Unionized academic workers and UAW, upset about the University of California's response to pro-Palestinian protests at various campuses, strike at UCLA in Los Angeles. June 10, 2024.

Mark Kenneth Gradoni, a doctoral candidate and teaching assistant at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), recalls seeing a phalanx of marked and unmarked law enforcement vehicles fly down the freeway with lights flashing when he arrived at campus on May 15. As he parked in Lot 7, Gradoni heard police helicopters circling overhead. They blasted inaudible commands he later learned were orders to disperse and a notice that a Gaza support protest had been declared an unlawful assembly.

Ironically, the clampdown occurred under the auspices of Chancellor Howard Gillman, coauthor of the book Free Speech on Campus, published in 2017.

[I]n California, campus action over Gaza is not just about student politics—it’s a labor struggle, too.

After attending a colleague’s dissertation—his main reason for traveling to campus that day—Gradoni checked on students and friends at the solidarity encampment. Gradoni said the crowd chanted, “Disclose! Divest! We will not stop; we will not rest!” and “There’s no riot here! Why are you in riot gear?” Officers marched forward.

“We stood arm’s length around the outside of the encampment,” he said. “I was standing back behind a couple lines of undergraduates. I had a couple of union colleagues with me on either side.”

For months, he and other members of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 4811—which represents about 48,000 graduate student employees, postdocs, and a handful of undergraduate laborers across the University of California 10-campus system—have been standing in solidarity with students in calling for the university to divest $32 billion in denounced holdings, one-fifth of the university’s total assets.

At least in California, campus action over Gaza is not just about student politics—it’s a labor struggle, too.

An Academic Workers’ Union Opposes Police Violence

At UCI, Gradoni and others hoped to form a line around the encampment’s exterior and then gradually move “to the right and provide a screen so that undergrads could withdraw and get out of the way without getting arrested” before vacating themselves.

That didn’t happen. Instead, police evicted the encampment and arrested several dozen people, Gradoni included.

After he witnessed officers pick up and throw a student to the ground, Gradoni said he, too, was thrown down, placed in zip-tie cuffs, and transported by a repurposed athletics shuttle to the research park, where he and others were processed before being taken to jail. He was released early the next morning.

Gradoni and seven other UAW 4811 members arrested at UCI were given interim suspensions, effectively evicting five who lived on campus until the suspensions were overturned at the end of the month.

That day, UAW 4811 members also concluded a vote to authorize an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) strike. The gist of the complaint was that the University of California’s suppression of demonstrations resulted in a unilateral change in free speech policies and created an unsafe work environment.

The union filed ULP charges in early May after anti-Palestinian counterprotestors attacked a solidarity encampment on the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus. One day later, administrators called in police to forcibly remove the encampment, arresting 200-plus people in the process.

Anny Viloria Winnett, a graduate student researcher and the UAW 4811 chair for academic student employees at UCLA, visited the encampment daily prior to the police intervention, as did other union members.

“I learned a lot personally from what I heard our undergraduate students talking about and in teach-ins and in other educational moments,” she said. “I got to know many people from across campus whose hearts have also been broken by the genocide they’re watching.”

According to the charging document, UCLA had violated its own policy, adopted in 2021, to “minimize police presence at protests.”

Winnett said anti-encampment agitators showed up the first day and were likely emboldened by the university’s inaction. Prior to the intensification of the attack, counterprotestors blasted noises through loudspeakers at night, shouted racist remarks, and threw objects toward tents. Winnett recalls being maced, thrown to the ground, and kicked that night.

She and fellow 4811 members organized a rally in support of the encampment and staged a sit-in near its exit the following day. Officers arrived. Winnett estimates police outnumbered those inside by at least a factor of two when what she described as “the full force of the militarized state” descended.

John Branstetter, a UCLA lecturer, said many of his students were involved in the encampment before authorities dismantled it. Lecturers like him, along with tenure-line and tenured faculty, started brainstorming what they could do to help defend students.

“So we decided to go down that night, enter the encampment and stand with the students with the hope that maybe these people would think twice before attacking a group of faculty members,” said Branstetter, who is also the statewide vice president for the lecturer’s unit—Unit 18—in UC-AFT, the union representing lecturers and librarians on UC campuses. He was taken downtown for processing and released around 6:00 the next morning. But, Branstetter stressed, students faced worse—bone fractures and pepper spray, for example.

In addition to having previously passed a ceasefire resolution regarding the Israel-Hamas war (as the national UAW and UAW 4811 both did), UC-AFT, echoed a Local 4811 strategy by filing an Unfair Labor Practice charge against the UC, the same day Gradoni got arrested at UCI.

According to the charging document, UCLA had violated its own policy, adopted in 2021, to “minimize police presence at protests, follow de-escalation methods in the event of violence and seek non-urgent mutual aid first from UC campuses before calling outside law enforcement agencies.”

