A strike by graduate student workers has spread to six campuses across the University of California system, as administrators now turn to the courts in an effort to force the strikers back to work.

The work stoppage appears to be the largest so far this year in the U.S, involving a majority of the 48,000 academic workers who are members of the United Auto Workers Local 4811. The union organized the strike last month in response to the university’s crackdown on pro-Palestinian protests and encampments stemming from Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

The latest school to take part in the strike was UC Irvine, where grad students walked off the job on Wednesday morning, according to Local 4811. They were preceded by grad students at UC Santa Barbara and UC San Diego, who joined the strike on Monday, and UC Davis, UCLA and UC Santa Cruz, who walked off in May.

In total, the union has called on 31,500 members in the system to stop working, although exactly how many have hit the picket lines is unclear. Seventy-nine percent of members were in favor of authorizing the strike when a vote was held in mid-May, the union said. (Earlier this year, up to 29,000 faculty members at California State University went on a one-day strike in a contract dispute.)

“It cuts to the core of what it means to be a worker at this university.”

– Tanzil Chowdhury, graduate student researcher and union executive board member

Tanzil Chowdhury, a graduate student instructor and executive board member of the union, said members across the UC system were “agitated” over the university’s handling of protests. Police made more than 200 arrests at UCLA after counterprotesters violently attacked pro-Palestinian demonstrators, and dozens more later at UC Irvine. The university said it believed the encampments posed a public safety threat.

“A huge number of our workers are extremely unhappy with the way that the university has been conducting itself,” said Chowdhury, a Ph.D. student in the materials science and engineering program at UC Berkeley. “People really understand the grave threat that the university is posing to us.”

The university has twice sought to have a state labor relations board force the grad students back to work, arguing that the work stoppage was illegal and causing “irreparable harm.” Their requests that the board seek an injunction in court were denied both times.

On Tuesday, the university took their fight to state court, filing a lawsuit in Orange County seeking a temporary restraining order to end the strike. The suit claims the work stoppage violates the no-strike clause in the union’s contract, and alleges some picketers have blocked entrances at schools and hospitals and barricades themselves in campus buildings.

Member of United Auto Workers Local 4811 strike at UCLA last month. Police arrested more than 200 demonstrators at the campus after violent attacks by counterprotesters.
Member of United Auto Workers Local 4811 strike at UCLA last month. Police arrested more than 200 demonstrators at the campus after violent attacks by counterprotesters.

Brian van der Brug via Getty Images

Melissa Matella, the University of California’s associate vice president for labor relations, said in a statement that the strike “endangers life-saving research in hundreds of laboratories across the University and will also cause the University substantial monetary damages.”

The university argues the strike is about purely political and social issues, as opposed to workplace grievances, and therefore is against the law.

But when the union filed unfair labor practice charges last month, it said its demands were tied directly to the workplace — such as the right to opt out of military-funded research, and a request that the university “disclose and divest” any funds tied to Israel’s war effort.

Striking over alleged unfair labor practices — as opposed to pay and benefits — can bolster a union’s case that it isn’t violating a no-strike agreement.

Chowdhury argued that the university undermined the right to peaceful protest when it called in police on campuses, effectively changing work policy without bargaining with the union. The union said during the police response some protesters suffered burns, bone fractures and, in one case, a subarachnoid hemorrhage.

“It’s traumatic stuff. I was speaking to someone there [at UCLA] who was worried the next day she’d be writing an obituary for a colleague,” Chowdhury said. “It cuts to the core of what it means to be a worker at this university.”

“The university has twice sought to have a state labor relations board force the grad students back to work, arguing that the work stoppage was illegal and causing ‘irreparable harm.’”

Local 4811 has modeled its work stoppage on the UAW’s strike last year against Ford, General Motors and Jeep parent company Stellantis, which began small and gradually grew to encompass more worksites.

The graduate student workers are not doing any grading or instructional work while on strike, with undergraduate exams looming this month. The university said most campuses have their finals in early June to mid-June. Meanwhile, four campuses remain to be called to strike: UC Berkeley, UC Merced, UC San Francisco and UC Riverside.

The two sides have met in mediation at the urging of the state labor board. But barring a court order to return to work, it appears unlikely the strike will end until the union and the university can hash out an agreement regarding protests and campus policies.

The university said in court filings that the strike had forced it to shut down an unknown number of seminars and laboratory sessions at several campuses — and that the unpredictable nature of the strike has made it difficult to plan around it.

“UAW members often do not inform campus administrators that they are striking and canceling classes,” Matella said in a declaration in Orange County Superior Court. “They just do it, again increasing the uncertainty and adding to the chaos.”

source

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