UC academic workers fight back against illegal retaliation

In the largest strike in the history of U.S. higher education, 48,000 UAW-represented academic workers at the University of California went on strike for 40 days in late 2022. They won historic and industry-setting contracts, including major wage increases of up to 80%, new protections against abusive supervisors, and expanded paid family leave and child care subsidies. Now, seven months after the strike, the workers are facing retaliation and intransigence from university administration. 

Rather than following the agreed-upon contracts, UC administration has failed to meet its end of the bargain, resulting in missing pay, job cuts, misclassification, and unaddressed workplace harassment. In response, workers have filed grievances and engaged in direct action protests to enforce their newly-won rights. 

While contract violations have stretched across the 10-campus UC system, one campus — UC San Diego — has responded to worker protests with illegal retaliation and attempts to criminalize peaceful protests. This retaliation started during the strike itself when several professors attempted to punish striking teaching and research assistants by issuing them failing grades. After filing grievances and unfair labor practices over this retaliation in January, workers marched on the boss to confront these professors in their classrooms. UCSD then doubled down by issuing “student conduct violations” against union members who led the protest for “disruption of university activities,” charges that could lead to suspension or expulsion. 

These unilateral charges are an attempt to evade the protections against unfair discipline in the workers’ union contracts by charging them under the student code of conduct, and represent a clear attempt by the university to union bust through criminalizing protest and targeting union leadership. They also harken back to UC’s decades-long — and ultimately failed — attempts to deny teaching and research assistants collective bargaining rights by claiming they were students, not workers. 

Undeterred, UCSD workers again demonstrated in early May at an awards ceremony hosted by UCSD  Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, who recently received a massive $500,000 raise and whose tenure has been marked by massive rent hikes in student housing. Kholsa himself has faced multiple allegations of harassment, discrimination and bullying. The workers jumped on the dais and interrupted Kholsa at the ceremony attended by millionaire donors to demand that UCSD fairly implement their contracts and handed the Chancellor a “Most Overpaid Worker” award. Khosla accepted the award awkwardly and walked off the stage. In response, UCSD charged 59 additional workers with student conduct violations, including false charges of “physical assault.” 

UCSD’s retaliatory actions took another outrageous turn on June 29 when UCSD police arrested three UCSD union leaders — two graduate students and one postdoc. The arrests were allegedly for a free speech protest a month earlier where workers wrote slogans such as “Livable Wages Now” on the outside wall of a concrete UCSD building with washable chalk. The arrested workers have faced thousands of dollars in wage theft due to UCSD failing to follow the new contracts. 

In addition to being held overnight without charges, while in custody the workers were handcuffed to chairs and held in cells smeared with feces and blood. UCSD police also searched their homes, confiscated their phones and laptops. Search warrants left in the workers’ homes included language targeting union membership in UAW and AFSCME, which represent UC service workers and have also been engaging in direct action protests: “Evidence of membership or affiliation with any university organization, paraphernalia to include any reference to “UAW” or “AFSCME” and any drawings, writings, objects or graffiti depicting names, initials, logos, monikers, slogans or mention of UAW or AFSCME membership or affiliation, activity or identity.”

It is clear that the arrests and police repression are an attempt to intimidate, threaten and criminalize worker protest, and union affiliation itself, amidst a pro-labor surge in academia. These attacks on basic freedom of expression and union rights shows the lengths that UC will go to avoid treating workers fairly.

But UC’s attempts to intimidate have backfired, leading to renewed mobilization among union members and the community outraged by the UC’s egregious attempts to repress union activity with their own private police force. A week after the initial arrests, over 300 workers along with many allies, including PSL members, rallied outside the San Diego Central Courthouse, where the three workers were set to be arraigned. The morning of the protest, the District Attorney announced that UCSD had failed to submit evidence in time, so the arraignments could not yet be processed. Charges could still be brought, but this may suggest that UC is having second thoughts on moving forward with criminalizing union activity. 

Another large picket line and 400-person rally took place on July 18 in San Francisco, where the UC Regents were holding their quarterly meeting. UAW members were again joined by other UC unions and many allies, including PSL members. The protesters demanded that all student conduct and criminal charges be dropped immediately and that UC implements the contracts. 

Also joining the rally were members of UNITE HERE Local 11, which is on strike at dozens of LA-area hotels including the Laguna Hills Marriott, which is owned by the UC-controlled pension fund. Striking workers at the Marriott have faced violence on the picket line from hotel patrons and discriminatory hiring practices from hotel management. UNITE HERE members demanded that UC Regents act to ensure safety on the picket and agree to a fair contract immediately. 

In the face of UC’s attempts to union bust through criminalizing protest and targeting union leadership, UAW members have made it clear that they will continue to escalate pressure until all retaliation stops and UC agrees to follow the contracts. 

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