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University of California Student Workers Strike Against Repression on Campus

About 2,000 workers at the Santa Cruz campus are taking labor action in defense of Palestine and the right to protest.

University of California Santa Cruz workers, who are union members of United Auto Workers Local 4811, and pro-Palestinian demonstrators carry signs as they march in front of the UC Santa Cruz campus on May 20, 2024, in Santa Cruz, California.

On May 20, University of California (UC) student and postdoc workers at the Santa Cruz campus began a historic strike against the repression of the student movement. UAW 4811, which represents over 48,000 workers, voted last week to authorize a strike in response to intense repression unleashed against students and faculty protesting for Palestine. Administrators at several University of California campuses invited in the police, who violently arrested and injured students, faculty, and staff. Many workers and students across the UC system also face disciplinary action from their universities, including suspension. The violence was particularly intense at UCLA, where in addition to police violence, encampment participants and their supporters were brutalized by right-wing mobs on multiple occasions while the university did little to intervene.

The UAW 4811 workers’ current contract, which was won by a historic strike across all of the UC campuses, includes a no-strike clause, making their current actions especially significant as they are not technically allowed to engage in work stoppage. However, the state of California protects strikes in the case of Unfair Labor Practices (ULPs) being committed against workers in certain instances. The union has filed ULP charges against the University for depriving workers and students of their right to protest.

While the action is technically a ULP strike, it is deeply political. The workers’ demands are:

  1. Amnesty for all academic employees, students, student groups, faculty, and staff who face disciplinary action or arrest due to protest.
  2. Right to free speech and political expression on campus.
  3. Divestment from UC’s known investments in weapons manufacturers, military contractors, and companies profiting from Israel’s war on Gaza.
  4. Disclosure of all funding sources and investments, including contracts, grants, gifts, and investments, through a publicly available, publicly accessible, and up-to-date database.
  5. Empower researchers to opt out from funding sources tied to the military or oppression of Palestinians. The UC must provide centralized transitional funding to workers whose funding is tied to the military or foundations that support Palestinian oppression.

Rank-and-file workers from the UCLA campus have also adopted additional demands, including full coverage of medical expenses accrued by those injured during the repression, cops off campus, the resignation of UCLA chancellor Gene Block, and transitional funding for workers who choose to reject employment and/or funds that are tied to the state of Israel.

Although the law allows for some ULP strikes to be protected even if workers are under contract and subject to a no-strike cause, the legality of this strike is unclear, and the university has filed a counter-ULP charge asking the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) to issue a cease and desist order to the union. UAW 4811 workers are taking a risk above and beyond the normal risks associated with going on strike, and they are doing so to protect their democratic right to protest, to stand against genocide, and to use their labor power to amplify the struggle put forward by students at the Gaza Solidarity Encampments (GSE). UC-AFT, the union representing non-tenure track instructors and librarians at the University of California, has also filed a ULP charge against the university, although they have not taken a strike authorization vote.

UAW 4811 workers join many other academic workers in taking labor action in defense of Palestine and the right to protest. At Columbia University, the symbolic epicenter of the recent surge in student activism, student workers are currently engaging in an ongoing sickout in response to the extreme repressive measures taken against pro-Palestine students and faculty. At the University of Texas at Austin, faculty engaged in an illegal 24-hour work stoppage following the repression of their students’ GSE. At the City University of New York, faculty engaged in the first work stoppage in their union’s 52-year history, illegally engaging in a one-day wildcat strike after their students were beaten and arrested in a police sweep of their encampment.

As the state intensifies its ongoing repression of the movement for Palestine, labor actions such as this can, and will, play a definitive role in the future of the movement. If more sectors of labor enter the stage of struggle in this way, we can shift the balance of forces in our favor. Our ability to withhold our labor, leveraged in defense against repression, creates a situation in which repression of our right to protest does not go unchecked, the state can not act with bold impunity, and our movement is not so easily squashed. This can create the conditions for a stronger movement, backed by labor power, which can challenge the U.S. imperialist investment in Israel and, importantly, set the stage for more political strikes in the future.

Correction: An earlier posting of this article misstated that 48,000 workers at UC Santa Cruz were on strike. While UAW 4811 represents 48,000 workers across the UC system, only 2,000 workers at Santa Cruz are currently taking labor actions as of May 21, according to the union’s website.

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