Skip to content Skip to footer

University of California Union’s Gaza Solidarity Strike Spreads Across Campuses

Labor support for Palestine at UCLA, Davis and Santa Cruz is the fruit of years of organizing. Others may join soon.

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) academic workers from United Auto Workers Local 4811 picket on the first day of their strike on May 28, 2024, in Los Angeles, California.

Part of the Series

A strike is underway within the University of California (UC) system — with UCLA, UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz all now participating — as unionized graduate student workers take collective action to protest the brutalization and repression of fellow union members and Palestine solidarity protesters.

With academic employees unionized with the United Auto Workers (UAW) walking out at all three schools, the UC administration has found itself contending with the consequences of its decision to invite state aggression upon its own students as they protested the ongoing genocide perpetrated by Israel in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Those consequences appear to be piling up, with additional union workforces at UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara set to join the strike on Monday, and UC Irvine workers walking off the job on Wednesday, according to UAW 4881.

The strike takes place in a national context in which administration crackdowns on Gaza solidarity encampments have encompassed everything from sanction, expulsion and eviction of students and firings of faculty (and even top administrators willing to parlay), all the way up to violent police action, as was on especially ugly display at UCLA. The striking UC workers, who are members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 4811 (also called the Academic Student Employees Union), were provoked to strike after UC administrators decided to shut down UCLA’s Gaza solidarity encampment by calling in city police, who stood by while a pro-Israel mob attacked the camp and beat protesters. The police crackdown led to direct harm to UAW members, among others. A subsequent encampment at UCLA was similarly dismantled by riot police — and a similar response is presently underway at UC Santa Cruz, where on Friday, May 31, police surrounded and cleared protest barricades at the entrance to campus, detaining an unknown number of demonstrators.

A Stand-Up Strategy

In the wake of the events at UCLA, UAW Local 4811 called a joint council and assembled a list of demands before voting on strike authorization. The membership’s wishes were made resoundingly clear, with 80 percent of total votes cast in favor of taking action. With Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges already filed against the UC, Local 4811 increased pressure by executing the first phase of a “stand-up strike,” as organizers are referring to it, which involves calling on other UC campuses to join in the strike at staggered intervals, denying employers advance warning and curtailing the latter’s ability to respond. The stand-up strike differs from a traditional rolling walkout, however; when other campuses stand up, UCSC will not stand down. The aim is to hold out in concert, as other campuses join piecemeal. Because UCSC graduate workers are the first to begin, they will need to hold out the longest — the expectation is that the strike, which began on May 20, could run until the end of June.

UAW 4811 itself represents graduate student workers like teaching assistants, who shoulder the bulk of academic labor: grading, attendance, and other less-romanticized day-to-day tasks of education. With 48,000 members across the system, the UAW carries significant heft in the balance of worker and administration power across a public university network that has for years been roiled by conflict between the diametric interests of the neoliberal university and the precarious, largely untenured labor force upon which its pedagogical operations depend.

With this latest strike action, academic workers are seeking to underscore that they will refuse to accept police violence against campus protests. On its website, UAW 4811 described the motivations behind the strike authorization vote:

Academic workers at UC strongly support the right of the encampment organizers (many of whom are our coworkers) in their right to peacefully demonstrate. Our union will not negotiate on behalf of encampment organizers, but we do call on UC to negotiate with them in good faith. We strongly oppose any escalation by UC to dismantle the encampments and/or take disciplinary/legal action against organizers.

Rebecca Gross, a graduate student worker in UCSC’s Literature Department who is also the unit chair of UAW 4811, described the chain of events that precipitated this strike to Truthout, saying:

Members of our union, my local, at these other campuses were participating in peaceful protests at and around the Gaza solidarity encampments. And, especially at UCLA, these workers were brutalized by a Zionist mob that had shown up, and brutalized again by police officers who had been called by the university — LAPD, not just UC police…. Workers were arrested, beaten, maced. After this happened, on a statewide level, we got together with other members of the union in a joint council meeting and discussed what can we do around this.

The UAW had already filed an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charge, charging violations of “workplace health and safety and freedom of speech,” Gross added. Amendments and new ULP charges have been added since then.

The meeting resulted in a list of demands, which Gross summarized as follows: “Amnesty for all protestors, emphasizing our free speech rights, divestment [a demand that was recently won at California State University, Sacramento], disclosure and transitional funding.” The latter, she explained, is the idea that workers “who work in say, Department of Defense labs, if they object to working in those labs, would be able to get funding from the UC to transition away.” The concept is especially applicable, she added, to workers in UCSC’s renowned astronomy, astrophysics and physics departments, who may find themselves working on military projects to which they conscientiously object.

