAV closes, but they have not released a timeline for the strike. You can reach out to your campus leadership—Unit Chair, Recording Secretary, Head Stewards, and your department stewards—for further information on the timeline.

Part 2: How to Strike

When would the strike begin?

The strike could begin any time after the SAV passes. It is up to the UAW 4811 Executive Committee to officially call a strike. UAW 4811 leadership has not yet released a timeline for the strike. This document will be updated when we receive more information.

What’s a stand up strike?

The Executive Board has indicated that they will use the “stand up” strike model if the SAV passes. This means that they will call on individual campuses to stand up and strike, meaning that not all campuses will be asked to strike at the same time. If your campus is called to strike, you should begin striking and withholding your labor immediately.

What if my campus is not called but I want to strike?

There are many other things you can do to support campuses that are on strike including phone banking, providing material support, and supporting their organizing. On your own campus, you should be organizing your coworkers to be ready in the event that you are called to strike.

What will the strike look like for ASEs?

First and foremost: withholding our labor. Stopping our work can take several forms. 

Instructors, teaching assistants, tutors, and readers should not conduct classes, discussion sections, or office hours (on campus, off campus, or online), assign homework, grade assignments, or submit grades. Academic counselors should not hold any meetings or do any labor related to their job title.

It is not necessary, however, to cease all contact with our students: it is important that they understand what we are doing and why. Because our working conditions are their learning conditions, our students should be informed and involved long before the strike begins. During the strike, we can educate them further about our shared conditions through teach-ins conducted outside of university channels and by inviting them to our picket line. We will not, however, discuss or provide them course materials, assignments, grades, or lessons, or perform any duties related to our paid work.

But the students?!

Undergraduate students have been leading the movement for divestment and Palestinian solidarity on our campuses and have been the victims of massive police and mob violence. We are striking in solidarity with these student protesters and with our own members who have also faced such violence. When you work as a TA, it can be hard to feel like you’re leaving your students behind for a while, but remember, our working conditions directly affect the quality of education we are able to give our students. An instructor who works in a safe environment is an instructor who can focus on their class: a short-term disruption to learning now means a serious improvement in long-term education. Students learn better when they’re not afraid of being attacked or arrested when they set foot on campus. When you’re asked to “think of the students,” you can tell them that’s exactly what you’re doing. And the disruption only lasts until we win, when the UC lets us get back into our classrooms! In the meantime, you can give your students a valuable field lesson in labor politics, US imperialism and military funding, and their impact on higher education, with real-world applications. You can even bring them to the picket line. If the strike is called, we will be actively working with students to create resources and materials to distribute to undergraduates.

What will the strike look like for Researchers?

In general, researchers should cease any activities for which they are being paid. As with ASEs, our labor as workers is the source of our power. This is distinct from student activities described above, such as attending seminars or performing research/dissertation work for which we are not being compensated. While not exhaustive, the following categories describe what striking looks like for certain researchers in more detail.  

For computational or theoretical research, we will not request time on servers, produce or run models, attend lab meetings, provide project updates, report progress to Principal Investigators, or train undergrads or fellow grad students.

For lab and field research, we will not perform on-site lab or field work, attend lab meetings or provide project updates, perform or report data analysis, maintain laboratories or equipment, or train undergrads or fellow grad students.

For life science research, or any research wherein it might be ethically dubious to abdicate responsibility, we will not perform or report data analysis, attend lab meetings or provide project updates, or maintain laboratories or equipment. However, if necessary, we may perform the minimal amount of on-site work to ensure health of living specimens. We will not report any data, reports, or analysis from these activities to the university.

For a guide on how to strike as a researcher, click here.

What do I do instead of work if we go on strike?

Although our real power comes from withholding our labor, a successful strike is not accomplished by withholding labor alone. We can show our strength through acts of solidarity like the picket line, or organized demonstrations that will take place in and around all the campuses during the strike. The purpose of these demonstrations is to disrupt “business as usual” at the university, to support the strike and each other, and to make our demands clear and visible to the public.

