University of California is Cracking Down on Workers and DissentRoundup
tags: University of California, labor, academic labor
RAFAEL JAIME is a graduate student worker in the English department at UCLA and is also the president of UAW 2865, the union representing 36,000 teaching assistants, graduate student researchers, tutors and readers in the University of California system.
Just before the Fourth of July weekend, postdoctoral scholar Jessica Ng, graduate student William Schneider, and another graduate student at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), were arrested by campus police on charges of felony vandalism over $400 and conspiracy to commit a crime. They were arrested at their homes (where their personal items were confiscated including keys, phones and at least one computer), taken to San Diego county jails, and held overnight on $20,000 bail each.
Their crime? Allegedly writing slogans like “Living Wage Now” on a concrete campus building — in washable markers and chalk — during a peaceful protest almost a month earlier.
This is a dramatic escalation in the ongoing fight between thousands of academic workers and their employer, the University of California (UC). You are probably familiar with a related fight: our six week strike in 2022 that mobilized 48,000 workers across 10 campuses in the UC system. That action won contracts that provide raises of up to 80%, double the length of parental leave for most workers, and provide protections against abuse — but those protections only work if the employer actually abides by them.
The UC has spent all of 2023 trying to circumvent our contracts. They’ve failed to pay many of us our raises (Ng says she is owed over $3,500), canceled promotions, and given new postdocs appointments half as long as the contract calls for. When workers have filed grievances, they’ve sometimes labeled them “ineligible for processing” and spent months stalling. And when Ng, Schneider and their coworker (who did not want to be identified) reminded them of their legal obligation to obey the contracts — that is, when they engaged in the protected activity of a peaceful protest — they were arrested for their trouble. These workers were charged with felonies for exercising their right to protest.
“This is, in my opinion, very clearly part of a larger coordinated crackdown of union activities across the UC,” Schneider told KPBS News over Zoom. “UC has systematically tried to renege on the contract they signed with UAW and the graduate student researchers union.”
We won our contract through a campaign of protest. Between November 14 and December 23, 2022, we occupied UCLA’s Luskin Conference Center, UC Riverside’s Hinderaker Hall, and the University Office of the President in Oakland. We picketed outside a black-tie dinner at UC President Michael Drake’s $6.5 million mansion. We kayaked out to UC mega-donor Donald Bren’s private island. A crack team even snuck into a Board of Regents meeting to confront UC’s governance face to face. Each wave of direct action led to movement in our direction in bargaining. We wouldn’t have won without freedom of expression and the right to protest.
UC’s administrators must have come to the same conclusion. At the end of the strike, graduate student researchers (GSRs) came back to work to find that the UC had given many of them unsatisfactory grades in their “research credits,” curricular cover for lab work that no GSR could have performed without crossing a picket line. After workers at UCSD handed their chancellor a “Most Overpaid Worker” award at a $100,000 awards ceremony, UCSD administration filed student conduct charges against some 60 people, more than a dozen of whom weren’t even at the ceremony, and hung the threat of expulsion over them. UC is trying to ignore binding contracts, decades of labor law protecting concerted activity, and the Bill of Rights itself.