Union plans strike vote over crackdown on University of California Gaza protests


UAW Local 4811, largest union of academic workers, condemns use of ‘violent force’ and says university must ‘negotiate, not escalate’

Michael Sainato

The largest union of academic workers, which represents more than 48,000 graduate student workers throughout the University of California system, will hold a strike authorization vote as early as next week in response to how universities have cracked down on students’ Gaza protests.

“The use and sanction of violent force to curtail peaceful protest is an attack on free speech and the right to demand change, and the university must sit down with students, unions, and campus organizations to negotiate, rather than escalate,” stated an announcement of the strike vote from UAW Local 4811. Earlier this year, the union voted by a margin of more than 9 to 1 in favor of supporting a ceasefire, according to the announcement.

A California highway patrol (CHP) officer detains a protester while clearing a pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA on 2 May 2024, in Los Angeles, California. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The graduate workers last went on strike in November 2022 over a new union contract, which was the largest strike in US higher education history. They recently merged two UAW locals, 2865 and 5810, under the single UAW Local 4811.

“We have been calling on the University of California to de-escalate and negotiate with the protesters over their very urgent and moral concerns and it failed to do that and it failed to protect students and workers and allowed this violence to occur,” Rafael Jaime, co-president of UAW 4811 and a graduate worker at UCLA, told The Guardian. “We’re holding a strike authorization vote to hold the university accountable and demand the university respect the members’ right to protected speech and right to protest.”

He said the union also plans to file unfair labor practice charges against the University of California over the university’s use of LAPD against protesters and for changing policies unilaterally in response to the protests without bargaining.

“This is the defining issue of our generation and its really important for all, not just workers at the University of California but across the entire nation to speak up and to ensure every worker has the right to speak on this issue,” added Jaime. “We believe all workers, all students have a fundamental right to engage in protests and engage in free speech and universities need to respect that right.”

The United Auto Workers, with 400,000 active members and over 500,000 retirees, is the largest US union to call for a ceasefire in Gaza, which they did in December 2023.

UAW President Shawn Fain recently reaffirmed the union’s position. “Our union has been calling for a ceasefire for six months. This war is wrong and this response against students and academic workers, many of them UAW members, is wrong,” Fain said in a statement on 1 May.

Graduate student workers are also calling on the National Labor Relations Board to weigh in on how universities have been responding to Pro-Palestine protests and whether those responses violate US labor laws and collective bargaining agreements with unions on campus.

The Graduate Labor Organization at Brown University has filed several unfair labor practice charges against the university since March 2024 in regards to Pro-Palestine protests and the university’s responses to them.

Forty-one students at Brown University was arrested and charges remain despite the pro-Palestine encampment dispersing as part of negotiations which included a planned vote by the university’s highest governing body for October 2024 on divesting from companies affiliated with Israel. The charges filed by the union allege Brown University unilaterally changed protest policies without bargaining and that made threats of retaliation toward union members for participating in Pro-Palestine campus protests.

“It’s really about the university trying to leverage this fact that as graduate workers we do have student status and kind of using that as a workaround for violating labor law and this has been their playbook on a whole host of issues,” said Michael Ziegler, political director of the Graduate Labor Organization and graduate worker at Brown University. “In the past five years, we’ve had something like 20 protests on the main green and there was never any issue, the university didn’t take these actions. This is new and I think a dangerous attempt by them to clamp down on the rights of speech and protected concerted action.”

UAW Local 872, which represents around 3,000 graduate workers at USC, has recently filed an unfair labor practice charge against the university over arrests of at least five union members. The union has called for charges to be dropped against all 93 protesters who were arrested on 24 April and for the university to concede to demands from USC Divest from Death Coalition.

“USC’s summoning of LAPD riot police to arrest their own students and workers for peacefully demonstrating is abhorrent and wrong,” said Maile McCann, a Local 872 member and PhD Candidate in the Civil Engineering department at USC, in a statement on the charge. “The administration’s actions show an alarming disregard for our right as students and union members to engage in peaceful demonstrations, and their decisions have put international students in particular at serious risk. USC’s unnecessary escalation has resulted in a shameful waste of public resources for the purposes of silencing dissent.”

A spokesperson for USC said in an email, “we believe the charge is without merit and intend to defend our position before the National Labor Relations Board.”

Brown University and the University of California system did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A spokesperson for Brown University has previously said in response to the first unfair labor practice charge, “individuals are not absolved from abiding by Brown policies by virtue of union membership.” The University of California system has not yet publicly commented on the planned strike vote by graduate student workers.


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