UC workers consider strike over campus protest crackdown

Activists gather at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues, May 1, 2024. Photo credit: David Swanson/File Photo/Reuters.

The union representing 48,000 academic workers at University of California campuses voted on Wednesday to authorize a strike in the aftermath of pro-Palestinian protests that sent campuses reeling, saying academic workers’ right to free speech in the workplace was violated. 

Academic workers — including teaching assistants, tutors, and researchers — at the UC are represented by the UAW 4811. The unit says arrests and discipline of student protesters at several campuses — including UCLA, UC San Diego, and UC Irvine — are retaliation for their political views. They will withhold their labor unless the UC administration negotiates with students on divestment from military contractors and Israel, and refrains from disciplining or pressing charges against students who were arrested.

If a work stoppage is deemed necessary, only a few campuses at a time would be asked to walk off the job with little notice, to try and create “maximum chaos,” says Rafael Jaime, the union’s co-president and a PhD candidate in UCLA’s English department.

The union’s local board plans to meet on May 17 to consider calling on campuses to strike.

The strike is an unusual move, broadening the scope of union bargaining beyond wages and working conditions to include political issues, but labor experts say there’s a historical precedent for it.

Graduate student teaching assistants at the University of Wisconsin-Madison formed The Teaching Assistants’ Association during the Vietnam War after organizing anti-war sit-ins and demonstrations. 

These actions are “recognized as part of the legacy of that union,” says Adrienne Eaton, dean of the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University and a labor studies professor. 

The American labor movement as a whole is increasingly putting social issues on the table to attract more members at a time when union numbers are historically low, says Eaton. 

“It's really in reaction to the weakness of the labor movement, and the observation that we need to be seen as part of the progressive social movement,” says Eaton. “The Palestinian cause is being framed in that way for a lot of folks now.”

The UC administration says they believe a strike by the unit would be unlawful. In an emailed statement, Heather Hansen, spokesperson for the UC Office of the President, said a “strike sets a dangerous precedent that would introduce non-labor issues into labor agreements.”

The union disagrees, and says the escalating situation is a “crisis of the university's own making,” says Jaime. “They could have very easily engaged with protesters [and] tried to negotiate over their serious moral concerns. This is a fundamental attack on our rights to freedom of speech and protest.” 

The UAW 4811 filed an unfair labor practices charge with the board following the arrests and discipline of pro-Palistinian student protesters at UCLA, UC San Diego, and UC Irvine. 

Ultimately, it will be up to the State of California Public Employment Relations Board to decide whether a strike is lawful.