After the strike authorization vote, the University of California responded with a ULP charge of its own, alleging to the adjudicating body, the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), that the union had no right to strike over what the administration’s charge claimed was a non-labor issue. In a press release on May 23, the UC commented, “The University remains disappointed that the UAW is engaging in an illegal strike in violation of our contract’s mutually agreed no-strike clauses to advance issues that have no bearing on employment at UC.”

“If the university can just arrest and mace its workers for standing in solidarity with students on a moral or ethical cause that we feel called to use our First Amendment rights to support, then workers across the state are going to stand up and say, we can’t let the boss do that.”

Gross disagreed with that characterization. On the contrary, she claimed, the act of solidarity with UCLA members has everything to do with their job — at play are inherent issues of academic freedom, the right to protest and the obligation of employers to ensure the safety of their workers. She told Truthout: “The UC has made false allegations that this is not a lawful strike, and actually in doing so has committed another ULP [violation] — in that that is not for the university to decide. It’s for PERB to decide.” Elected representatives from her union, she added, are currently entering ongoing mediation with the university.

Part of the UC’s claim is that the strike violates the UAW’s no-strike clause. However, UCLA professor of labor law Noah Zatz wrote for the UCLA student newspaper, The Daily Bruin, that “a longstanding and deeply entrenched body of labor law says otherwise.” There exists significant legal precedent, Zatz argued, establishing that “even broad no-strike clauses with terms like ‘any strike’ generally do not preclude strikes over issues outside the contract itself, including serious ULP strikes and sympathy strikes.” Zatz went on to cite precedents that apply federally, and might very well apply in the eyes of PERB as well, concluding that, the UC’s illegality claim “is all bark and no bite on its central point.”

In addition to filing its own Unfair Labor Practice charge, the UC also sought an emergency injunction with PERB, aiming to stamp out the impending strike. Administrators took the major and disruptive step of moving classes online for the week, in a clear attempt to keep students off campus, staunch the flow of marchers and impede organizing efforts. (In a telling indication that, contra the UC’s claims, the strike has legal validity, PERB denied the injunction.)

The UAW is not the only union on campus at UC Santa Cruz. The school’s lecturers and librarians — many of them contingent workers, like adjunct professors, without the protections afforded by tenure — are organized with the University Council-American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT).

Josh Brahinsky — a UC-AFT member and lecturer in the History of Consciousness Department at UCSC who was previously on the bargaining committee of the UAW as a graduate student worker — commented on the thin justification of safety that the school cited to move classes online. “Our people are having our working lives thrown [into disarray] — unilateral changes to working conditions is what [this type of violation is] called,” he told Truthout. “It’s a pretense; it’s crowd control.”

While a no-strike clause in its own contract evidently does prevent the UC-AFT from joining the UAW on the picket line, the UC-AFT did file an Unfair Labor Practice charge in tandem with its fellow academic workers, indicating a level of tacit support. In a press release cited in The Daily Bruin, UC-AFT President Katie Rodger said: “This ULP is intended to bolster the protections our members have to continue their expression of free speech and make our campuses safer. We will continue to talk together about the possibilities of future labor actions.”

Tenured faculty at the school, meanwhile, are collectively represented by the Santa Cruz Faculty Association (SCFA). Members of the unionized faculty in the SCFA have also voiced support, with some, alongside many other faculty members throughout the UC system, signing a pledge that they will refuse to retaliate against any of their graduate worker colleagues participating in the strike. Per the pledge document, these faculty members will not assist the administration in punishing any legally protected strike activity, “including TAs withholding grades, research assistants withholding research labor, or any other form of legally protected labor withholding … including additional labor burdens imposed at the strike’s conclusion.”

As Brahinsky explained, UC-AFT members are, at minimum, planning to show solidarity with the strike by pledging responses to the same effect. Should the administration pressure them to cover for work left undone by striking UAW members, many in the UC-AFT plan to refuse.

“We’re in the middle of getting our members to sign a pledge not to pick up struck work,” said Brahinsky. “A lot of us are leading classes with teaching assistants that are going on strike. When a teaching assistant doesn’t do the grades, [UC-AFT lecturers] get pressured to pick up that work. We’re committed to supporting people and not doing that — it’s not something we’re legally bound to do. We’re going to hold that line.”

A Continuity of Tactics

While this most recent UAW action is a response to a particular context of anti-protest crackdown, labor tensions at UCSC are far from unprecedented, and the nature of the current strike evinces a continuity with recent years of preceding labor activity. In 2019, UAW 4811 members, dissenting with the contract that the statewide UAW had settled the previous year, initiated a wildcat strike (i.e. a rank-and-file action conducted without the express consent of union leadership). A central issue at hand was the exorbitant cost-of-living increases that had come for Santa Cruz. Graduate worker pay, already inadequate (around $18,000 a year after taxes), had become utterly impossible to live on.

