A system-wide strike by graduate assistants at the University of California commenced yesterday with what their union calls an ugly irony. The work stoppage, staged in protest of past alleged attempts by UC to intimidate graduate workers for labor organizing, was quickly met with what workers say was a further attempt at intimidation: The arrest of 20 students at UC Santa Cruz who were picketing early Wednesday morning.
As Working In These Times has reported previously, graduate assistants are one of several groups of workers who have been locked in intensifying labor battles with the UC system, which has been hit hard by nearly $1 billion in budget cuts during the past five years. In November, graduate student workers struck in solidarity with campus service workers, a rare labor action that is prohibited by most union contracts and that was enabled only by the expiration of the UAW’s contract earlier that month. The union says that since then, the university system has engaged in a “pattern of intimidation” against members who participate in labor actions on UC campuses, threatening that striking could result in loss of jobs and even, for foreign students, loss of visas.
The United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865, which represents 12,000 UC academic student employees, announced last month that it would stage a two-day strike on April 2 and 3 over allegations of unfair labor practices (ULP) by the university. After graduate assistants at UCSC and two other campuses walked off the job yesterday morning, five strikers and 15 undergraduate supporters were arrested as they picketed at the UCSC campus’ west entrance, according to the union. A union spokesperson said that two additional arrests of undergraduates had occurred today, in a situation that was still developing as Working In These Times went to press.
Josh Brahinsky, a seventh-year UCSC doctoral student and union officer who was the first person arrested Wednesday, spoke with Working In These Times following his release. “This is a premeditated attack on workers for legal picketing, and it’s very much in line with the unfair labor practices that the strike was all about,” he said. Picketing by employees during strikes and a number of other circumstances is protected in most instances by the National Labor Relations Act.
Spokespeople for the university have said that the students were arrested as they attempted to block auto entrances to campus. During several previous demonstrations at UCSC — including student protests against tuition hikes in 2012, as well as a strike by UC patient care and service workers in 2013 — demonstrators have effectively shut down UCSC’s campus by blocking off entrances, leading university officials to close most campus buildings. But Brahinsky denies that he was blocking traffic at the time of his arrest yesterday, saying that cars were passing picketers and “there was no question as to whether people had access to campus.” A video shot by a union supporter shows Brahinsky attempting to traverse a crosswalk, telling police, “I’m a union leader, and I’m trying to picket,” before being arrested.
He and other union members allege instead that the response of campus police was a calculated one intended to intimidate strikers and their supporters. They claim that a line of police in riot gear, as well as a police van used to transport arrestees, were already present and waiting as students began picketing. According to the union, the arrestees were variously cited with such allegations as failing to disperse, being a pedestrian in a roadway and remaining at the scene of a riot. As of Wednesday evening, all 20 individuals had been released.
(Spokespeople for UCSC had not responded to calls or e-mails requesting comment by the time Working In These Times went to press).
This month’s ULP strike was called in response to an incident in February, when a group of graduate student instructors at UCSC say they were told by the director of the university’s writing program, “If you strike, you will not work in this program again” in response to a potential strike over grievances. The UAW alleges that UC has attempted to intimidate or retaliate against union members engaging in legally protected activities in several other instances. During the November strike, management at UCLA allegedly told international graduate students that striking could result in the loss of their work visas, and the vice chancellor of UC Berkeley told deans that the strike was “illegal” and asked them to tell workers that “they must meet their scheduled teaching responsibilities.” The UAW has filed unfair labor practices complaints over this and other incidents with the Public Employment Relations Board and is awaiting a ruling.
Meanwhile, the graduate student workers’ union is locked in a tussle with UC over its contract, which expired in November. The union says that the university system has refused to bargain over the issue of class size, which graduate student workers would like to see reduced, and has also filed a ULP on this count. A report released by the union last fall contends that while UC administrators have rationalized dwindling financial support for graduate students and soaring class sizes as cost-cutting measures, the university system’s strata of upper-level administrators has swelled, and the number of individuals earning more than $200,000 per year in base pay increased by 44 percent between 2008 and 2011. Meanwhile, according to the union, graduate students at UC typically make between $17,000-$18,000 annually for their work as part-time instructors.
Given their low pay, many graduate instructors believe they have common cause with campus service workers, and last fall’s sympathy strike was hailed by UC unions as a “historic moment for campus solidarity.” Since then, other campus unions have made some gains in their own contract fights. Though campus unions say they were excluded from the decision leading to the appointment of new UC President Janet Napolitano last year — and many students and workers protested her appointment given her former role as the secretary of Homeland Security — they also hoped that she would “restore the spirit of cooperation and respect” to labor relations in the UC system.
In March, 13,000 UC hospital technical workers represented by AFSCME 3299 secured a new contract after issuing a strike threat. The month before, custodians, gardeners and food service workers represented by AFSCME also won their contract fight. The L.A. Times reported, “the two settlements with AFSCME represents a big step in UC President Janet Napolitano’s goal of bringing an era of labor peace to the university; seven other unions, including nurses, previously settled contracts with UC since Napolitano became president six months ago.”
Given this week’s arrests, however, UC graduate students are skeptical over whether such an era is truly dawning. The response from police and administrators “doesn’t look like how you get labor peace at the UC,” says Brian Malone, a UCSC Ph.D. candidate in literature and spokesperson for the union.
Nevertheless, he says that graduate students at all nine UC campuses are gearing up for the second day of the strike. Given the arrests, he hopes that faculty and other campus allies will also mobilize in support of graduate student workers’ cause: “Here we are on a strike that’s about a pattern of worker intimidation, and [the administration] decided to continue and escalate that pattern.”
Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.