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UC student workers expand strike to two more campuses, demanding amnesty for protestors

Nearly a third of the academic and graduate student workers of the University of California are on strike after the union of 48,000 employees escalated its labor standoff by walking off the job at UCLA and UC Davis Tuesday morning. 

With as many as 2,000 UC Santa Cruz graduate students and academic workers picketing since last Monday, Tuesday's action brings 12,000 more out of classrooms and laboratories, potentially crippling the university's mission of educating the roughly 80,000 undergraduates at the three campuses just two weeks before students begin to take their end-of-quarter finals. 

Workers, including teaching assistants, academic researchers and graders, are striking not over pay and benefits but instead over the UC's response to pro-Palestinian protesters who were arrested by police or suspended from their campuses. Some union members were arrested or suspended for their role in the protests. Core to the union's demands is that the UC offer "amnesty for those who experienced arrest or are facing University discipline," the union's public writings state. 

Some 60 academic workers began picketing at Royce Quad at UCLA by 9 a.m., where just weeks ago students at a large pro-Palestinian encampment were attacked by counter-protesters. "UC, UC you're no good, treat your workers like you should," the picketing academic workers chanted, their ranks gradually growing as more striking workers arrived under a gray sky. "When free speech is under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back," went another chant, the rhythmic pulses of a snare drum accompanying the picketers, who grew to more than 200 by 10:30 a.m. 

UCLA's vice chancellor for strategic communications, Mary Osako, was critical of the strike.

"Our talented students are getting ready for finals, and UCLA's focus is doing whatever we can to support them," she said. "They're paying tuition and fees to learn, and we're dismayed by deliberate outside disruptions that get in the way of that."

UC's Office of the President calls the strike illegal, saying that its contract with the union — itself the result of a six-week long strike in late 2022 — includes a no-strike provision. The union, UAW 4811, vehemently disagrees with that analysis, citing legal precedent that a union can strike over unfair labor practices that fall outside the scope of a union contract. It's a view shared by at least one UCLA law professor. Both sides have leaned heavily on the state's Public Employment Relations Board to adjudicate their disputes.

Two days after police swept the encampments at UCLA and arrested scores of protesters, the union filed an unfair labor practice violation with the labor relations board. The union then filed similar violations after police cleared encampments at UC San Diego and UC Irvine that also led to arrests of protesters — and another alleging that the UC changed its disciplinary rules unilaterally to punish academic workers.

"By summoning the police to forcibly arrest and/or issuing interim suspensions to these employees, the University has violated their employee rights," the union wrote in one of its submissions to the labor relations board. The union says its workers were not only rallying against the war in Gaza but also seeking ways to remove academic research funding sources tied to the U.S. military. Workers also oppose "the discrimination and hostile work environment directed towards Palestinian, Muslim, and pro-Palestine Jewish employees and students." 

Unlike a systemwide strike, this "stand up" strike will pursue labor stoppages at certain campuses, a strategy employed by Detroit autoworkers in their successful campaign for higher compensation last year. The approach is meant to apply gradual pressure to management. Union leaders have maintained that if UC management wants to stop the spread of the strike, it should come to the table with the union to remedy the unfair labor practice charges. While the strike is technically distinct from the larger protest movement against the war, the two movements are related. 

Last Thursday, several hundred UCLA members of the UAW 4811 held a rally in support of their impending strike. Moments later, they joined a student-led protest demanding that the UC call for a ceasefire and divest from weapons manufacturers and the Israeli economy. That same day, protesters erected a short-lived encampment and temporarily took over a campus building before being pushed out by police. It was a clear sign that, despite hundreds of arrests in May, thousands of students, union members and some faculty remain passionate about their pro-Palestinian advocacy.

Almost 20,000 of the union's 48,000 represented workers voted on whether to strike two weeks ago, and nearly 80% of those who did vote approved the strike authorization. Only union members can vote.

The UC sought an injunction to legally halt the strike, but the labor relations board wrote last week that UC hadn't established that an injunction is "just and proper." The union hailed the ruling. However, the board wrote that it's leaving UC's request open in the event the university provides better evidence.

In a partial victory for the university, the board issued a complaint that the union "failed to provide adequate advance notice of its work stoppage, and failed and refused to meet and confer in good faith." The UC press office, in announcing the board's response, wrote that the labor board "found enough evidence to suggest that a violation may have occurred, and further examination is warranted."

