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University of California workers vote to authorize strike in rebuke to crackdown on protests

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

The union, UAW 4811, represents about 48,000 graduate students and other academic workers on 10 campuses in the University of California system and at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Its members, enraged by the university system’s handling of campus protests, have pushed their union to address grievances that extend beyond basic collective bargaining issues to concerns related to protests and speaking out in their workplace.

The strike authorization vote, which passed with 79 percent support, comes two weeks after dozens of counterprotesters attacked a pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of California, Los Angeles, for several hours without police intervention and without arrest. The next day, officers in riot gear demolished the encampment and arrested more than 200 people.

The vote does not guarantee a strike but rather gives the board of directors of the local union, which is part of the United Auto Workers, the ability to call a strike at any time. There is still one month of teaching remaining at eight of the University of California’s ten campuses before summer break.

The union said it called the vote because the University of California unilaterally and illegally changed its free speech policy, discriminated against pro-Palestinian speech and created a unsafe work environment by authorizing attacks on protesters, among other grievances.

“People on the ground are extremely agitated due to the university’s illegal behavior during the campus protests,” said Rafael Jaime, president of UAW 4811. “We are calling on the university to deescalate the situation and to do so by engaging in good faith with protesters on campus.

The University of California president’s office said in a statement before the authorization vote that a strike would set “a dangerous precedent that would introduce non-labor issues into labor agreements.”

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

In a letter to protesters Tuesday, Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said the university would begin discussions about divestment from some companies and planned to publicly support “efforts to secure a cease-fire.” immediate and permanent fire” by the end of the year. the month. But she said divestment from companies doing business with or in Israel was not within her authority.

After packing up their tents, some Berkeley protesters headed to UC Merced on Wednesday to attend a meeting hosted by the University of California Board of Trustees. More than 100 people signed up to voice their opinions publicly, and almost everyone who spoke about the protests criticized the way they were handled by university administrations.

The strike authorization vote allows for what is known as a “standing” strike, a tactic that was first used 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 concentrate strikes on certain campuses or among certain groups of workers, to gain leverage.

Mr. Jaime, president of UAW 4811, said the union would use the tactic to “reward campuses that move forward” and possibly call a strike for those that don’t. He added that the union would only announce strikes “at the last minute, to maximize chaos and confusion for the employer.”

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

“This shows how generational change is impacting not only workplaces, but also unions,” Mr Higbie said. “Younger members will be making more and more demands like this to their unions as we move forward. over the next couple of years, and so I think that’s probably a harbinger of things to come.

Jill Cowan reports contributed.

News Source : www.nytimes.com
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