UAW Local 4811 Launches Political Strike against UC Campus Repression

In a rare occurrence for the US labor movement, UAW Local 4811 has launched a political strike against the University of California in response to the brutal police repression of the Gaza solidarity encampments at UCLA and other UC campuses last month.

Eight out of every ten members who participated in last week’s strike authorization voted in favor of strike action. With this overwhelming statement of class militancy, the 48,000-strong union went into action on Monday, May 20 with a “stand up” strike at UC Santa Cruz, one of ten UC campuses.

A spokesperson for the UC system called the action “a dangerous precedent that would introduce nonlabor issues into labor agreements.” Setting aside the bosses’ blatant lie that this strike is about “nonlabor issues,” what this reveals is the panic of the ruling class in the face of a politically conscious working class.

Eight out of every ten members who participated in last week’s strike authorization voted in favor of strike action. / Image: UAW Labor for Palestine

The whip of reaction

Karl Marx once observed that revolutions often require the whip of reaction to drive them forward. The brutality unleashed against student protesters and faculty at the UCLA encampment on the night of April 30 was among the most egregious examples of reactionary violence seen on a US campus in decades.

Dozens of Zionist thugs and other right wingers, armed with metal rods and firecrackers, attacked the peaceful protest with the implicit approval of campus security and the Los Angeles Police Department, who stood by for hours during the cowardly assault, before joining in and carrying out their own aggressive mass arrests.

How could anyone argue that this incident has no relation to the working conditions of UCLA staff? Not only was this a disgusting violation of their free speech; it jeopardized the health and safety of all union members, with the endorsement of the campus administration. While the UCLA attack was among the most abhorrent, similar scenes of police impunity unfolded at many other campuses, as riot police stormed in with tear gas and batons, indiscriminately tackling and arresting anyone they could get their hands on.

These vicious attacks have provoked a healthy response of outrage and determination to act among unionized workers throughout the UC system. UAW Local 4811 is a union of academic workers, formed by the merger of UAW Locals 2865 and 5810, along with another union of graduate student workers, earlier this year. There is strength in unity, and this merger was a positive step that increases the workers’ potential power while weakening the regents’ ability to play one group of workers off another.

Many of the workers organized in Local 4811 also played an important role in getting the broader UAW to take a stand in defense of Gaza. On their website, Local 4811 explains:

UAW 4811 was one of the earliest unions in the US to call for a ceasefire and de-escalation of the war in Gaza, and were instrumental in the International UAW taking up this same call. In January 2024, Academic Student Employees voted by a margin of 10-to-1 in support of continued efforts to organize alongside other unions and community groups for a ceasefire and a just and lasting peace in Palestine. In this vein, UAW members have chosen to participate in the nonviolent Palestine Solidarity Encampments to call attention to UC’s financial ties to Israel’s war effort and urge UC to divest from companies and industries currently profiting off of the suffering in Gaza. Whatever opinion union members may hold on these root issues, the serious, violent, and unlawful repression faced by our coworkers demands that we stand in solidarity in this moment.

Following the example of Local 4811, the UAW International Executive Board passed a resolution last December calling for a ceasefire in Israel and Palestine.

Many of the workers organized in Local 4811 also played an important role in getting the broader UAW to take a stand in defense of Gaza. / Image: UAW 4811, Instagram

What UAW Local 4811 is fighting for

University administrators are ultimately under the control of the California state government headed by Governor Gavin Newsome in Sacramento. The Democrats in Washington, DC, Sacramento, and Los Angeles have long backed and implemented the policies of US imperialism in the Middle East. The same UC regents who argue that this question is a “nonlabor issue” oversee massive investments in assets that support the Israeli state’s occupation, accounting for 18%—or $32 billion—of the UC endowment. Out of this sum, $3.3 billion is invested directly in arms manufacturers.

A university is supposed to be a zone of free speech, discussion, and inquiry, but this can never be the case under capitalism. Administrators have put students and workers at risk to defend their pro-imperialist policies, revealing the sham that is “freedom of speech” and other basic rights under bourgeois democracy.

Likewise, the administration’s decision to invite the police on campus exposes the real social role of the police. The idea that police were created to stop crime against ordinary people is a fable for distracting the public from its real purpose: a force for the ruling class to maintain its property interests and clamp down on dissent.

