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UC workers strike blends traditional labor stoppage with pro-Palestinian fervor

Academic workers at UCLA hold picket signs
Academic workers at UCLA went on strike Tuesday alleging their workers’ rights have been violated by University of California actions during pro-Palestinian protests and encampment crackdowns. Thousands of UAW Local 4811 members at UCLA and UC Davis participated in the second round of a campus Unfair Labor Practice strikes. UAW 4811 represents around 48,000 workers across the state, including 6,400 at UCLA and 5,700 at Davis.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)
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Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Sunday, June 2. I’m your host, Andrew J. Campa. Here’s what you need to know this weekend:

    UC worker strikes are familiar and new in fervor

    A typical union strike has a few common, core requests: better pay, robust benefits and safe working conditions.

    The current academic worker strikes at UCLA, UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz certainly include traditional elements of a labor stoppage. Yet they also represent a merger of union accusations alleging workplace mistreatment with the goals of the wider pro-Palestinian campus movement.

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    On-campus chants have including phrasing such as “workers rights under attack,” with that message being tied directly to pro-Palestinian union members arrested and suspended after recent protests.

    Traditional signs and marches have included a growing number of protesters waving Palestinian flags and wearing kaffiyehs, the black checked traditional scarves used to express Palestinian solidarity.

    These marchers have pressed for demands mirroring those of the students they work with, namely for the University of California to divest its ties to Israel and the war in Gaza and grant all protesters amnesty from campus discipline.

    While this merger has pumped new blood into the pro-Palestinian campus movements, it’s widened a gap between workers and administrators over its purpose and legality. Labor experts are split on how the unique demands of United Auto Workers Local 4811 could come to a precedent-setting end.

    Who is striking and why

    The 48,000-member union includes graduate teaching assistants, researchers and some academic workers who lead discussion groups, grade papers and administer exams, among other responsibilities at UC’s 10 campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

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    They walked off the job alleging their free speech rights to speak out about their workplaces were violated when UC leaders called in police to remove pro-Palestinian encampments at several campuses, resulting in arrests and suspensions.

    They also contend the university violated their rights as workers by failing to protect them when a violent mob attacked protesters at UCLA, including union members, and police took hours to intervene.

    The union bases the charges on the experiences of dozens of members who protested at UCLA, UC San Diego and UC Irvine. The union also says universities unilaterally changed their job conditions when classes were moved online amid protests instead of bargaining over those work-related decisions.

    How have the UCs countered

    UC Berkeley’s outgoing Chancellor Carol Christ said she supported examining Berkeley’s investments in “a targeted list of companies due to their participation in weapons manufacturing, mass incarceration, and/or surveillance industries” and would push University of California regents on divestment.

    UC Riverside Chancellor Kim Wilcox said he would form a task force to “explore the removal of UCR’s endowment from the management of the UC Investments Office, and the investment of said endowment in a manner that will be financially and ethically sound for the university with consideration to the companies involved in arms manufacturing and delivery.”

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    UC leaders also said they are asking the state labor authority — the Public Employment Relations Board — to order the union to halt its strike during a critical ending period of the term with finals and grading at hand.

    Legal debate

    Unions have long played a role in elections and even supported foreign policy positions, “but this is different,” said David Lewin, a professor emeritus of management, human resources and organizational behavior at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

    “Striking workers are taking a risk in supporting one side of a two-party conflict,” Lewin said. “It looks opportunistic because you have employees of the university striking at the end of a quarter or semester when final exams are being given, grades are due and people have to graduate. It puts a lot of pressure on the university.”

    Other labor experts take a different view.

    The university’s messaging “is meant to intimidate the workers into not going on strike,” said Tobias Higbie, a UCLA professor of history and labor studies. “I wish the University of California would be a different type of employer, but apparently it’s not the way they want to go with this.”

    What’s next

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    Mediation between UC and the UAW is ongoing, part of a multistep process that could drag far beyond the end of this quarter, which is mid-June at several campuses.

    UC has also filed its own unfair labor practice allegation against the union, saying it violated its contract by striking.

    For more on these strikes, here’s an analysis by Times reporter Jaweed Kaleem.

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    Column One

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    Have a great weekend, from the Essential California team

    Andrew J. Campa, reporter
    Carlos Lozano, news editor

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