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University Of California Workers On Strike For Right To Protest For Gaza

Above photo: Rafael Jaime speaks at the People’s Conference for Palestine. Sofia Perez.

The President of UAW 4811, Rafael Jaime, speaks about the ongoing strike of University of California student workers.

On May 28, 12,000 student workers organized under United Auto Workers Local 4811, working at the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA) and UC Davis joined 2,000 union members already on strike at UC Santa Cruz.

Workers representing United Auto Workers Local 4811 received a standing ovation at the People’s Conference for Palestine this past weekend, in honor of the union local taking the bold step in leading the first ever strike in US history in relation to Palestine solidarity. At the panel entitled “The Role of Labor Unions in the Palestinian Struggle,” workers received a standing ovation and chants of “UC, UC hear our call! 4811 will strike you all!”

Student workers are striking in a fully legal Unfair Labor Practices (ULP) strike based on their university administrations allowing Zionists to unleash terror against students staging Gaza Solidarity encampments, before calling in riot police to brutalize those same students. Students at the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA), in particular, experienced wave after wave of right-wing counterprotest—from Zionists and even a smattering of neo-Nazis—while the university administration sat back and did nothing. Those same students were then attacked by hundreds of police officers from several different agencies, some even left with bloody wounds from rubber bullets.

On May 15, UAW Local 4811, which represents 48,000 student workers across the University of California campuses, voted to authorize a strike following police and administrative repression of pro-Palestine students staging Gaza Solidarity Encampments. This strike is a “stand up strike,” taking after the model used by UAW workers in the auto sector last year who struck the three largest auto-manufacturers in the United States, achieving historic gains for workers unseen in decades. In employing the stand up strategy, instead of having all UAW workers employed by General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis walk off the job at once, the union called on specific plants to strike in waves, adding more job sites to the strike depending on the status of negotiations. This allowed the union to utilize its resources strategically and remain flexible in its response, sending a powerful message to the bosses: the severity of the strike depended entirely on management’s acceptance of worker demands.

UC workers achieved an early victory when the latest attempt by university administrators to stop the strike was thwarted, after a UC injunction claiming the strike was illegal was denied by a California state labor board.

Peoples Dispatch spoke to Rafael Jaime for more insights into the ongoing strike. Jaime is a graduate student in English at UCLA, and the President of United Auto Workers Local 4811. Peoples Dispatch also spoke to Desmond Fonseca, a graduate student at UCLA studying History, and Iris Rosenblum-Sellers, a graduate student studying Mathematics and the University of California – Berkeley and Academic Student Employee Unit Chair, both members and lead organizers of UAW Local 4811.

Peoples Dispatch: Why are 4811 workers engaging in a stand up strike? 

Rafael Jaime: For many months at the University of California, students and workers have been engaged in protesting the ongoing war on Gaza. Just a few weeks ago, an encampment popped up at UCLA, as it had done in many other campuses. And the university, rather than allowing for a peaceful protest to continue, first allowed a violent mob to attack the encampment. The attack went on for hours. The university did not intervene, and allowed the attack to continue to happen. There were many members from my union, as well as many of our students who were hurt during that attack. My coworkers and students were burned, attacked, they were maced, with zero intervention from the university.

And even after the police arrived, they allowed it to continue for an hour. The very next day, the university sent in hundreds of riot police officers from many different outside agencies to violently suppress the peaceful encampment using rubber bullets and flashbang grenades.

In that process, many students and many of my coworkers were hurt, arrested, and are now facing criminal charges and potentially university disciplinary processes, including suspension.

This has happened not just at UCLA, but also at UC Irvine and UC San Diego. And all of this, again, for peacefully protesting the war on Gaza.

This is a fundamental attack on our rights as workers, on the right to have a union, on the right to take collective action. It is over our fundamental rights that we are taking this action, because the university has grossly violated its commitment to respecting our rights as workers.

Desmond Fonseca: We called the strike authorization vote shortly after the Palestine Solidarity encampment was attacked at UCLA, which dozens of UAW 4811 members were part of.

Our workers have for months been out in the streets marching, protesting, demonstrating in support of Palestinian liberation and support of a free Palestine. The university has really escalated in trying to make sure that we can’t do that, trying to repress our rights to free speech, trying to repress our ability to stand for a free Palestine.

We’re taking this action, not just for our members who were unfairly arrested and targeted by the university, but really for the rights of the entire labor movement to be able to say that they stand with Palestine.

PD: This is the first strike in relation to Palestine solidarity in the United States. Could you talk about the significance of that? 

RJ: This is one of the defining issues of our generation. We’ve seen such a huge wave of protests across campuses, because this is a really important issue to so many workers and so many students in higher education.

