Friday, July 19, 2024

NewsSportsArtsOpinionThe QuadPhotoVideoIllustrationsCartoonsGraphicsThe StackPRIMEEnterpriseInteractivesPodcastsBruinwalkClassifieds

Op-ed: UC offers deceptive claims about illegality of strike in letter to union members

By Noah D. Zatz

May 16, 2024 4:26 p.m.

Within minutes of United Auto Workers Local 4811’s historic vote yesterday to authorize a strike against the University of California, the UC blasted out a threatening and misleading letter to all union members – teaching assistants, graduate student researchers, postdocs and academic researchers. The letter’s core claim is that the UAW strike is illegal under the current collective bargaining agreements between the UAW and the UC.

If that were true, the UC would be permitted to engage in strikebreaking activity that is typically illegal during a protected strike. In particular, the UC threatens to punish striking workers with what it euphemistically refers to as “corrective action.”

The UC’s argument may be superficially convincing to those not versed in labor law, though those drafting and approving UC’s anti-union missives surely lack that excuse. But the UC’s analysis is bluster.

In short, the UC letter asserts that a strike would violate the no-strike clause in the UAW-UC contract. That sounds obvious, but in fact, a longstanding and deeply entrenched body of labor law says otherwise. The key idea is that no-strike clauses generally serve a specific function: they channel disputes about violations of labor agreements into a binding grievance and arbitration process rather than into disruptive strikes. If the UAW had voted to strike over an alleged UC contract breach or for a better contract, that would have gone against the no-strike clause. But they did not. They voted to strike over something else.

The UAW vote authorizes what is known as an unfair labor practice strike, or a ULP. The UAW alleges that the UC violated its members’ rights under California’s Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act. The UC did so by allowing a violent mob to attack the Palestine solidarity encampment April 30 and then calling in a massive police attack the next day to accomplish what the mob had failed to do: shut down the encampment.

Although the UC’s letter expresses mystification at what any of this has to do with employment, the connection should be obvious: the UC is a workplace. Many people demonstrating at the encampment on our campus, who were then subject to violence by the UC, were UC employees, whether undergraduate, graduate, staff or faculty workers – including UAW Local 4811 members.

Moreover, the UAW identifies several protest demands that in turn address how the UC’s conduct shapes its workplace. These include “opposing the discrimination and hostile work environment directed towards Palestinian, Muslim, and pro-Palestine Jewish employees and students” and “opposing the University’s disparate negative treatment of employee pro-Palestine speech.” This comes along with the signature demands for the disclosure of and divestment from their employer’s financial interests in Israel’s war on Gaza, including military-funded research on which UAW members must work. The UAW charges that by allowing or instigating violence against the encampment, the UC retaliated for and interfered with members’ HEERA-protected right to act collectively and challenge their employer’s policies and practices.

The UAW’s charge alleges other ULPs and has recently expanded to include UC actions at UC San Diego and UC Irvine. UC-AFT has also announced a ULP filing on behalf of UC lecturers, and other UC workers may have similar claims.

Whether or not the UAW is correct in its ULP charge will no doubt be litigated and ultimately decided by the California Public Employment Relations Board or PERB, as is routinely the case in labor disputes. But what’s remarkable about the UC’s letter is its claim that the merits of the ULP are irrelevant. Instead, the UC argues that even if it did commit the charged ULPs, the UAW still is barred from striking over them. This is where the sleight of hand comes in.

Consider the following contract language:

“The Union agrees that during the term of this agreement, there shall be no interference of any kind with the operations of the employers, or any interruptions or slackening of production of work by any of its members. The Union further agrees to refrain from engaging in any strike or work stoppage during the term of this agreement.”

“Any interruptions.” “Any strike or work stoppage.” Sounds airtight, doesn’t it? Not so fast. This is the exact union contract language from the famous labor law case that went before the United States Supreme Court, Mastro Plastics Corp. v. National Labor Relations Board. And in the Mastro Plastics case, it was ruled that this clause did not waive the union’s right to strike over ULPs.

In the decades that have followed, a large body of labor law has developed the idea that even broad no-strike clauses with terms like “any strike” generally do not preclude strikes over issues outside the contract itself, including serious ULP strikes and sympathy strikes. To reach that far, more specific contract language is needed.

Of course, you wouldn’t know any of that from the UC letter. Instead, it simply quotes a UC-UAW no-strike clause – which contains broad language like the contract in Mastro Plastics – and asks you to draw the superficially plausible conclusion that decades of labor law rejects. Importantly, the no-strike clauses at issue here omit any reference to ULP strikes, even though they get quite specific about other components.

Mastro Plastics and its progeny are creatures of federal labor law for the private sector, and what ultimately matters here is California’s HEERA. There hasn’t yet been a HEERA or other California public sector labor law case where the PERB has had to decide squarely whether to adopt the Mastro Plastics approach to ULP strikes. However, the PERB frequently finds federal labor law highly persuasive when addressing open questions. Moreover, the PERB has already invoked the Mastro Plastics doctrine and its rationale in order to shield sympathy strikes from general no-strike language. This strongly suggests that the PERB would do the same for ULP strikes like the UAW’s.

In short, the UC’s letter is all bark and no bite on its central point. And as we move toward this historic strike, there also is a broader moral to this story: Do not take at face value self-serving communications from the UC.

Noah D. Zatz is a professor of law and labor studies at UCLA.

Share this story:FacebookTwitterRedditEmail
Noah D. Zatz
Featured Classifieds
Apartments for Rent

WESTWOOD VILLAGE Large 1BR 1 Bath $2,700 (includes 1 parking space). Available now. Beautifully landscaped courtyard building, laundry room, pool, elevator, subterranean garage. 691 Levering Avenue (310) 208-3647

More classifieds »
Related Posts