“I think the most important thing is to ensure that university campuses remain places where free speech is not just tolerated but encouraged and respected,” Branstetter said. In that vein, he and UC-AFT president Katie Rodger took a trip to Washington to speak in response to a hearing by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on actions taken by the UCLA chancellor, who has since been replaced.

“The big thing for most of our members is that our students are getting beat up and attacked,” noted Josh Brahinsky, a lecturer at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) and the UC-AFT statewide vice president for organizing. “A lot of our members have been at these protests as observers, as legal observers or [they have been] trying to keep an eye so that people don’t get hurt. Because we think it’s important that people be able to express themselves without being attacked.”

Stand-Up Strike

Graduate student workers on Brahinsky’s campus initiated the UAW 4811 stand-up strike when they walked off the job on May 20. The stand-up strike approach, a new iteration of the sit-down strike tactic the UAW used in the 1930s, allows for flexibility and continued escalation as needed, which is why the union used it to put pressure on the “Big Three” automakers to agree to contract demands in 2023.

The first day was like “a big, festive celebration of solidarity,” Brahinsky said. Later, the encampment and strike shut down the campus for two days, and a standoff with law enforcement ensued, resulting in the arrest of at least 80 people.

Workers at Santa Cruz have “a serious perspective on striking,” said Jess Fournier, a teaching assistant, PhD student in feminist studies, and UAW 4811 member at UCSC.

“We think it’s important that people be able to express themselves without being attacked.”

“The strength of the strike is in people withholding their labor,” Fournier added, “but the picket, of course, also serves this really important function of being visible, of bringing people together, of creating a real sense that it’s not just you isolated not going to teach your section or not submitting grades, it’s also all of us together.”

Community Solidarity

While on strike, Rebecca Gross, a PhD student in the literature department and a teaching assistant at UCSC, said there had been organic solidarity among union members who had camped out and participated in demonstrations.

Undergraduate workers who are members of her union also helped, she said. “A lot of them work in our strike kitchen,” she said. “A lot of them walk the picket with me in the mornings and afternoons.”

Student dining service workers who are trying to unionize on the Santa Cruz campus also called for people to pack the picket lines, and they shared information on how community members could support the strike.

Members of the Student Dining Workers Union were involved in the encampment too, Gross said. They encouraged people to rally for divestment and better wages instead of war and implored people to protect the encampment at UCSC when police showed up.

At UCSC, academic workers in the astronomy department also pledged to refuse funding from weapons makers, military contractors, and the Department of Defense. They penned an open letter calling on “the University of California to divest its money from apartheid, genocide, and militarism.” Overall, the UC system received $333 million from the Department of Defense last year.

Statewide, AFSCME 3299, which represents over 30,000 service employees, patient care technical workers, and craft workers throughout the UC system, posted its own statement of solidarity.

UC-AFT released a form for lecturers, who remained under contract and thus couldn’t legally strike, to pledge to not perform labor otherwise done by graduate student workers.

The strike spread to the UCLA and UC Davis campuses on May 28 and to UCI, UC Santa Barbara, and UC San Diego on June 3.

For their part, undergraduates at UC San Diego (UCSD) who work at the student food co-op supported striking UAW members by giving them food for half price when the strike came to UCSD. They also collected bread, water, and snack donations to support strikers and promoted a food fund for those picketing.

According to Jasmine Rebollar, a third-year aquatic biology major at UC Santa Barbara, undergraduate workers in the midst of a union drive and seeking to affiliate with the UAW have worked in concert with Students for Justice in Palestine and the Jewish Voice for Peace chapters.

Rebollar, who is part of the Student Assistant Labor United-UAW (SALU-UAW) organizing committee, said she and others provided strike support and education for undergraduates about why teaching assistants were striking and how students could support them. In addition to showing up to the picket lines and entreating students to pledge to do the same, SALU-UAW organizers have done classroom outreach.

“We email professors,” Rebollar said during the strike. “We have a template. And then we’re like, ‘Hey, can I talk to your class?’ Most professors were receptive [to] that.”

The Strike Ends, the Struggle Continues

After the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB)—the state equivalent of the National Labor Relations Board—twice rejected UC requests for an injunction to halt the rolling strike, university attorneys got the Orange County Superior Court to issue a temporary restraining order on June 7, which enjoined UAW 4811 members to cease strike activities. The restraining order came just days after PERB’s general counsel issued a complaint affirming that the UC “interfered with employee rights guaranteed by the Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act,” given events that took place at UCLA, UCI, and UCSD.

Gradoni, who anticipated the UC’s persistence in trying to thwart the strike, reiterated his union’s belief in a “just transition” through workplace democracy that could empower employees to do labor that benefits people instead of contributing to human misery.

“My fellow workers in UAW 4811 are…ready to hold the UC to account,” Gradoni said, later adding: “We’re going to…make sure that the sweat and toil of our workers never again goes to the promotion of war and genocide.”