Rent and expense increases had befallen Santa Cruz thanks to the tech wealth that percolated out of the corporate cauldrons in San Francisco; in that context, the total pay that UAW members were earning came as a bitter joke. A long series of less drastic efforts to compel the UC, one of California’s top three largest employers, to offer more than poverty wages to the workers who conduct the majority of its academic labor had ended in failure, and their own state-level union leadership had agreed to only a 3 percent annual wage increase. As such, the wildcat strikers demanded a cost-of-living adjustment, among other measures to forestall enforced impoverishment for grad workers.

Workers’ widespread willingness to engage in the inherently transgressive act of a wildcat strike against a union leadership contract indicated that a new generation of radical organizers were coming of age in the UAW. Brahinsky noted that a change in leadership reversed a reluctance to strike. The unionists who gained experience in the 2019-2020 wildcat strike, as well as in earlier strikes throughout the 2010s, went on to change the direction of academic worker militancy in Local 4811 and the UC system. As Brahinsky remarked: “The people who did those changes — some of it was us in the 2010s. But in 2019, the people who did the wildcat strike went into leadership statewide in the UAW, and fought for the strike to happen [in 2022], and fought for this one.”

Another contributing factor was the UAW strikes at Big Three automakers in September 2023. Beyond just being generally inspirational — as witnessing a major strike of tens of thousands of union workers can certainly be — that context also provided something of a testbed for stand-up strike, an evolution of rolling walkout tactics. The deliberate, calculated and solidarity-based approach revitalized strategy with creative simultaneous tactics such as the “Create Havoc Around Our System” (“CHAOS”) method. That approach, with its provocatively amusing backronym, was popularized by the Association of Flight Attendants.

As an American Bar Association article described it, the CHAOS method “calls for both intermittent and rolling strikes. The National Labor Relations Act, which governs the autoworkers, prohibits intermittent strikes. So instead the UAW used a rolling strike strategy, beginning with a few strike locations and ramping up work stoppages as bargaining continued.” The unpredictable upsurges of the UC strike owe their origins at least in part to these recent tactical experiences, hard-won on the UAW’s more traditional terrain of struggle against car manufacturers.

At UC Santa Cruz, currents of greater militancy would continue to swell. After the wildcat cost-of-living adjustment strike in 2019 and 2020, said Gross, “we also had a statewide six-week strike in the fall of 2022. That was while we were in bargaining for a new contract.”

Gross pointed out that, for some academic union members, the strike might have seemed an unavoidable necessity because the administration’s use of police violence against academic workers was absolutely beyond the pale. She described the broader trend: “There are people in my department, in the literature department, and they didn’t strike in 2019 or 2020, they didn’t strike in 2022 — but now they’re striking. There’s something about the idea that violence could take place towards our students or towards us that’s really galvanizing people, in a different way than, say, a wages demand might be.”

Poised to Strike

With UC Davis and UCLA walkouts now initiated in addition to the ongoing strike at UCSC, administrations are likely sensing the mounting pressure, and rightly so. While immediate connections are not yet apparent, this week, UCLA’s campus police chief was lightly sanctioned with an imposed reassignment (though the university described the transfer as “temporary” in a statement). A slap on the wrist, to be sure — but at minimum, this could reasonably be interpreted as an appeasement move in response to the looming strike.

Regardless, the snowballing strike activity shows no signs of slowing. UAW organizers will continue to urge further actions across the UC system in the hopes that the walkouts grow to avalanche proportions. UCSC, with its large union presence and strong tradition of faculty and student radicalism, is well-placed to hold out the longest, anchoring the strike as workers on other campuses rise up.

At Santa Cruz, organizers are prepared for what Brahinsky says they’re calling a “long-haul strike.” Together with the stand-up tactic, it’s a strategy that has been in development since before the genocide in Gaza began. So too with the union’s demands — meaning that the current juncture offers a chance to expound on inter-UC solidarity and apply leverage to address multiple concerns. As Gross reflected, “It’s been exciting to see rank and file workers’ demands taken up on a statewide level like this.… Momentum is building with our UAW comrades walking off the job at other campuses, and more campuses will be called to stand up and strike if the UC doesn’t come to the table to resolve these ULPs.”

Given the stakes and the opportunity, it’s no surprise that there is real determination on display. Gross was keen to underscore the extent of Local 4811’s resolve.

“We see this as the strike that’s preventing a precedent from forming,” Gross told Truthout. “If the university can just arrest and mace its workers for standing in solidarity with students on a moral or ethical cause that we feel called to use our First Amendment rights to support, then workers across the state are going to stand up and say, we can’t let the boss do that. That’s what we’re seeing take place right now.”

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $37,000 in the next 5 days. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.