University of California Workers Vote to Authorize Strike in Rebuke Over Protest Crackdowns

Unions are known for fighting for higher pay and workplace conditions. But academic workers in the University of California system authorized their union on Wednesday to call for a strike over something else entirely: free speech.

The union, U.A.W. 4811, represents about 48,000 graduate students and other academic workers at 10 University of California system campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Its members, incensed over the university system’s handling of campus protests, pushed their union to address grievances extending beyond the bread-and-butter issues of collective bargaining to concerns over protesting and speaking out in their workplace.

The strike authorization vote, which passed with 79 percent support, comes two weeks after dozens of counterprotesters attacked a pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of California, Los Angeles, for several hours without police intervention, and without arrests. Officers in riot gear tore down the encampment the next day and arrested more than 200 people.

The vote does not guarantee a strike but rather gives the executive board of the local union, which is part of the United Auto Workers, the ability to call a strike at any time. Eight of the 10 University of California campuses still have a month of instruction left before breaking for summer.

The union said it had called the vote because the University of California unilaterally and unlawfully changed policies regarding free speech, discriminated against pro-Palestinian speech and created an unsafe work environment by allowing attacks on protesters, among other grievances.

“People on the ground are extremely agitated because of the university’s unlawful behavior around the protests on campus,” said Rafael Jaime, the president of U.A.W. 4811. “We’re asking the university to de-escalate the situation and to do so by engaging in good faith with protesters on campus.”

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