Everyone should sign up for shifts at the picket lines, which will happen in various high-visibility campus entrances. To make the strike strong, we will hold each other accountable for signing up and showing up to the picket line. In addition to walking and chanting, other ways to support the strike during the day include flyering, providing food and water to the picket line, strategy, research, and spreading the message of the strike widely. To support picketers, you can also design and make protest signs and slogans. Other tasks include reaching out to other unions and organizations to invite their support and ask them not to cross the picket line, as well as encouraging your colleagues and faculty to support the strike.

For a simplified version of this information in a chart, click here.

How can I support the strike if I am not employed by the UC this semester?

While in this case you won’t be able to withhold your labor, you can still disrupt the university directly through other forms of collective action. In this sense, a strike is not just withholding labor, it is a redirection of labor towards participation in a large, public, and disruptive picket line, where anyone can join in solidarity. The picket line is one place where workers who are not doing paid work that term (i.e. those on non-teaching fellowship) can support the strike. Depending on your campus, a picket line can disrupt vehicular access to the university, foot traffic to vital campus buildings, etc. Other university workers that are part of a union, such as AFT and AFSCME, have a clause in their contracts that enables them to choose not to cross the picket line. Worker solidarity!

The other major thing you can do if not employed during the strike is to not stand in its way! Above all, this means refusing to take over work for striking colleagues, refusing to report names of workers on strike to management, and working at the department level to show faculty and administration that we are all in solidarity.

Who will represent us in negotiations with UC admin?

In general, our union’s negotiating team comprises union leadership from across the UCs who have been elected into bargaining team positions. However, because this strike is somewhat different from contract strikes like the one in fall 2022, our negotiating team may—and should—look different. While union leadership has not yet shared their plans for who will comprise our negotiating team, we are urging them to include leaders from UC Divest and Graduate Students for Justice in Palestine on it in order to prioritize encampment demands and the perspectives of those with firsthand experience of UC admin’s violent response.

How does a strike come to an end?

The UAW bargaining team can bring an agreement to a membership-wide vote and push for it to be ratified in order to end or stop sanctioning a ULP strike. If rank-and-file workers do not feel like the agreement they have reached with the UC satisfactorily meets our demands, we can and should vote against the agreement. If a majority of workers vote to ratify the agreement, though, it will go into effect, ending the sanctioned strike.

However, rank-and-file workers may decide that we need to continue exercising our power to demand better from the UC and continue our strike, despite being unsanctioned by UAW leadership. This kind of strike is commonly referred to as a wildcat strike. If we as rank-and-file  members chose to go on a wildcat strike, we would democratically decide as a collective when this strike would end.

Part 3: What ifs and inoculation

Can I be fired or disciplined for going on strike? 

Labor law protects our right to strike without retaliation under certain circumstances. We can and should use what protections the law affords us, but we should also recognize their limitations. As things progress, you will likely hear a lot of talk about a “legal” or “sanctioned” strike. What this means is that our union has a legal argument for why our strike is legally permissible: usually this is based on the employer’s illegal behavior at the bargaining table (for which the UC is notorious). This kind of strike is called an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) strike. According to US labor law, workers striking over a ULP cannot be fired or permanently replaced.

However, here is where it gets complicated. First, the UC will at all points—and publicly—try to contest the legality of the strike using their own legal arguments. Second, it is very likely the university will threaten workers with discipline or dismissal, with interference in immigration status, or with other forms of retaliation regardless of legality. If the strike is threatening business as usual—that is, if the strike is doing what it should do—the UC may even illegally fire workers. If this happens, workers will be able to get their jobs back after a potentially drawn-out legal process.

What is important to know here is that while the law is a tool we can and should use to our advantage when we can, it is not a magic wand that can wave away all risk. Our real strength comes from our capacity to withhold labor and from standing in solidarity with each other. When everyone participates, it becomes more difficult for the administration to target individuals for intimidation. A strong strike is how we protect each other.

At any point during our strike, the UAW bargaining team may bring an agreement to a membership-wide vote and push for it to be ratified in order to end our sanctioned ULP strike. If rank-and-file workers do not feel like the agreement they have reached with the UC satisfactorily meets our demands, we can and should vote against the agreement. This allows us to continue on sanctioned strike; we can also reform the bargaining team, bargaining system, etc. (See Columbia for an example).

