University of California Workers Authorize Union to Call for Strike Over Protest Crackdowns

The University of California Santa Cruz, on March 18, 2024.  (Mike Kai Chen/The New York Times)
The University of California Santa Cruz, on March 18, 2024. (Mike Kai Chen/The New York Times)

LOS ANGELES — Unions are known for fighting for higher pay and workplace conditions. But academic workers in the University of California system authorized their union Wednesday to call for a strike over something else entirely: free speech.

The union, UAW 4811, represents about 48,000 graduate students and other academic workers at 10 University of California system campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Its members, incensed over the university system’s handling of campus protests, pushed their union to address grievances extending beyond the bread-and-butter issues of collective bargaining to concerns over protesting and speaking out in their workplace.

The strike authorization vote, which passed with 79% support, comes two weeks after dozens of counterprotesters attacked a pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA for several hours without police intervention and without arrests. Officers in riot gear tore down the encampment the next day and arrested more than 200 people.

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The vote does not guarantee a strike but rather gives the executive board of the local union, which is part of the United Auto Workers, the ability to call a strike at any time. Eight of the 10 University of California campuses still have a month of instruction left before breaking for summer.

The union said it had called the vote because the University of California unilaterally and unlawfully changed policies regarding free speech, discriminated against pro-Palestinian speech and created an unsafe work environment by allowing attacks on protesters, among other grievances.

“At the heart of this is our right to free speech and peaceful protest,” Rafael Jaime, the president of UAW 4811, said in a statement after the vote. “If members of the academic community are maced and beaten down for peacefully demonstrating on this issue, our ability to speak up on all issues is threatened.”

A spokesperson for the University of California president’s office said in a statement that a strike would set “a dangerous precedent that would introduce nonlabor issues into labor agreements.”

“To be clear, the UC understands and embraces its role as a forum for free speech, lawful protests and public debate,” said the spokesperson, Heather Hansen. “However, given that role, these nonlabor-related disputes cannot prevent it from fulfilling its academic mission.”

There are still several active encampments at University of California campuses, including UC Merced, UC Santa Cruz and UC Davis. Protesters at UC Berkeley began dismantling their encampment Tuesday after reaching an agreement with university officials.

In a letter to the protesters Tuesday, Berkeley’s chancellor, Carol Christ, said that the university would begin discussions around divestment from certain companies and that she planned to publicly support “efforts to secure an immediate and permanent cease-fire” by the end of the month. But she said that divestment from companies that do business with, or in, Israel was not within her authority.

After packing up their tents, some of the Berkeley protesters traveled on Wednesday to UC Merced to attend a meeting held by the University of California governing board. More than 100 people signed up to give public comment, and nearly all of those who spoke about the protests criticized the handling of them by university administrations.

The strike authorization vote enables what is known as a “stand-up” strike, a tactic that was first employed by the United Auto Workers last year during its contract negotiations with General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis. Rather than calling on all members to strike at once, the move allows the local union’s executive board to focus strikes on certain campuses or among certain groups of workers, to gain leverage.

Jaime said before the vote that the union would use the tactic to “reward campuses that make progress” and possibly call strikes at those that don’t. He added that the union would announce the strikes “only at the last minute, in order to maximize chaos and confusion for the employer.”

The union said Wednesday that its executive board would announce later this week if it was calling for strikes.

Tobias Higbie, a professor of history and labor studies at UCLA, said that while striking for free speech was unusual, it wasn’t unheard of. The academic workers’ union is also largely made up of young people, who have been far more receptive to organized labor than young people in even the recent past, he said.

“It points to how generational change is not only impacting workplaces, but it’s going to impact unions,” Higbie said. “Young members are going to make more and more demands like this on their unions as we go forward over the next couple of years, and so I think it’s probably a harbinger of things to come.”

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