Union plans strike authorization vote over arrests of pro-Palestinian demonstrators
Demonstrators lock arms at the UCLA campus to protect themselves from any violent attacks by right-wing activists. | Jae C. Hong/AP

LOS ANGELES—Auto Workers Local 4811, which represents 46,000 University of California system graduate student workers—including researchers and teaching assistants–plans a strike authorization vote this week “should the university decide to curtail the right to participate in protected, concerted activity,” their pro-Palestinian demonstrations on campuses throughout the state, notably UCLA.

The students and workers, there and elsewhere, are part of a growing worldwide movement against Israel’s war on Gaza and, in the U.S., Biden administration military aid for it. Many of the protesters also demand their universities end endowment investments in Israeli bonds and stocks.

The attacks by Israel have killed 34,000-plus Gazan civilians, 70% of them women and children. Hamas which Israel claims its genocidal war is aimed at destroying, was put in power originally by Israel itself as part of its many decades-long drive to divide Palestinians in the West Bank form those in Gaza,

Israel has also wrecked Gazan infrastructure and housing, prevented humanitarian aid from getting through—causing widespread famine—and turned most of Gaza’s two million people into refugees. Most of them are now encamped in the southern Gazan city of Ramah, which Israel started attacking on May 5.

The unanimous decision by Local 4811’s board comes as both it and UAW Local 872 at the University of Southern California plan to file labor law-breaking—formally called unfair labor practices—complaints over the police response.

Local 4811 said calling in the police to arrest pro-Palestinian demonstrators is “discrimination against union members or political viewpoints” and shows the University of California’s decision to “create or allow threats to members’ health and safety” both by the police response to the students and student workers, and LAPD’s lack of response to counter-protesters.

The California strike authorization comes as University of Chicago administrators sent Chicago city police, in riot gear, onto the campus at 8 a.m, Central Time on May 7 to break up the pro-Palestinian encampment there.

A People’s World reporter driving by the encampment on the university’s main quadrangle yesterday said it was peaceful and presented a normal scene, with students picnicking, studying and listening to speakers.

Took another view

But university President Paul Alivisatos took another view and called in the Chicago police —who have a reputation, stretching back to 1968, of using violence against student protesters—on the encampment’s eighth day.

“On Monday, I stated we would only intervene if what might have been an exercise of free expression blocks the learning or expression of others or substantially disrupts the functioning or safety of the university,” Alivisatos wrote in a campus-wide e-mail.

After days of talks with leaders of the encampment, “Without an agreement to end the encampment, we have reached that point,” he stated.

But Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, a Teachers union member who also cast a tie-breaking vote at the City Council for a resolution demanding a ceasefire in Gaza, apparently refused to call in the Chicago police, the independent student newspaper, the Chicago Maroon, tweeted.

“Of note, while CPD were not present at the raid according to our reporters on the ground, there was a sizable Cook County Sheriff’s office presence. In light of the reported opposition to university’s plan from Mayor Johnson, it appears assistance was sought from Cook County,” the tweet added.

In Los Angeles, Local 4811 stated “In all these instances,” including there and at Columbia University in New York, site of the first protests, “management employed police violence or allowed violence to be used against students, faculty and academic workers exercising their right to free speech.”

“Our sister union UAW 872, representing academic workers at USC, has already filed Unfair Labor Practice charges against management on their campus over similar failures when LAPD arrested over 90 protesters on that campus,” and Local 4811 plans to do so, too.

“University of California management must change course. At several other universities across the country, management has taken protesters’ demands seriously and begun negotiations with coalitions of students, workers, and community members over their divestment from companies supplying arms to Israel’s war in Gaza. This option is open to UC as well.

“The use and sanction of violent force to curtail peaceful protest is an attack on free speech and the right to demand change, and the university must sit down with students, unions, and campus organizations to negotiate, rather than escalate.” Local 4811 reported its members had been physically attacked by counter-protesters with bear spray, batons and fireworks, but said the university did nothing about it.

The Californian unionists drew support from the regional and national Auto Workers.

“This war is wrong, and this response against students and academic workers, many of them UAW members, is wrong,” said UAW President Shawn Fain. “We call on the powers that be to release the students and employees who have been arrested, and if you can’t take the outcry, stop supporting this war.”

“The UCLA administration condoned the brutal attack of students and workers as they peacefully protested for justice for Palestine,” said UAW regional director Mike Miller. “Rather than negotiating with protestors and de-escalating, administration’s actions caused dozens to seek medical attention and hospitalizations, a militarized police presence on campus and the arrest of more than 130 students & workers, including UAW 4811 members.

“As a former Teaching Assistant, Reader, and Tutor at UCLA, I am outraged by the administration’s actions – using newly applied standards and force to discriminate against students & workers for their political viewpoints.”

Police were apparently using the same tactics against university student protests in Amsterdam and at Berlin’s Free University as well, the Associated Press reported in a May 7 roundup story, which led with that morning’s dismantling of the Chicago encampment. Some 125 people were arrested in Amsterdam and an encampment was dismantled in Berlin.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.