University of California workers strike for Palestine

More than 30,000 workers across six campuses of the University of California (UC) have taken weeks of strike action in solidarity with Palestine protests on campus.

It follows university managements bringing police onto campuses to violently disperse a series of Gaza solidarity encampments, including the scenes at UCLA where they allowed a mob of far-right activists to physically attack the encampment for hours, assaulting students with metal poles and hurling fireworks at them.

The next day police were sent in to break up the encampment with at least 200 arrests.

At the UC Irvine campus, 47 people were arrested including staff members as police cleared the encampment there, while another 64 were arrested at UC San Diego including 40 students.

The strike began at UC Santa Cruz on 20 May, where staff were on strike for more than three weeks, spreading to UC Davis and UCLA a week later, as well as UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego and UC Irvine.

Their union, UAW local 4811, says the university has engaged in unfair labour practices through allowing violent attacks on campus protests, using police to arrest staff members and imposing changes to working conditions.

The union represents postdoc researchers, academic researchers, tutors and teaching assistants.

In 2022 they took six weeks of strike action that won pay increases for the lowest paid workers of more than $10,000, along with childcare and healthcare entitlements.

“UC has unilaterally changed their policies on employee speech and discipline, without giving our union notice or negotiating these changes,” said Tessa Cookmeyer, a postdoctoral scholar at UC Santa Barbara.

“UC then used these changed policies to not only arrest and injure dozens of our coworkers but also ban many of them from their workplaces and homes.

“What’s at stake here are our core rights as workers and union members,” she added.

Historic step

But it is also a political strike for Palestine. A UAW 4811 branch member and PhD student, Desmond Fonseca, said on a podcast, “We are going out on strike as part of this movement.

“We’re out to defend our right to be a part of this movement, to defend organised labour’s right to fight for a free Palestine.

“It’s such a historic step that I know all of our workers are very conscious of. We are expanding the horizons of what is possible.

“We’re on the side of workers wherever they are oppressed and exploited across the world—that to me is a victory and it doesn’t end when our strike ends.”

The union is also demanding that UC negotiate with student Palestine protesters, drop all university disciplinary charges against protesters, that it divest from arms manufacturers and companies profiting from the war in Gaza, and transition out of research funding that furthers Palestinian oppression.

The strike has helped inspire further student action.

There have been big student protests at UC Santa Cruz, including road blockades, and students at other campuses including UC San Diego have held joint rallies.

On 6 June a court ordered a temporary end to the strike, claiming it was damaging students’ education. The union has vowed to keep fighting.

With the strike intended to run all through the crucial exam and assessment period until 30 June, it shows why unions need to be prepared to defy the law to stage effective strike action.

But UC remains an example to unionists here about the possibilities of strike action in support of Palestine—and how this can broaden the movement and push it forward.

By James Supple

Magazine

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