UAW 4811 authorizes strike across UC campuses defending right to protest for Palestine

Photo: Police crack down on student protestors at UC Irvine. Credit: Liberation photo

On May 15, 2024 — the 76th anniversary of the Nakba — UAW 4811 members across the University of California took the historic step to authorize a strike in defense of workers’ rights to peacefully protest in support of Palestine. 20,000 workers participated in the vote with a week’s notice, with 80% voting yes. The decision to call for a strike authorization vote was made by the union in response to the brutal state-sanctioned assault on the Gaza Solidarity Encampment at UCLA, where a mob of Zionists assaulted a peaceful gathering of students and workers with tear gas, mace, explosives, and blunt objects. Various law enforcement agencies stood by for hours as the attack continued unabated, only to conduct a violent sweep on the encampment the following day, firing rubber bullets and flashbangs at protestors. Over 200 students, workers, faculty and community members were arrested for exercising their right to free speech and protest. At the University of California, San Diego, dozens of students and workers were also attacked and arrested by law enforcement during a peaceful encampment protest on May 6.

The strike vote comes on the heels of the nationwide campus movement of Palestine solidarity encampments which was initially sparked by Columbia University students. The encampments themselves were a major advance of the broader movement for a free Palestine which has seen millions of Americans take to the streets in defiance of the United States government’s unconditional support of Israel’s genocidal bombing and siege of Gaza. Despite the fact that the majority of Americans oppose U.S. foreign policy, the students leading the encampment movement have been demonized by the mainstream media and relentlessly attacked by law enforcement agencies across the country.

In the face of this repression, the student movement has been steadfast in their solidarity with Palestinian resistance and in continuing to challenge imperialism within the belly of the beast. But this movement has done even more. The strike vote taken by UAW 4811 highlights how the student encampments have altered the terrain of struggle so that organized labor can now take decisive action in support of Palestine. Unionized university workers across the country have taken part in the encampments, and made explicit calls in support of the broader movement for Palestine. Elected leaders of academic worker unions at Columbia, MIT, USC, the University of California and more have been at the frontlines of the dramatic encampment struggles, experiencing firsthand — and at their workplace no less —  the draconian repressive measures taken by right-wing Zionist mobs, university administration and the state. The scale of violence at UCLA and UCSD in particular provided the immediate spark for UAW 4811’s historic decision to authorize a strike, but there is also a wider context which empowered the workers of UAW 4811 to take action.

In November of 2022, workers in UAW 2865, UAW 5810 and Student Researchers United (all now amalgamated into UAW 4811), launched the largest strike in the history of US higher education, which would last for over a month. The contract campaign was meticulously planned and coordinated for months, organizing mass turnout, participation and militancy amongst the 48,000 workers represented across the then-different unions, winning industry-setting benefits and protections. Union members then had to deal with the administration’s refusal to uphold the agreement, which culminated in the arrest of three workers at UCSD in June of 2023 who were peacefully protesting the university’s violation of the workers’ hard won contract. With an already militant and organized membership, the union launched and eventually won a statewide campaign to drop the illegal retaliatory charges. In summary, militant labor organizing was not new to UAW 4811.

Neither was standing against the criminal Israeli occupation of Palestine new to 4811. A few days after the Palestinian resistance launched a major counter-offensive against the occupying forces, the executive board of the graduate student-worker union issued a statement unequivocally condemning “the decades-long violent occupation of Palestine” which led to the events of Oct. 7, and called for “dismantling of the occupation and apartheid system in Israel-Palestine.” They did so citing the historic example of unions who took courageous positions against the war in Vietnam and apartheid in South Africa A month later, the presidents of both UAW 2865 and 5810 (now merged into 4811) were amongst the chief signers of the ANSWER Coalition’s letter calling on labor leaders to push for an end to the war on Gaza, and the cutting of aid to Israel. This came to a head on Dec. 1, when the UAW International Executive Board became the largest union in the country to call for a permanent ceasefire, doing so in a press conference in front of the White House led by Region 9A director Brandon Mancilla. By the time the mass movement in solidarity with the Palestinian people had reached UCLA in a major escalation within the national context of a burgeoning student movement —  the encampments —  academic workers organized with UAW 4811 had already staked a clear position in solidarity with the righteous struggle of Palestinians, and had the infrastructure to mobilize its members in the face of university repression. This example is an important lesson to the rest of the labor movement in the United States.

The authorization of a strike in defense of workers rights to protest in support of Palestine is a major step forward for the U.S. labor movement and its ability to take clear anti-imperialist positions. Palestine is a moral issue, yes, but the actions and words of UAW 4811 show clearly that it is a worker’s issue as well. In a statement passed a week before the UAW IEB called for a permanent ceasefire, the unions’ executive board declared that “it is only natural that the international working class would take up the cause of the Palestinian people in Gaza” and reiterated that “instead of subsidizing violence, the Biden administration must fund the needs of working people.” As billions of dollars of U.S.-made and funded weapons kill thousands of Palestinians, the leadership of UAW 4811 has long articulated clearly that the issue of Palestine is an issue which has a direct impact on the US working class. The particularities of the university as a space, combined with the recent rise of militant and highly organized academic worker unions across the country, made this historic moment possible. But ultimately, such a bold decision requires political clarity and will from union leadership, which UAW 4811 has been a consistent example of. Now that university administrations across the country and the law enforcement agencies they work hand-in-hand with have clearly cast their lot with the genocidal pariah state of Israel and effectively criminalized peaceful protest, unions —  particularly those on college campuses —  such as UAW 4811 have an opportunity to enter the movement by withholding their labor. UAW workers actions represent just the beginning of a larger shift within the labor movement, and the wider anti-imperialist movement in the United States.

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