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University Of California Is Escalating Its Crackdown On Dissent

Above Photo: Geisel Library at the University of California, San Diego. Education Images/Citizens of the Planet/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

Three academic workers at the University of California, San Diego, were arrested on felony charges of vandalism and conspiracy to commit a crime.

They were using washable markers and chalk.

Just before the Fourth of July weekend, postdoctoral scholar Jessica Ng, graduate student William Schneider, and another graduate student at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), were arrested by campus police on charges of felony vandalism over $400 and conspiracy to commit a crime. They were arrested at their homes (where their personal items were confiscated including keys, phones and at least one computer), taken to San Diego county jails, and held overnight on $20,000 bail each.

Their crime? Allegedly writing slogans like ​“Living Wage Now” on a concrete campus building — in washable markers and chalk — during a peaceful protest almost a month earlier.

This is a dramatic escalation in the ongoing fight between thousands of academic workers and their employer, the University of California (UC). You are probably familiar with a related fight: our six week strike in 2022 that mobilized 48,000 workers across 10 campuses in the UC system. That action won contracts that provide raises of up to 80%, double the length of parental leave for most workers, and provide protections against abuse — but those protections only work if the employer actually abides by them.

The UC has spent all of 2023 trying to circumvent our contracts. They’ve failed to pay many of us our raises (Ng says she is owed over $3,500), canceled promotions, and given new postdocs appointments half as long as the contract calls for. When workers have filed grievances, they’ve sometimes labeled them ​“ineligible for processing” and spent months stalling. And when Ng, Schneider and their coworker (who did not want to be identified) reminded them of their legal obligation to obey the contracts — that is, when they engaged in the protected activity of a peaceful protest — they were arrested for their trouble. These workers were charged with felonies for exercising their right to protest.

“This is, in my opinion, very clearly part of a larger coordinated crackdown of union activities across the UC,” Schneider told KPBS News over Zoom. ​“UC has systematically tried to renege on the contract they signed with UAW and the graduate student researchers union.”

We won our contract through a campaign of protest. Between November 14 and December 23, 2022, we occupied UCLA’s Luskin Conference Center, UC Riverside’s Hinderaker Hall, and the University Office of the President in Oakland. We picketed outside a black-tie dinner at UC President Michael Drake’s $6.5 million mansion. We kayaked out to UC mega-donor Donald Bren’s private island. A crack team even snuck into a Board of Regents meeting to confront UC’s governance face to face. Each wave of direct action led to movement in our direction in bargaining. We wouldn’t have won without freedom of expression and the right to protest.

UC’s administrators must have come to the same conclusion. At the end of the strike, graduate student researchers (GSRs) came back to work to find that the UC had given many of them unsatisfactory grades in their research credits,” curricular cover for lab work that no GSR could have performed without crossing a picket line. After workers at UCSD handed their chancellor a ​“Most Overpaid Worker” award at a $100,000 awards ceremony, UCSD administration filed student conduct charges against some 60 people, more than a dozen of whom weren’t even at the ceremony, and hung the threat of expulsion over them. UC is trying to ignore binding contracts, decades of labor law protecting concerted activity, and the Bill of Rights itself.

But UC’s attempts to quash protests and dissent have backfired. Academic workers are angrier than ever, and the only thing that will satisfy us is the implementation of our contracts. We’re still taking the kind of direct action we took during the strike, and after months of stalling, campuses are starting to cave. UC Berkeley recently settled a grievance by agreeing to pay thousands of workers their full back wages for the year to date, and identical grievances are underway across the state. UC is backed into a corner. The only tool they have left is brute force.

So Ng, Schneider and their coworker have basically been told that chalking a building makes you a felon. It doesn’t matter how silly the idea is or how absurd their justification is for the arrests. UC’s point is apparently to signal that if workers continue to confront them with their broken promises, they can expect jail time, a steep fine, or both. The UC is ringing in Independence Day with a message about our fundamental rights: Don’t fight back. Don’t demand what’s yours.

Bosses all over the country are attacking workers’ fundamental rights. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court inched toward letting employers sue unions for striking and signaled future moves in the same direction. The plaintiff in that case, however, was a privately owned concrete company. The UC is, at least in the public imagination, a bastion of civil liberties. If an employer like that can bully its workers into submission, every other employer in the country will know they can do even worse.

But UC can’t bully us. We’re going to fight until Ng, Schneider, and their coworker are exonerated, UC stops its retaliatory action, and our contracts are implemented fairly.

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