University of California student workers vote to strike amid Gaza protest furor

The union is making numerous demands, including an “amnesty” for students and faculty members arrested during campus unrest.

Thousands of unionized student workers across California’s premier public universities on Wednesday blessed a potential strike in the aftermath of crackdowns on recent campus protests.

Of the 19,780 votes cast by members of a local unit of the Unite Auto Workers, about 79 percent were in favor of authorizing a strike, easily clearing the two-thirds threshold necessary.

Earlier this week graduate students, teaching assistants and post-docs represented by UAW Local 4811 began voting to authorize a work stoppage in response to labor violations allegedly committed by university officials amid the turbulence earlier this spring. Among their demands is amnesty for students and faculty members arrested during the unrest.

“At the heart of this is our right to free speech and peaceful protest,” UAW 4811 President Rafael Jaime, who is also a PhD student in the UCLA English Department, said in a release. “If members of the academic community are maced and beaten down for peacefully demonstrating on this issue, our ability to speak up on all issues is threatened.”

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Beyond the prospect of work stoppages, labor unions that represent members at a host of colleges including the University of Southern California and UCLA have filed unfair labor practice charges alleging that officials violated workers’ rights in the process of shutting down pro-Palestinian encampments and other demonstrations this spring.

Nationally, the UAW was ahead of many other unions in calling for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, and much of its membership growth in recent years has been by organizing grad students and other campus workers — putting it at the vanguard of recent labor clashes with college administrators struggling to control protests over Israel’s war against Hamas.

Union President Shawn Fain spoke out against universities’ forceful response two weeks ago, saying that if they “can’t take the outcry, stop supporting the war.”

The local unit has not said when any stoppage would begin. Instead, it has sought to emulate the “stand-up” strategy UAW deployed to great effect in last year’s negotiations with a trio of U.S. car companies, in which individual units go on strike with little notice — allowing leadership to dial up pressure over time rather than everyone stopping work at once.

The student workers would deploy the same strategy campus by campus, at the direction of the union’s executive board.

At the same time, with spring terms recently ended, a work stoppage over the summer months may be less of a blow to universities. In an explanatory post, the union said a “strike will go on no longer than June 30th.”

The union has issued a series of demands to UC leadership — ranging from the amnesty to divesting from defense companies with ties to Israel — to head off a strike. However, it’s doubtful that officials are willing to negotiate on such issues.

“UC believes that a strike sets a dangerous precedent that would introduce non-labor issues into labor agreements.,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

“While we acknowledge the profoundly troubling issues about the ongoing conflict in the Middle East and understand their impact on our students and employees, the University maintains that these issues fall outside the scope of negotiation for employment and the implementation of existing labor contracts.