If a majority of workers vote to ratify the agreement, though, it will go into effect, ending the sanctioned strike. In this situation, rank-and-file workers may decide that we need to continue exercising our power to demand better from the UC and maintain our strike, despite it no longer being sanctioned by UAW leadership. This kind of strike is commonly referred to as a wildcat strike. A wildcat strike relies on high and sustained active participation because it offers far fewer legal protections. Given UC admin’s hostile response to student encampments, we should anticipate a similarly hostile response to a wildcat strike, including preparing for employment terminations. UC grad student workers have conducted wildcat strikes in the past, most recently in 2019–20, led by grad workers at UCSC. We are working with those who have held wildcat strikes to analyze the risks and benefits of a potential wildcat strike. As with a sanctioned strike, however, our best protection against UC retaliation is our strength in numbers.

Will I be paid while I am on strike? 

Academic Workers have the right to strike. UC also has the right to not pay us for the work we don’t do while on strike. This would require them to prove that you are on strike. The University may ask Academic Workers to “attest” as to whether they worked, or not, during a strike. These are forms that Universities sometimes use to assess whether or not to deduct pay for work not performed during a strike.  In the event of a strike, Academic Workers who complete our strike duties and are UAW members will be eligible for $500 per week of strike support.

Do we have a strike fund? How do I access strike benefits?

Yes, as members of UAW, UC Academic Workers have access to UAW’s Strike and Defense Fund after losing pay for participating in a sanctioned strike. Strike benefits are $500 per week in strike support, along with medical benefits in the event that UC withholds healthcare benefits. Strike support is only available to UAW 4811 members in good standing who participate in required picket duties. We do not yet have an answer from leadership on what picket requirements will be for this strike, but are pushing for more accessible picket requirements than the 20 hours/week required during our 2022 strike.

However, please note that strike pay can only be accessed if the strike is sanctioned by the UAW. If the UAW decides to call for an end to the strike and the ratification vote passes, and rank-and-file workers decide to continue striking until our core demands are met, we will likely be doing so without access to strike pay. We can combat this in part by creating mutual aid networks that operate outside of official union systems.

What is scabbing? 

“Scabbing,” or “strikebreaking,” refers to activity that disrupts or weakens the power of the strike, including but not limited to: continuing to work during the strike, taking on a colleague’s work while they are on strike, encouraging others not to stop working, and communicating with the administration about your paid work—including telling the administration (“attesting”) that a colleague is striking.

The administration will likely solicit such information not only from workers, but also from undergraduate students and faculty. You can tell your students why you’re going on strike and ask for their support. It is important that we communicate to our students and other campus allies that in order to support us, they must not reveal the identities of people on strike to the administration or attempt to replace our labor.

As seasoned labor organizer Alan Hanson writes, “Whenever we take action at work, we can expect management to fight back—though the tactics vary widely, depending whether they’re trying to scare us, confuse us, deflate us, or divide us.” We can prepare for these tactics in advance by talking with our coworkers about what our boss will likely say or do once a strike is called. This preparation is known as “inoculation.”

Can I strike partially? For instance, keep teaching but withhold grades?

If we keep teaching, but withhold grades at the end of the semester, we are not “partially striking”—we are simply scabbing until such time that we begin to withhold our labor (in this example, not posting grades).

What if I’m an international worker?

International workers have the same rights as domestic workers do to join a union or participate in a strike, demonstration, picket, etc. It is possible, however, that the university will falsely claim or imply that international workers jeopardize their immigration status by striking—other universities have done so in the past to undermine strikes. It is extremely unlikely that international workers will be targeted in this way during a sanctioned strike, but it is not impossible. This would be a very dangerous escalation on the part of the UC, and one that would be sure to invite public backlash. International or undocumented workers are also eligible to receive strike support from the UAW Strike Fund ($500 per week) during a sanctioned strike, so long as they also remain in good standing and complete their picketing duties.

