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Bruins in Paris

Op-ed: UCLA administration’s failures warrant union strike authorization

By Rafael Jaime

May 15, 2024 2:41 p.m.

This week, the University of California’s 48,000 academic workers – including teaching assistants, tutors, postdoctoral scholars, academic researchers and more, all represented by United Auto Workers 4811 – are voting on whether or not to authorize the union’s executive board to call a strike if circumstances justify.

We did not come to this decision lightly.

Our workers perform the bulk of teaching and research across the UC’s 10 campuses and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and withholding our labor is the last and final effort we can make to defend our rights. After the events of April 30 and May 1, when the university brutally suppressed peaceful protests and violated our right to free speech, protest and collective action, we are left with no other choice.

The events of those nights have been well documented by the New York Times, the Daily Bruin and a myriad of other outlets and are not in dispute.

A group of students and workers – myself included – were peacefully protesting for a ceasefire in Gaza and for UCLA to make a set of workplace-related changes. This includes giving employees the ability to opt out of funding sources that profit off war efforts, similar to a financial conscientious objector status. It also formally opposes the discrimination that many Palestinian, Muslim and Jewish employees and students who support the goals of divestiture and a ceasefire have experienced in the workplace, along with the University’s disparate negative treatment of pro-Palestine speech.

On April 30, we were physically attacked by an organized group of violent anti-Palestine aggressors. I spent hours trying to defend the encampment as a group of men maced and beat people around me. The violence was calculated and designed to instill terror. They shot fireworks into the encampment that burned our skin and sprayed choking clouds of bear mace into our faces. Dozens of us ended up in the hospital.

The UCLA administration had many options at this point. They could have protected peaceful protesters from attacks or chosen to de-escalate the situation and negotiate with protesters, as Brown, Northwestern and UC Riverside have done. But the next night, they chose instead to send police in riot gear to tear down the Palestine solidarity encampment and use stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse protesters.

In all these instances, UCLA administration’s response violated their obligations to protect students and workers’ right to free speech and freedom from discrimination for their political viewpoints. Under existing university policy, employees have the right to engage in peaceful protest on campus.

UCLA made it painfully clear they would not honor those rights at the Palestine solidarity encampment at UCLA, and in doing so, violated their policy of content neutrality toward speech by favoring those engaged in anti-Palestine speech over those engaged in pro-Palestine speech.

Similar crackdowns have taken place at pro-Palestine encampments at UC San Diego and UC Irvine. At UCLA, more than 200 students, workers and faculty have been arrested, and many of them are members of our union.

The double injustice that many of them now face – criminal charges in addition to disciplinary charges from the university that could affect their ability to access campus housing, attend classes and keep their on-campus jobs – is the result of University administration’s retaliation against workers engaged in peaceful protest. In other words, it is another attempt to crush freedom of speech.

At the heart of this strike authorization vote is our right to free speech and to peaceful protest without fear of intimidation and reprisal by our very own university. If students and academic workers are maced and beaten down for peacefully demonstrating on this issue, our ability to speak up on any issue is at risk.

Academic workers at UC have a deep commitment to free speech, and as union members, we know that any infringement on our right to collective action threatens all the rights and benefits we’ve won in our union’s 25-year history. We have an obligation – legal and moral – to take action now in order to defend our fundamental rights.

You may not agree with our position to call for a ceasefire in Gaza, an opinion that our membership voted by more than 91% to support in January, but I am hopeful that all of us can agree every person has the right to speak safely and freely, and to speak up for change – and that when those rights are threatened – we have the right to stand up and fight back.

Rafael Jaime is a graduate student worker in the English department at UCLA and president of UAW 4811, the union representing 48,000 academic workers across the University of California.

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