In the University of California system, the union representing 48,000 grad students and other academic workers is about to strike in protest of repression of campus protests. It’s a watershed for labor and for the Palestine solidarity movement.

A woman waves the Palestinian flag as police remove a pro-Palestinian encampment at UC Irvine on May 15, 2024. (Paul Bersebach / MediaNews Group / Orange County Register via Getty Images)

We are set to witness a rare and historic occurrence next week — a union of nearly fifty thousand workers launching a strike to defend the right to free speech and demand divestment from Israeli apartheid and genocide.

Today, members of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 4811, the union representing forty-eight thousand graduate students and other academic workers in the University of California (UC) system, announced that it will strike on Monday, May 20. The announcement comes after the union voted to authorize a strike earlier this week with 79 percent approval.

Union leadership called the vote in response to UC campuses’ treatment of students who have been protesting in solidarity with Palestine by setting up encampments on their respective campuses. Two weeks ago at UCLA, campus police stood by while pro-Israel counterprotesters violently attacked the encampment; the next day, police cleared out the encampment, arresting over two hundred protesters — many of whom had been attacked less than twenty-four hours earlier.

The incident, along with the repression of nonviolent student protests at UC San Diego and UC Irvine, led UAW Local 4811 to file unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against the UC, the legal basis for the strike. The union charges that the UC violated its members’ rights to peaceful political protest.

On its website, UAW 4811 has called on the university system to “de-escalate” the situating by meeting a number of demands, including amnesty for all students and workers who face disciplinary action or arrest for protesting as well as university divestment from arms contractors and others profiting off of Israel’s assault on Gaza — key demands of the student encampment movement that has been roiling colleges and universities across the country.

On Monday, May 20th, UC Santa Cruz is Standing Up pic.twitter.com/Z0tPmzEWtw

— UAW 4811 (@uaw_4811) May 17, 2024

Local 4811 is adopting the “stand-up strike” tactic that UAW autoworkers deployed in their own strike against the Big Three automakers last year. Instead of having all workers walk out at once, the union is calling out specific worksites one at a time in order to strategically build pressure against the employer. Workers at UC Santa Cruz will be the first group to strike, starting Monday. (UC Santa Cruz workers already engaged in a one-day wildcat for divestment on May 1.)

The strike is historic for a couple reasons. First, it represents the potential for the biggest intervention yet of a labor union in the campus Palestine movement. The strike could mean serious disruption for the university, and the application of a powerful source of leverage for protesters to win their core demand of divestment.

Second, it means a large union using its power in a rare way: with a political strike. Instead of advocating just for the “bread-and-butter” interests of its members, Local 4811 is striking around the directly political issues of the war in Gaza and free speech.

For both reasons, the strike suggests promising paths forward for those seeking justice for Palestine, for the labor movement, and for the Left more broadly. To pressure the US government to end its support for Israel’s crimes, the student protest movement needs to involve wider social layers, especially those with the leverage to cause major social and economic disruption. A union representing forty-eight thousand employees across the state has exactly that.

Local 4811’s boldness in pressing a strike-authorization vote around the protests has, in turn, no doubt been enabled by the UAW International’s call for a cease-fire in Gaza. That stance broke with the union’s historic ties with and support for Israel; it came about thanks to the rise of a reforming leadership, represented by UAW president Shawn Fain, who has sought to return a militant spirit to the union. But the reformed UAW has also taken explicit political stances — not just on Palestine, but also on the need for the federal government to ensure a just transition and the demand for a thirty-two-hour workweek.

The crackdown on campus protests is leading parts of the union to take up the mantle of defending free speech, including UAW Region 9A (which represents many academic-worker unions in the Northeast) and now 4811 in California. In showing a willingness to strike over students’ and employees’ rights to free speech, the union is putting a value with widespread appeal at the center of the Palestine solidarity movement. Connecting the value of free speech with the demand for a cease-fire in Gaza and an end to US support for Israel’s war machine may be crucial to growing the movement.

But free speech is not valuable just as a part of messaging strategy, and it is not only important for pro-Palestine protesters. It is a crucial aspect of democracy and a central left-wing ideal that is currently being attacked by university administrators and local and state governments even in blue states, and one that promises to come under more dire assault if Donald Trump is re-elected. Unions absolutely should be in the business of protecting workers’ right to protest and standing up to employers who violate that right. In this, Local 4811 is setting a good example.

The defense of free speech and other civil liberties should be at the heart of a broader left vision of expanding freedom and democracy, as it was for socialists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If militant, democratic unions take up the fight for such a vision, and people who occupy different cultural and economic situations — everyone from, say, Detroit autoworkers to California PhD students — are able to find common cause in that fight, then the Left will be in a good position to make major advances.

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