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University of California workers lead largest academic strike in US history

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The largest higher education strike in history is taking place at the University of California, as 48,000 academic workers stopped working on Monday to bargain for better working conditions. These workers have been increasingly under financial stress with the high living costs in the area and nationwide inflation.

The Members United unions representing them — UAW 5810, UAW 2865 and the newly-formed SRU-UAW — allege that the university has unlawfully made changes to working conditions without negotiating and obstructed the bargaining process that would have led to a contract addressing these issues. In response to the unlawful obstruction of the bargaining process, the unions have filed unfair labor practice charges with the Public Employment Relations Board, which has investigated and filed complaints against the university.

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A supermajority of UC workers represented by these unions — over 35,000 of the 48,000 total workers — voted to authorize the strike and have not performed their work duties, such as teaching and research, since its start on Monday. They have, however, participated in picket lines around the campuses to raise awareness of their struggle. Strike captains have also been appointed to check people in and out of the picket lines and striking workers have tabled on the campuses to sign other strikers up for strike pay.

UC undergraduates have been vocal in their support of the striking academic workers, and many have joined the picket lines. The group Cops Off UC Campuses has organized picket line events in solidarity with strikers, such as a cyber security and citizen media workshop and a conversation on the intersection of anti-carceral organizing and the labor movement. It has been reported that in Oakland only 3 percent of students and 10 percent of professors crossed the picket line.

Other workers, such as UPS drivers in southern California and construction workers at UC Berkeley, have also engaged in actions to support the strike. Some UPS drivers are refusing to deliver packages to UC campuses during the strike, and construction workers who were working on a project at Berkeley walked off the job after speaking with strike graduate workers.

Many undergraduates have called for an entire shutdown of campus until the UC system meets workers’ demands and have urged other student to not attend classes, including Zoom classes. However, some professors have responded by weighting attendance in retaliation for students joining the picket lines. Strikers who spoke to me allege that the university has also responded by threatening students, implying that striking international students may lose their visas because of their work status.

Other academic workers represented by the Members United union have also begun to strike. Workers at the New School and Parsons School of Design in New York echoed UC workers’ sentiments, as their part-time faculty joined their own picket line on Wednesday. Their union, ACT-UAW Local 790, has been negotiating for five months for a fair contract on behalf of over a thousand part-time teachers at the school, who make up 87 percent of the university’s faculty

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These actions are rooted in a long history of academic worker labor organizing. In 1985, Yale workers went on strike, alleging prejudice against female staff. And in 2019, UC academic workers held wildcat strikes, demanding to be paid enough to live. Earlier this year, student workers at Columbia University ended a 10-week strike when a contract was signed that included significant concessions from the university.

Academic workers currently feel empowered to stand up for their labor rights and demand better working conditions.

“The exhilarating sights and sounds on day one of our picket line — that special energy and solidarity of academic workers, students and staff — may give way to some more difficult trials before we are through,” a press release by UC graduate students states. “But we should feel proud of this moment.”

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