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“Maximum chaos. » UC university workers authorize strike, alleging rights violated during protests

The union representing 48,000 student teaching assistants, researchers and other student workers at the University of California’s 10 campuses has voted to authorize a strike and cause “maximum chaos,” alleging their workers’ rights have been violated in several universities by actions against pro-Palestinian demonstrations, union leaders announced Wednesday evening.

The walkouts, which are still in the works, were approved by 79 percent of the 19,780 members of United Auto Workers Local 4811 who voted. The strike vote comes as campuses across the UC system are rocked by tensions and protests related to the war between Israel and Hamas, including a violent mob attack on a pro-Palestinian encampment at the ‘UCLA.

Although the vote authorizes the union to strike as early as Wednesday evening, it was unclear when and where the walkouts would take place. The union represents teaching assistants, tutors, researchers and postdocs.

The union chastised UCLA, UC San Diego and UC Irvine for cracking down on pro-Palestinian student protesters. On Wednesday evening, dozens of police officers in riot gear attacked pro-Palestinian UCI demonstrators who occupied and barricaded the physical sciences classroom.

Rafael Jaime, co-president of the union and a doctoral student in UCLA’s English department, said the goal would be to “maximize chaos and confusion” at universities where the union accuses officials of violating students’ rights. workers on working conditions during student protests against Israel. -Hamas War.

“Our members were beaten, concussed and pepper-sprayed, both by counter-protesters and police. As a union, it is our responsibility to stand with them,” the union said in a statement. “In order to de-escalate the situation, the UC must substantively address the concerns raised by the protesters – which focus on the UC’s investments in businesses and industries that profit from the suffering in Gaza. »

In a letter sent to graduate students Wednesday, the University of California warned students against striking.

“The University’s position is that the union strike is illegal and, therefore, a work stoppage does not constitute protected strike activity. This means that participation in the strike does not change, excuse or modify an employee’s normal duties or expectations. And, unlike a protected strike, you may be subject to corrective action if you fail to perform your duties,” the unsigned letter from the Office of the President states.

The university workers’ strike would be modeled after last year’s strikes against Ford, Stellantis and General Motors and would be similar to recent hotel strikes in Southern California. The walkouts will not target all campuses at once, Jaime said, but one by one, depending on administrations’ receptiveness to pro-Palestinian activists.

UC Riverside and UC Berkeley reached agreements with protesters to end the encampments and consider divestment from arms companies. Leaders of these universities have rejected calls to specifically target Israel or to boycott exchange programs and partnerships with Israeli universities.

While some Jewish students have supported the pro-Palestinian protests, domestic Jewish groups have criticized the divestment campaign, calling it anti-Semitic because it aims to delegitimize the only predominantly Jewish nation.

Union members began voting online Monday. The strikes, Jaime said, could last any length of time until the end of June. The period covers a critical time on campuses during final and commencement exams.

In November and December 2022, the union marched for six weeks, achieving significant improvements in wages and working conditions and spurring a wave of union activism among university workers across the country.

Before the strike vote results were released, the University of California said the union was showing inappropriate force on a political issue.

“UC believes the current vote by UAW leadership sets a dangerous precedent that could introduce non-labor issues into labor agreements,” said UC Office of the President spokeswoman , Heather Hansen.

The disagreement hinges on whether college students like Jaime, who was participating in pro-Palestinian protests at UCLA the night a violent mob attacked the encampment, are striking over “a labor issue or political speech,” he said. said UCLA professor John Logan. San Francisco State University Department of Labor and Employment Studies.

“The contract between the UAW and UC includes provisions on academic freedom, but the university could say, ‘Yes, speech is protected, but the actions you took went well beyond speech, preventing students from accessing (a) library or other campus.’ (areas) that are not protected,” Logan said.

Another challenge was participation. Pro-Palestinian activism has touched all college campuses, but it has been strongest on those located in or near major cities. Last year, a union referendum in favor of a permanent ceasefire in Israel’s war with Hamas and divestment passed by 90 percent, but received fewer than 6,000 votes in total. The most recent ratification of the contract received more than 36,000 votes. Turnout for the strike vote was high, but lower than for contract ratification.

While college presidents across the country have been criticized for calling in police in riot gear to clear pro-Palestinian encampments, the strike threat is one of the largest actions by an American union in support for the Palestinians.

The vote came after the union filed a complaint with the state labor board over arrests of pro-Palestinian graduate student protesters at UCLA and suspensions and other disciplinary actions at UC San Diego and at UC Irvine, accusing the universities of retaliating against student workers and illegally changing workplace policies. to suppress pro-Palestinian speech.

Universities have widely said they are trying to ensure safe environments on campus while respecting free speech. Internal and external investigations are underway at UCLA.

Some members said they felt the union’s criticism of its crackdown on campus protests didn’t go far enough. Many student protesters have demanded that campus police be abolished or that universities commit to never calling city police on campus again. The union did not include them in its strike-related demands.

“It’s really disappointing to me as a Black person that the union hasn’t taken a strong stance on policing and racial profiling on campus,” said Gene McAdoo, a doctoral student at the School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA. “They present themselves as radicals, but they are not interested in this issue.”

McAdoo still voted in favor, he said, because “suspending our work gives us a lot of power and leverage to push the UC administration to respond to divestment demands (from Students for Justice in Palestine). This is the ultimate goal of this movement. But I also know that there is an undercurrent of people who continue to push for cops to be sent off campus.

This is not the first time UAW workers have pushed for divestment. In 1973, Arab American workers at Detroit auto plants walked off the job to protest the UAW’s investments in Israeli bonds.

But for a union to vote on a strike while a contract is in effect is “unheard of in modern times,” said Jeff Schuhrke, a labor historian who teaches at SUNY Empire State University.

While union demands for academic freedom, freedom of expression and protection from violence could arguably focus on working conditions, they also explicitly support protesters’ calls for divestment from gun and technology manufacturers. other companies profiting from the Israeli war in Gaza.

The strike vote “is not a question of economics. This is not a raise or more benefits. It’s political,” Schuhrke said.

The professor said it was reminiscent of the origins of the student union movement, when the first graduate unions formed in the 1960s, during the free speech and anti-war movements on campus.

AFT Local 1570, a teaching assistants union formed at UC Berkeley in the grip of the campus free speech movement, voted in 1966 to strike against the University of California in response to police arrest of students conducting a sit-in around a US Navy recruiting table. on the campus.

The Association of Teaching Assistants. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, born out of the anti-conscription sit-in and campus protests against Dow Chemical for its role in producing napalm and other weapons for the Vietnam War, is the oldest union of graduates still existing in the United States.

“The graduate union movement is coming full circle,” Schuhrke said.

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