California Scheming

The University of California’s only response to successful labor organizing is violence and intimidation.

So it’s come to this: the University of California is now arresting striking workers, their leaders and supporters for legally sanctioned labor activity.

A union leader arrived at UC-Santa Cruz in the pre-dawn hours with dozens of union members and student activists to set up a picket line for a strike. A large battalion of police officers were already there when they arrived — in riot gear and with wagons standing by. The picketers were almost immediately are confronted by the police.

As can be seen in this video, a union leader approaches a group of ten or so officers, talking to them calmly, identifying himself, explaining what the workers and students are doing and why they have a right to be there. They are not blocking traffic, and in fact are on the campus of a state university.

The police tell the union leader, “This is your final warning.” The representative tells them, again calmly, that he will move back, as instructed. He is immediately grabbed by several officers and thrown to the ground. They handcuff him with a zip cord and push him all the way onto the ground, face down. He screams in pain as the others look on in horror. He’s taken off to the wagon.

Shortly after, nineteen more are taken to jail. Many are treated roughly by the police, despite offering no resistance. They are held for ten hours, the duration of the first day’s strike, and then released with absurdly harsh charges. The following day, two additional supporters are arrested.

These events occurred last week during a statewide unfair labor practice strike by my union, UAW 2865, the UC Student-Workers Union, which represents 13,000 teaching assistants, tutors and readers at the University of California.

The strike itself had been called to protest illegal intimidation and surveillance by management. Since we began our contract campaign last June, and especially since we called a strike in solidarity with UC service workers protesting illegal intimidation against their members in the fall, UC management has launched a sustained campaign of intimidation and threats against UAW members.

Examples are numerous. In the days preceding the solidarity strike last fall, UCLA management illegally warned international student workers that striking could mean the loss of their visas. At UC Berkeley, the Vice Chancellor informed management that the strike was illegal and asked that they tell workers “they must meet their scheduled teaching responsibilities.”

During the fall solidarity strike itself, UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz police filmed union members striking — even though it’s unlawful under labor law for employers to film protected activities undertaken by employees. In the week preceding a potential grievance strike at UC Santa Cruz this spring (later called off because of a successful resolution), the director of the Writing Program went as far as to threaten UAW members, telling them they would not work again in his department if they participated in the upcoming strike.

What we’re dealing with in California is a kind of Walmartization of labor relations at the nation’s premiere public university system. An open letter from Santa Cruz faculty members called the response at Santa Cruz “a draconian approach to student political actions and labor actions, and [. . .] a dramatic escalation of confrontation on the part of the administration.”

For those of us who have been engaged in the fight to keep our university truly public and accessible in recent years, these actions on the part of management seem to be in line with their broader approach to student dissent, which has included, for example, the infamous police beatings and mass arrests of student protesters at Berkeley and the mass pepper spraying of student protesters at Davis during the Occupy Movement.

Why target Santa Cruz this time around? The Santa Cruz unit of our union is among the best-organized and most militant, and Santa Cruz undergraduates have developed an impressive organization to support campus workers. Just last month, UAW members at the school were prepared to go on strike in solidarity with a small group of workers in the math and art history departments who were engaged in grievance disputes. The grievance in the math department was especially significant: The department had begun to hire undergraduates to do the work of graduate student teaching assistants, at a fraction of the pay, with no benefits or union representation.

By threatening to strike, the union won back pay of $6,000 for each semester worked for each of the twenty-eight undergraduate student workers. This kind of real, effective solidarity built on strong relationships between graduate student and undergraduates, as well as other campus workers, has led to the administration engaging in the kinds of repressive over-reaches that we saw last week.

We know from the last few years that the university consistently overplays its hand when it knows it’s losing. It’s at those moments when consent to the administration’s line breaks down — during building occupations, mass protests, strikes, and other actions which radically disrupt the normal functioning of the university — that the strong arm of police violence and legal repression comes in to make up the difference.

Of course, the university has the money to afford these kinds of actions. They know that we are far out-resourced and have to divert organizing time, energy, and money into defending students and workers against outlandish attacks rather than focusing on our primary organizing objectives. But as we’ve seen repeatedly, the university cannot afford these kinds of actions politically.

After the arrests last week, UC administrators were inundated with phone calls from supporters around the country — from autoworkers from the Midwest to graduate student union activists from as far afield as Amherst, Chicago, New York, Ohio, and Madison. Coupled with the spotlight on the university’s actions by the media, it could not have been a very pleasant week for management.

The strike itself was a success statewide and showed the administration that our members are capable of defending themselves. With any luck, the university bosses will start to realize that they’ve overplayed their hand and it’s time to settle a decent contract for student-workers.