What if my Professor/PI Retaliates?

We know from past labor actions that professors and PIs will have various perspectives on our strike, from highly supportive to deeply antagonistic to totally ambivalent. Regardless of whether it is legal or illegal to do so, we should expect that some PIs and faculty will try to retaliate against striking grads in order to force us back to work. Our first and strongest line of defense against this kind of retaliation is our ability to act as a collective, as it becomes much more difficult for PIs to punish us all together than as isolated individuals. This means that organizing our cohorts, labs, and departments to collectively strike, strike visibly, and communicate with each other throughout the strike will not only increase our power and our odds of victory, but is also one of the best means we have to protect ourselves and each other.

Coordinated messaging to faculty by grads and other workers prior to and during the strike can also be effective in mitigating their potential negative response. In some instances, they can be directed to put pressure on the administration to concede to our demands, rather than pressure us to return to work. Faculty groups are already organizing in support of our demands, including by publicly committing not to retaliate against striking students and not to pick up struck labor. Some are even committed to going on strike themselves in solidarity. We can work with these groups as they try to organize their peers. However, while organizing with other workers to do outreach to faculty and enlist their support can be useful in building solidarity (both between workers in departments and between workers and faculty), our real strength comes from each other and our ability to withhold crucial labor collectively.

What about the police?

We recognize that the recent militarization and heightened policing of our campus brings additional risks for those involved in picketing and other on-campus actions. While an authorized strike ensures that these activities are legally protected, the extreme police presence is still a fundamental threat to our safety–particularly for Black and brown students, and those who are Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim. At UCLA, we prioritize Cops off Campus as one of our core demands because police create a hostile work and educational environment that jeopardizes the physical and mental wellbeing of students, graduate workers, faculty, and staff—not just during a strike, but always. We keep us safe!

Over the past year, rank-and-file union members have helped ensure community safety at protests, pickets, and the UCLA encampment, often in the face of violence from police and fascist counter-protesters. Those members will continue to help ensure our collective safety during a strike, including by holding more security and protest marshal trainings. In the case of disciplinary action and/or arrest, we can and should build on relationships with groups that offered legal aid and jail support during the encampment. We have also pressed the UC to remove the police presence from campus in order to begin negotiations, as this form of intimidation and repression violates the principle of bargaining in good faith.

Our assessment of safety and risk will likely evolve during the strike. We need clear, frequent communication and collective, responsive approaches to developing further safety measures. To keep each other safe, we have to be accountable to each other. Building alternative models of community safety is necessarily a collaborative endeavor—we strengthen our strike and our ongoing fight for the abolition of policing on campus when we incorporate the experiences, concerns, and insights of our union members, especially the most marginalized.  

Part 4: Wildcat Strikes

Why does this FAQ keep bringing up wildcat strikes?

While we are all pushing for a strong SAV and union sanctioned strike, we know that many rank-and-file workers are willing to stay on strike even if our UAW leadership capitulates to a UC offer that does not adequately address our demands. If a majority of union membership votes to ratify an inadequate agreement and some members choose to continue to strike, that would be considered a wildcat strike. The following situations should prompt us to consider a wildcat strike:

  • The SAV fails.
  • The SAV passes, we go on strike, our bargaining team accepts an inadequate agreement, and membership votes to ratify that agreement.

What wouldn’t be a wildcat strike?

  • The SAV passes and the UAW 4811 executive board calls a strike.
  • The SAV passes, we go on strike, and our bargaining team accepts an inadequate agreement, but membership votes against ratifying that agreement.

Before deciding to go on a wildcat strike, we as rank-and-file workers must collectively decide: What demands are we willing to stay on a wildcat strike for? How will we sustain ourselves and keep each other safe from doxxing, profiling, conduct violations, firings, etc. during a wildcat?

If we decide to go on a wildcat strike, we will collectively create structures to:

  • Create a bargaining system with the UCs
  • Implement communication and decision-making processes for strikers to discuss issues throughout the strike.
  • Fundraise for and distribute mutual aid to strikers
  • Decide how a wildcat strike will end
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