We’re taking action right now because all of this really is tied up with our own working conditions. If we can’t protest over something so important, such as the ongoing war on Gaza, then it really is an attack on our fundamental rights to protest over anything, to take action on our rights as workers. We are taking action to defend those rights.

Iris Rosenblum-Sellers: There’s been anti-union legislation that’s been passed that has made it basically impossible to legally go on a strike over a political issue. What’s really special about this moment is that not only do we have an extremely well-organized union that’s built a lot of power over the last couple of decades that it’s been around, constantly building out networks, building structure, making their union more powerful. We also have this unique moment where the political conditions in our country have led to our employer attacking us for our peaceful protest.

It’s the confluence of those two things that’s allowed us to take this kind of action. It’s historic for that reason, because there’s going to be tens of thousands of people who are taking action at their worksite in defense of our rights to protest about Palestine. It really couldn’t have happened without those two factors.

PD: This is a “stand up strike,” modeled after the successful stand up strike of UAW auto workers last year. Why did 4811 workers choose to re-utilize this model?

RJ: We drew inspiration from our siblings in the auto sector, siblings at General Motors, Ford and Stellantis last year, when they went on their historic strike, and used this very creative strategy to build pressure to continue to escalate and force the employer to meet their demands.

University campuses have responded to us in a variety of ways. Some campuses have done a better job. Others have, like UCLA, have egregiously suppressed our rights. And we want to be able to respond strategically and have flexibility, and continue to escalate so that we can actually force the university to guarantee our rights as workers and our rights to free speech and protests.

We’re looking at the stand up strikes from last year in the auto sector, and also the historic sit down strikes that allowed that actually helped form the UAW.

IRS: The majority of the UC campuses have had one of these student encampments in the last month, as a result of the historic student movement for Palestine that’s been happening. The UCs have really taken different tactics towards this. At some of them, the chancellors are negotiating with the students, or at least not resorting to the horrific violence that we’ve seen at UCLA, but at UCLA and UC San Diego and UC Irvine, there’s been total unconscionable behavior from our employer.

And when our employer is using police to attack people for peacefully protesting, that’s a real danger to our ability to organize for anything, including having a union. So this is really a life or death struggle for our union, which is why we’re fighting as hard as we are. And also, because we all recognize how important the moment is.

DF: The stand up strike is super important for us to keep increasing our leverage and our power against university as they try to rob us of our power. [It allows us to] remain flexible in our strategy, flexible in our orientation, dynamic, engaging in constant escalation if necessary to bring the university to rectify its unfair labor practice charges, to negotiate in good faith with the stakeholders of this movement.

We can go as long as possible. Our strike end date is June 30, and we want to keep building power up until then. And just because it ends on June 30, and more campuses will be called as the days and weeks go by, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop, if the university doesn’t stop its oppression, if university doesn’t fix the wrongs that it’s committed against its movement, its students and its workers.

PD: What demands are workers hoping will be met as a result of the UC strike?

RJ: Ultimately, what we want is for the university to resolve their unfair labor practices. They attacked our rights as workers, our right to free speech, created an unsafe environment for workers and students of the university, changed many of their policies with regards to free speech, and discriminated in the application of those policies.

What we’re asking the university to do is to sit down and resolve this and guarantee our rights as workers, our rights as students, to engage in peaceful protests and allow us to fight for issues that are really important to all of us, such as the the ongoing war and genocide in Gaza.

PD: Increasingly, the US labor movement as a sector is mobilizing for Palestine. Can you talk about this strike in relation to that larger push in the labor movement? 

RJ: Our union was one of the first locals to issue a statement in support of a ceasefire. We then worked closely with our UAW International, to make the UAW the first major American union to come out in support of a ceasefire. And we have continued to do this work in our local at the University of California to move this issue along, to make it really a central issue in discussions at the University and really move the rest of the labor movement to come out in support of a ceasefire in Gaza.

Again, this is one of the defining issues of our generation, and I think it’s really important for the labor movement to take up this cause, because the attacks on workers in Gaza really are part of a larger attack on the international working class.

PD: You’re here at the People’s Conference for Palestine, there are a lot of other UAW 4811 members here, a lot of other unionized workers. What do you hope that 4811 members and other workers take away from this conference?

RJ: I hope that everybody is able to come here and exchange ideas and creatively to think of ways that we can continue to strategize, so that we can actually continue building the movement, and make it into a larger working class movement in support of Gaza.

DF: It’s such an important moment for us to be here with leaders in the Palestinian movement generally, student leaders, worker leaders, leaders in labor who have also taken a stance in support of Palestinian liberation. This is a great opportunity to exchange strategies, to engage in discussion and debate with our comrades across the country, and to stand firm on the side of Palestinian liberation. Because we know that not only our bosses, but also the ruling class across the country, universities across the country, employers across the country have taken their side with the genocidal state of Israel.

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