Denied again: UC fails a second time to get court order to stop academic workers' strike

LOS ANGELES, CA MAY 28, 2024 - Academic workers at UCLA went on strike Tuesday, May 28, 2024, alleging their workers' rights have been violated by University of California actions during pro-Palestinian protests and encampment crackdowns. Thousands of UAW Local 4811 members at UCLA and UC Davis participated in the second round of a campus Unfair Labor Practice strikes. UAW 4811 represents around 48,000 workers across the state, including 6,400 at UCLA and 5,700 at Davis. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Academic workers at UCLA on strike last week. Their union, UAW 4811, alleges that its workers' rights have been violated by UC's actions during pro-Palestinian protests and encampment crackdowns. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

For the second time, the state labor board has declined to order an immediate halt to the UC academic workers strike, which has resulted in canceled classes, blocked parking garages and disrupted coursework for thousands at a crucial time of the year when students take finals.

The state's Public Employment Relations Board ruled Monday that the university, in its legal filings, had not met the high legal standard of showing "irreparable harm" required for the labor board to approve an injunction. The walkout has included University of California campuses in Santa Cruz, Davis and Los Angeles. The strike expanded Monday to UC Santa Barbara and UC San Diego and is scheduled to spread Wednesday to UC Irvine.

"By direction of the board, the request for injunctive relief in the above-entitled matter is denied without prejudice, sufficient grounds therefore not having been demonstrated," wrote J. Felix De La Torre, general counsel for the employment board, announcing Monday's decision to both parties.

United Auto Workers Local 4811 represents 48,000 graduate teaching assistants, researchers and other academic workers at UC’s 10 campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. Unionized workers lead discussion groups, grade papers, conduct research and administer exams, among other responsibilities.

The ruling does not resolve the question of whether the strike is legal. That broader issue will be settled through a slower process that would likely outlast the strike. The two sides also are in mediation, which has the potential to end the strike, through a settlement, prior to its scheduled conclusion on June 30.

Read more: How pro-Palestinian protests led to a massive UC strike, injecting new fuel into antiwar activism

In a statement Monday, UC's vice president of labor relations expressed disappointment that the strike would go on. The statement said UC would shift its legal fight to state court.

“We are disappointed that the state agency dedicated to the oversight of public employment could not take decisive and immediate action to end this unlawful strike — a decision that harms UC’s students who are nearing the end of their academic year,” said Melissa Matella, UC's associate vice president for systemwide labor relations.

"Now that UC has exhausted the PERB process for injunctive relief, UC will move to state court and is hopeful for quick and decisive action so that our students can end their quarter with their focus on academics," Matella said.

Union president Rafael Jaime said in a statement that the state labor board "has once again upheld the law. It’s time for UC to face reality."

"We said last week that if UC did not make progress in addressing the serious unfair labor practices, as many as three more campuses could be called to stand up. UC instead chose another week of legal saber-rattling," Jaime said, adding that officials should "stop wasting time and public resources on legal maneuvers. We stand ready to reach resolution — where is UC?"

Jaime said that by going to state court, UC had "decided to ignore the authority" of the labor board and is "continuing to insist that the rules do not apply to it.”

On May 23, the labor board issued a complaint against the union based on UC's allegation that the walkout is illegal because of a "no strike" clause in the union's contract.

On Monday, the board also issued a complaint against UC, based on the union's allegation that the university violated its workers' rights in shutting down pro-Palestinian protests.

The complaints set in motion processes under which both sides will make their cases. Both involve slow-moving deliberations, with each side having until mid- to late June to submit paperwork.

The university had sought a quicker route, requesting an injunction to halt the strike, saying the walkout was causing harm "that can never be undone."

"At just UC Santa Cruz, UCLA and UC Davis, over 9,000 UAW members teach over 5,130 ... undergraduate classes, seminars, discussion sections, and laboratory sections. These classes have literally hundreds of thousands of students enrolled in them — students who have paid tuition for a full quarter’s worth of instruction, and in many cases whose grades and academic futures rely on the completing [of] their courses," UC said in its filing requesting the injunction.

John Logan, a professor in the department of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University, said the labor board’s decision will put UC officials “under intense pressure — both from within the university and external political pressure — to negotiate with the union to end the strike.”

UAW 4811 went on strike last month after alleging its members' free speech rights were violated by UC’s actions during pro-Palestinian encampment crackdowns, among other charges.

Read more: UC worker strike to hit UCLA, Davis next. A looming question: Is this walkout legal?

Police on Friday morning entered the UC Santa Cruz campus, ordering protesters to disperse. Such police actions at other campuses have been a basis for the union's claims that workers' rights have been violated — and that these alleged violations amount to an unfair labor practice, providing legal justification for the current walkout.

As with any strike, the purpose has been to apply pressure on the institution by disrupting business as usual. In the view of UAW 4811, the work stoppage is a standard, legally protected union activity.

Also on May 23, the state's labor board — which oversees labor-management relations and actions — ruled that the strike could continue, while also allowing the university to submit additional evidence in an attempt to meet the high legal standard necessary for outside intervention.

The strikers lay blame for disruptions on the university for events leading up to the strike as well as the delay in its resolution.

While unions typically strike over pay and benefits, this walkout has been far different because of the intertwining of political issues beyond standard contract matters.

Read more: Kaffiyehs and pickets: UCLA, UC Davis workers strike over treatment at pro-Palestinian protests

Academic workers on strike at UCLA, UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz chanted last week about "workers' rights under attack," referring to pro-Palestinian union members who were arrested and suspended after recent protests. Some on the picket line wore kaffiyehs, traditional scarves used to express solidarity with Palestinians.

Others waved Palestinian flags, shouting "free Palestine," and pressed union demands that UC divest from ties to Israel and the war in Gaza and grant all protesters amnesty from campus discipline.

"Stop the charges, cut the ties! Workers stand with Palestine," shouted union members as they rallied Monday at UC Santa Barbara. In San Diego, a late-morning union rally took place by Geisel Library.

Another union demand is for the researchers it represents to receive transitional funding so they can opt out from “funding sources tied to the military or oppression of Palestinians.” That would include those working for departments that were given portions of the $333 million UC received last year from the Department of Defense.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.