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How UC Researchers Began Saying No To Military Work

Above photo: Academic workers at the University of California have just authorized a strike over the employer’s unfair labor practices in repressing peaceful protest. UAW Local 4811.

Our union of 48,000 academic workers has just authorized a strike over the University of California’s unfair labor practices in repressing peaceful protest, retaliating against members for protesting, and prohibiting pro-Palestine speech at the worksite.

United Auto Workers Local 4811 announced the results yesterday: with nearly 20,000 members voting, 79 percent voted yes.

Part of the groundwork behind this vote and informing the potential strike is the organizing we have done over the past several months in our science departments—as researchers who are no longer willing to support genocide with our labor.

As unionized workers in higher education, we are positioned to intervene at the very beginning of the military supply chain. The Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions issued an urgent call on October 16 to stop arming Israel—including the specific request to disrupt military funding and military research.

In 2021 alone, the Department of Defense spent $7.4 billion on research within U.S. universities. The U.S. military vies to be a world leader in science and technology—especially machine learning and A.I., quantum computing, robotics, and weapons development.

Researchers with expertise in cutting-edge fields tend to seek careers at universities and national labs, where exploratory research is facilitated more readily than in the private sector. Expert labor is also far cheaper within academia—and graduate workers can be poached into military jobs after graduation. The military is therefore incentivized to farm the expertise and talent it needs within universities.

Outside Outreach Didn’t Work

Graduate workers at the University of California-Santa Cruz started last fall by:

  • Mapping funding on campus—figuring out how much militarized money is flowing into our university, and what research that money is supporting
  • Mapping the relevant worksites—figuring out who works on each DoD-funded project and their professional structures, like labs, working groups, institutes, and departments

In November, we wrote a step-by-step guide for researching militarized funding in your university.

We spent months reaching out to these DoD-funded workers, hoping they would call a meeting with their labmates to talk about Palestine, where their funding comes from, and how the workers in those labs felt about the connection between the two.

But this effort, where we tried to organize labs from the outside, was largely fruitless. The workers who were hesitant to call meetings were stopped not by lack of solidarity, but by fear of professional consequences—which could not be effectively addressed by an external organizer.

It’s Gotta Be From The Inside

We pivoted to conversations at the level of our own departments, which include Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) departments and labs that do not currently receive militarized funding, but which have concrete and traceable ties to military research.

We’ve found that only workers in the same professional context could confront these concerns with any success. This approach has yielded concrete successes in the Astronomy and Physics departments at UCSC, including worker commitments to turn down military funding and refuse labor from military projects.

What Worked For Us

Here is a basic step-by-step account of what worked for us, which even a single organizer can get started on:

1. Talk to workers.

Both Astronomy and Physics started small, with a single organizer reaching out to a few close friends. We expanded slowly, having low-stakes, one-on-one or small-group discussions.

We asked people directly: do you know where your funding comes from? What are the applications of your work? How do you feel about military misuse of your work?

We found that bringing up Palestine for the first time in pre-established academic spaces—such as journal, club, or all-grads meetings—could feel chillingly high-stakes. Seeking out more private and casual conversations made people more forthcoming, even relieved to have the opportunity to talk.

2. Decide on an intervention.

Following these initial discussions, a small core of organizers in each department met weekly to determine next steps.

The idea of issuing a statement arose, but there was some pushback: if a statement was merely symbolic, then would writing it be worth our time? We decided to center the statement around tangible commitments, and work towards concrete agreements from our departments.

Through the collective writing process, the value of these symbolic statements emerged: writing these letters brought our departments together to allow us to talk about Palestine more comfortably.

Some professors in both departments changed their minds about Palestine—whether what is happening constitutes a genocide, and whether “political issues” are appropriate and urgent to talk about in a professional context.

And many workers expressed that they hadn’t brought up Palestine in conversations only because they thought others in their department would object—a fear that writing the letter dispelled.

While both Physics and Astronomy crafted statements, we stress that this project cannot stop at a published letter. We needed to cultivate meaningful and collective commitment from the workers across each department, and work towards concrete agreements.

Our connection to military research is material; our organizing cannot only be symbolic.

3. Cultivate broad commitment.

Upon completing their statement, Physics organizers worked to gather signatures from colleagues.

Given the uncertain atmosphere in the department, where discussions about Palestine were rare, the organizers approached this task cautiously. To their surprise, many people were eager to talk about Palestine—but had assumed others didn’t share their sentiments.

The Physics organizers hosted a Palestinian Culture Day, where the statement was discussed and attendees were given the opportunity to sign.

This event was a turning point: we realized that even if the statement didn’t immediately lead to concrete demands being met, it served as a means to bring people together to comfortably and vulnerably discuss the issue at hand.

The organizers also phone banked and talked one on one with colleagues, collecting 60 percent of grad worker signatures.

Graduate organizers in both departments are now approaching faculty as fellow workers, collaborating to co-determine the working conditions of our departments, and organizing on the department level for specific changes in the procedure of research:

  1. Funding transparency, where the department actively shares the funding sources that support graduate workers in the department
  2. Transitional funding to empower workers to pivot away from research they find ethically unacceptable

This department-level organizing has threaded into the current moment, where 48,000 academic workers at the University of California are preparing to strike for Palestine—and these demands for transparency and transitional funding have become part of what workers will be striking for.

Lessons Learned

We want to highlight lessons learned through this organizing:

1. Organize from within.

Many organizing groups have jumped into mapping out what research is being funded by the DoD and its subsidiaries, but fewer labs or departments have tackled organizing their own workers from within.

Only by talking to workers, understanding the particular interventions they are positioned to take and ready to act on, can we land concrete blows to the military capture of academia.

While funding mapping reveals the scale and scope of military involvement in academic research, the most useful and specific insight into how workers are funded and how their research is misused came from workers themselves.

2. Fear is the greatest obstacle—and solidarity is the antidote.

Across the broader spectrum of labor fights, workers have proven that they will shoulder enormous risk when fighting for issues that are deeply felt.

The true barrier to organizing is not risk, but fear—and that fear can only be overcome by labmates and co-workers, not by external organizers.

3. Your intervention may be different.

Our intervention has taken the form of public letters, but is that what you should do? Not necessarily. What is the most fruitful and accessible approach will depend on the type of work and internal structure of each department.

Workers’ own expertise and imagination will guide their way.

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