This Wednesday, November 20, could be defined by one of the largest labor strikes in the history of the University of California. Custodial, food service, grounds, and health service workers affiliated with AFSCME 3299 are planning to strike on all UC campuses. They are forming picket lines to contest the stark acts of intimidation they faced from supervisors prior to a work action some of them undertook last spring to preserve safe staffing levels at UC hospitals. A number of workers were pulled into private meetings with supervisors and threatened with consequences if they joined the strike.


Student workers gather on the steps of Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley. Credit: Susie Levy.

Graduate students and undergraduate tutors affiliated with the UC Student-Workers Union (UAW 2865) have announced that they will strike in sympathy with AFSCME service workers on November 20. This brings the total number of UC workers who could strike this coming Wednesday to 35,000. A strike of this scale, composed of an unfair labor practice (ULP) strike and a sympathy strike, is historically significant, as labor analysts such as Joe Burns have argued that the re-emergence of the sympathy strike is key to the revitalization of the U.S. labor movement and of broader social movements against inequality and the precarious conditions of labor and life faced by the majority of the population.

Those who manage the university have recently taken steps to thwart and discourage Wednesday’s historic strike. At UC Berkeley, Vice Chancellor George Breslauer recently sent an email about the strike to all department chairs and deans. In the email, Breslauer incorrectly and misleadingly asserted that graduate students are not legally permitted to strike because their contract negotiations with UC management are still ongoing. He also instructed department chairs to inform graduate students in their departments that they must teach on Wednesday and that all changes in work routines should be approved by the chairs in advance of November 20. Breslauer has thus facilitated the dissemination of inaccurate and coercive information to professors and graduate students alike, and deputized department chairs to enforce a baseless and likely unlawful message to graduate student instructors: thou shalt not strike.

The UC Student-Workers union’s lawyers and labor consultant have been unequivocal: as student employees, working in the higher education sector in California, whose previous contract has expired, UC graduate student instructors, readers, and undergraduate tutors now have the legal right to engage in Wednesday’s sympathy strike. But this is not the story that the Vice Chancellor and certain department chairs have been telling graduate students. I’ve heard from some graduate students that they’ve been told that they cannot strike because Wednesday’s action is a sympathy strike, and from others that they’ve been told they cannot strike because the action is not a sympathy strike. Some, having received these messages from their advisors and fearful of retaliation, are concerned about their academic standing should they strike. Faulty, illegal, contradictory information about labor law is being passed off as the truth and passed on to graduate students as a way to confuse them and to intimidate them from engaging in legally protected collective action.

University professors – those whose scholarship, study, and labor partially sustains the University – are professionally committed to free inquiry, informed discussion, and shared deliberation undertaken free of coercion. Why then are department chairs being put in this untenable situation, asked to enforce against graduate students a blanket prohibition based on legally incorrect information?

Perhaps one way to account for this legally and ethically problematic situation would be to consider its source and instigator: Vice Chancellor George Breslauer. Breslauer announced last spring that he would be retiring at the end of the fall term – a retirement that generally has been understood to follow in part from his loss of legitimacy in the fall of 2011. In December 2011, Vice Chancellor Breslauer and then Chancellor Birgeneau were condemned by the Faculty Senate for their role in sanctioning police officers to strike with batons, on multiple occasions, demonstrators who were linking arms around the Occupy Cal tent encampment. Breslauer was partially responsible for this violence. He was present in the afternoon when the police were striking students and professors, and then explicitly permitted another round of police violence that same evening.

The outgoing Vice Chancellor sanctioned violence against students and professors in 2011 in an attempt to discourage the establishment of Occupy Cal (the Occupy encampment that sprang up on campus at the University of California, Berkeley); he appears to be filling a similar role today in sowing confusion and fear amongst faculty and graduate student employees who are considering engaging in or supporting Wednesday’s historic strike. This attempt to thwart what could be one of the largest strikes in UC history thus constitutes one of Breslauer’s last acts as Vice Chancellor. But where is our new Chancellor Nicholas Dirks in all of this? In his inaugural speech two weeks ago, Dirks asserted that “we are all utopians.” What is utopian about allowing an outgoing Vice Chancellor to sow confusion and fear about a legal sympathy strike?

Regardless of what those who manage the university say, graduate student instructors, readers, and undergraduate tutors have a legal right to strike in sympathy with service workers, just as the nurses who had planned to strike this week have such a right. The right to sympathy strike exists to the extent that it does because of courageous actions taken by previous generations of working people to defend this right. Our right to act collectively to address workplace issues by withholding our labor must be realized and renewed in practice. The success of the strike is up to us. We can decide to stand together with co-workers, even in the face of unlawful intimidation.

Wednesday’s strike is about supporting our sisters and brothers as they protest the intimidation of workers, specifically the intimidation faced by health service workers last spring as they prepared to act together in defense of safe staffing levels at UC medical centers. An important principle is at stake on Wednesday: the right of workers to act together to support one another’s interests, free of unlawful coercion or intimidation by their supervisors. Acting together, all those who work and study in the university can help make this Wednesday the largest strike in UC history, and part of a larger effort to reanimate social movements against inequality and against the precarious conditions of life and labor that so many of us are facing.

Amanda Armstrong is a graduate student in the Department of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley and secretary of the Berkeley unit of the UC Student Workers Union (UAW 2865). To express support for the workers in California, you can sign your name at the bottom of the UC Berkeley Student-Workers Union website.

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