Over the last few weeks across the US, pro-Palestine student protesters have faced harsh crackdowns from university administrators and police. At many campuses, labor unions have been coming to the protesters’ defense.

Pro-Palestinian protesters walk from Columbia University down to Hunter College as protests at area universities and colleges continue on May 6, 2024 in New York City. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

As campus protests — and violent police repression — continue to roll across the country, some unions are getting involved.

More than 2,700 protesters have been arrested on college campuses since the initial arrests at Columbia University in New York on April 18. The protesting students are calling for full disclosure of their universities’ finances and divestment from all financial ties to weapons manufacturers and Israel’s war on Gaza.

Unionized academic workers are demanding decision-making power over their work and what it’s used for. For instance, academic workers in the astronomy department of the University of California Santa Cruz have organized to refuse to apply for or accept funding from the US Department of Defense, weapons manufacturers, and military contractors.

In an open letter published by the magazine Science for the People in January, they wrote, “UC has received $295 million in research funding from the Department of Defense in FY 2022 alone. . . . Technology that astronomers have developed for science is being misused to surveil and target people both within and outside the U.S.”

For others, the police assaults on protesters and university administrators’ attacks on campus free speech have become issues of contract violations and workplace safety. United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 4811, representing forty-eight thousand academic workers across the University of California (UC) system, filed unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against their employer over violent police attacks on the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) student encampment.

“UCLA unilaterally changed its workplace free speech policies without providing notice or bargaining,” Local 4811 said in a statement. “In so doing it violated its policy of content neutrality toward speech by favoring those engaged in anti-Palestine speech over those engaged in pro-Palestine speech.”

The local will hold a strike authorization vote over the ULP May 13 through 15. The vote could lead to thousands of academic workers striking for free speech and in solidarity with the student movement for Palestine.

Democracy Built Confidence

At UC Santa Cruz, organizing within departments brought union members out on a single-day wildcat walkout on May 1. The idea was first raised at a monthly membership meeting a week before.

“No one came into the meeting thinking, ‘This is the proposal and we want to get it passed.’ It was more like, ‘Let’s talk about how we as unionists can meet the moment,’” said Sarah Mason, a sociology department steward.

Ideas were thrown out for single-day walkouts, strikes until the student demands for divestment and disclosure were met, and answering the Palestinian Federation of Trade Unions’ call for a global work stoppage on May Day. But with only seventy-five members present out of one thousand, they knew they couldn’t make the decision there.

Instead, stewards called department meetings to hold open-ended discussions. Out of thirty-three departments, twenty-three held meetings — a sign that the union has developed a robust steward structure.

The night before the proposed walkout, three hundred union members attended an emergency meeting, 150 in person and 150 over Zoom. “Stewards were lining up to give report-backs on what the meetings were like in their departments,” Mason said. “It was an incredible thing to see.”

They decided on a single-day walkout the next day and formed a committee to determine longer-term demands and discuss future strikes.

Mason credits a six-week strike in 2022 for helping embolden Santa Cruz workers to walk out again. Transparency in the decision-making process was important. “Every step of the way, people were discussing and deliberating respectfully, talking about things like strategy and risks,” she said. “Having that really clear picture produced confidence in people.”

Police Violence at Work

“This is a moment where we’re seeing the importance of the student-worker labor movement in advancing political causes,” said Joanna Lee, a department organizer at the Student Workers of Columbia (SWC), UAW Local 2710. “It hasn’t been part of the broad consciousness in the labor movement to think in these internationalist terms, but we’re seeing a shift right now.”

SWC represents three thousand graduate and undergraduate academic workers at the university. The union voted to join the Columbia University Apartheid Divest coalition in November 2023 after two student organizations, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, were banned from Columbia’s campus.

Lee said that when Columbia called police, who violently attacked student activists — many of them union members — it helped show other union members why this was a workplace safety issue for the union.

SWC has since filed grievances and ULP charges due to police violence against its members. A Columbia Spectator report described the April 30 arrests, including a student who fell down the stairs after allegedly being pushed by police. A New York Police Department (NYPD) officer accidentally fired his gun while clearing the occupation of Hamilton Hall.

SWC members coordinated with Columbia unions representing postdocs and faculty while at this year’s Labor Notes Conference in Chicago, Lee said.

During the coordinated NYPD sweeps of camps at Columbia and City College of New York, 282 protesters were arrested. But new campus protest encampments have been springing up across the country. According to Students 4 Gaza, there have been student encampments at least 183 college campuses across the world. Some have won some or all of their demands, like the open bargaining sessions being held by hundreds of student protesters at San Francisco State University with their university president.

In the UAW, there has been action from both the rank and file and union leadership. UAW Region 9A held a “Stand Up for Gaza” solidarity rally on April 26, gathering faculty and students from New York University (NYU), Columbia, and the New School in support of protesting students. The rally ended with a march to the student encampment at NYU.

UAW Region 9A director Brandon Mancilla said in an interview with Jacobin: “This is a student issue, it’s an academic free-speech issue — but it’s also a labor issue, because our members have made it so and have exposed how much it affects the rights of everyone on campus, not just their own bargaining units.”

Fighting Contract Violations

Some union members have taken action by simply pointing to their union contracts. City bus drivers organized with Transport Workers Union TWU Local 100 refused to transport arrested protesters to jail at an April 23 Jewish Voice for Peace protest — a Passover “Seder in the Streets” outside of New York senator Chuck Schumer’s home.

The NYPD had commandeered city buses to take the protesters to jail. Six TWU Local 100 members walked off the job instead, stating that the task was outside of their assigned routes and not part of their union contract.

The NYPD eventually found police officers with commercial drivers’ licenses to drive the buses, but arrestees reported dangerous conditions as the drivers sped, hit several curbs, and got lost, according to the Nation.

Justice at Home and Abroad

“The systems that deprive workers here from better working conditions, from fair wages, and from equality, are the same systems that fund and prop up the Israeli occupation,” said Taher Dahleh, a rank-and-file member of Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 1109 in Brooklyn, and organizer with the Palestinian Youth Movement. “The same repressive tools developed by Israel are bought and used by oppressive regimes to target organizers of all kinds, including labor.”

Through his union, Dahleh has been able to have difficult conversations with coworkers about the importance of fighting for justice in Palestine. Dahleh said one coworker who comes from a politically conservative background and was initially uncertain about what he was seeing on the news. “We have worked closely on work and union issues, and he trusts me as a coworker and fellow union member. This trust allowed me to share personal stories about things that family members and loved ones in Palestine experience.”

“I asked him, ‘Why is it that every single time we sit down to bargain with Verizon, we have to fight them for raises to keep pace with the cost of living . . . when this country clearly has the money to pay for our needs?’”

This coworker joined Dahleh and other CWA 1109 members at a Palestinian Youth Movement march. “This was my friend’s first ever protest, and he left saying that next time he’s going to bring his son and wife!” Dahleh said. “We have always been at our strongest when we fight for broad movements for justice and against oppression.”


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