The union argues in its latest unfair labor practice violation that the UC unilaterally implemented a disciplinary policy that affects UAW 4811 workers. The union seeks an order telling the UC to "cease and desist from unilaterally changing the terms and conditions of employment related to discipline."

A spokesperson for the UC Office of the President disputes that characterization, writing that these policies aren't new and reaffirm existing rules. The spokesperson, Heather Hansen, sought to invalidate the central thrust of the union's demands, writing to CalMatters last week: "By requesting amnesty, UAW is asking the University not to follow its processes but rather to make an exception for its members so that they are not subject to the same accountability measures applicable to all other members of the UC community."

Not all unionized workers have jobs with labor to withhold. Some are paid with fellowships to advance their own research. But most perform a job duty that's integral to the academic mission of the university. Systemwide, about 20,000 workers are graduate student teaching assistants, tutors or other instructional assistants. Graduate students teach classes, especially introductory courses, run discussion sections and grade student work.

Last week, about 60% to 70% of UC Santa Cruz workers who could withhold their labor did, estimated Rebecca Gross, the unit chair of the union at the campus. On the social media platform Reddit, individuals identifying themselves as UCLA students wrote that some of their discussion sessions are being canceled and that some of their courses are moving online. It "is tragic for me bc (sic) I learn 80% of the material from discussion and problem solving sessions," wrote one poster. Who'll pick up the work that the striking workers won't do is an open question. 

The governing body of UCLA faculty sent a message to professors that "faculty members cannot be required to take on additional responsibilities for teaching related to a work stoppage." Brandon Cruz, a fourth-year undergraduate student who's changing his major to sociology, said that a teacher's assistant who was supposed to lead a political communications class today didn't, but still told students she'd help them with their projects that are due today. "She's supporting the strike," he said, "but she's also supporting her students because she feels like it's unfair for her to drop us at the last two weeks of the quarter." 

Another undergraduate, Nico Diamond, said that one of her teaching assistants plans to continue teaching an environmental economics class. He told the class that's because he's an international student and worries he'd risk losing his visa for withholding labor during a strike that university officials view as unlawful. "I'm never annoyed by the strikes," Diamond said, who sat writing an essay at a campus picnic bench in earshot of the picketers. "The strikers are not getting in people's faces. Noise is noise, it's L.A., it's nothing new." 

But the security build-up since protesters first established the campus encampment, that's been a source of fatigue, she said. "I put the blame on the administration for calling for more security."

Most protesters, including UAW 4811 members, who were arrested were cited for failing to follow police orders to disperse. At UCLA, administrators sent a notice to students and protesters on April 30, a day before police cleared the encampment, that "the established encampment is unlawful and violates university policy" and asked the participants to leave the area or face sanctions. The notice also said that "law enforcement is prepared to arrest individuals, in accordance with applicable law."

 The notice added that "for students, those sanctions could include disciplinary measures such as interim suspension that, after proper due process through the student conduct process, could lead to dismissal." Members of the encampment replied the same day, writing in part "We will continue to remain here steadfast in our demands."

That night, counter-protesters attacked those in the encampment with pepper spray, wooden sticks and at least one firework as police stood by for hours and made no arrests. Local and national news outlets brought around-the-clock coverage to the violence.

The next afternoon, police ordered members of the encampment to disperse. Hours after those orders, police arrested more than 200 people. "In contrast to the lack of police response to the violent attack by anti-Palestine counterprotesters on April 30, 2024, the University summoned a massive number of police officers on the evening of May 1, 2024 for the purpose of ejecting and arresting the employees engaged in peaceful protest in the UCLA Palestine Solidarity Encampment," union lawyers wrote in one of the unfair labor practice violations submitted to the state labor relations board

Kai Shi, a mathematics doctoral student at UCLA, pushed back on the reason to call the police in the first place. "Just because the police say it's unlawful doesn't mean that they're right," he said. "The unlawful assembly is an excuse by the university to shut us down," Shi argued. UC San Diego issued at least 40 suspensions in the middle of May related to the pro-Palestinian protests, the union wrote in one of its unfair labor practice violations. "Such extreme disciplinary measures in response to peaceful protest activity suppress free expression of ideas and violate the First Amendment," it read. "We are standing up for justice in the workplace, in a way that directly affects not just us, but our students," said Anny Viloria Winnett, the unit chair of the local UCLA union chapter. She said the union is taking on a "fight for our ability to be safe on campus, our ability to have free speech and protest on our campus, but it's also a fight that our students led … and we're just a continuation of that."

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