Furthermore, UAW 4811 members have been subjected to unwarranted discipline and unilateral changes in working conditions without due notice and proper negotiations with the union. In connection with the strike, the union has published the following five demands on its website:

  • Amnesty for all academic employees, students, student groups, faculty, and staff who face disciplinary action or arrest due to protest.
  • Protecting the right to free speech and political expression on campus.
  • Divestment from UC’s known investments in weapons manufacturers, military contractors, and companies profiting from Israel’s war on Gaza.
  • Disclosure of all funding sources and investments, including contracts, grants, gifts, and investments, through a publicly available, publicly accessible, and up-to-date database.
  • Empowering researchers to opt out from funding sources tied to the military or oppression of Palestinians. The UC must provide centralized transitional funding to workers whose funding is tied to the military or foundations that support Palestinian oppression.

Connected with these demands, UAW 4811 should offer a vision for how universities should be run instead by boards elected by the students and workers. A democratically run university would be in stark contrast to the wealthy businessmen and politicians who call the shots now.

In addition to the events at UCLA on April 30, Local 4811 published an account of another violation of workers’ rights, when UC San Diego administrators called in police to arrest members of 4811 who were peacefully protesting:

The UC’s conduct constituted retaliation and discrimination against UAW Local 4811 members for engaging in protected concerted protest activity, in violation of the Higher Education Employee-Employer Relations Act (HEERA).

The UC violated and unilaterally changed its employee workplace speech policies without giving the Union notice or the opportunity to bargain in violation of HEERA. The UC violated its existing policies by summoning the police to eject and arrest non-violent employees engaged in political speech; by favoring the anti-Palestine speech of counter-protestors over the pro-Palestine speech of employees, and by prohibiting pro-Palestine speech at the worksite.

On this basis, the union rightfully accuses the UC administrators of unfair labor practices. At the same time, we should understand that the capitalist legal system is constantly trying to dictate to the labor movement what is lawful for labor to do and what is “fair and “unfair.”

We must reject these dictates of the ruling class! Part of building an effective labor movement is fighting for our right to strike whenever and wherever it is in the workers’ interests to do so. It is completely up to workers to decide collectively what is best for our class, and to act accordingly, whether it means work stoppages, demonstrations, or other job actions, including political strike action.

The labor movement must be clear: the right to strike is not something granted to us from above by a benevolent capitalist class. It is not a symbolic right allowed only when it doesn’t unduly inconvenience the bosses. It is a right won and exercised by workers in action, often in the face of repression, to defend our collective interests.

We should have absolutely no illusions in a legal system wholly dominated by the capitalists and their interests. The despicable brutality we witnessed on April 30 has had zero consequences to date, though the UC has hired a police consulting firm to “investigate” the incident. Workers should have no confidence in this sham inquiry—we should trust only our own forces to deliver justice!

The California Federation of Labor, which represents more than 1,300 unions, should dedicate resources to forming its own investigative commission into the violent crimes committed against UAW members, and upon confirming what UCLA faculty already know—that the campus administration, security forces, and police were acting in collusion with violent Zionist attackers—the Federation of Labor should pass its own sentence: coordinated strike action across the state by all 2.3 million members in its ranks!

The Federation of Labor should pass its own sentence: coordinated strike action across the state by all 2.3 million members in its ranks! / Image: UAW 4811, Instagram

UCLA rank-and-file workers impatient with the “stand up” strike tactic

Local 4811’s executive board has opted to call a “stand up” strike, echoing Shawn Fain’s tactic against the Big Three auto companies last fall. This is a nod to the famous “sitdown strikes” of the 1930s, in which auto workers successfully occupied their plants and completely shut down production, leading to the creation of the UAW in the first place.

However, the “stand up” strike involves striking at only one or a few locations at a time, mobilizing only a limited portion of the total workforce. In this case, the strike began at UC Santa Cruz, while nine other UC campuses were instructed to continue working.

Whether or not this was the right tactic last fall—we have commented on that strike elsewhere—workers must ask: is this the right tactic for this moment, in this context, when the campuses are closing in on the end of the semester?

Workers at UCLA don’t seem to think so. One group of workers, organized in a caucus called Rank and File for a Democratic Union, has boldly called for 4811 leadership to immediately call out every campus, organizing their own assemblies of union members at UCLA and resolving that now is the time for an all-out action. “UCLA has never been more militant and organized than it is now … Every week we wait undermines our power and the confidence of our members across the state, who are looking to us to lead. Every week we wait is another week that students and workers could again be brutalized on campus,” they wrote in a newsletter circulated by their caucus on May 21.

These workers understandably feel strongly about this struggle, and at the very least, it would have seemed logical for the leadership of Local 4811 to call on their UCLA membership to “stand up” at the front of the line.

The rank and file caucus specifically criticized the “stand up” tactic:

Our leadership insists on absolute secrecy about the timeline and location of the strikes, in order, they say, to “maximize chaos,” but at present they are only causing chaos and confusion among our own ranks. Rank and file members currently have NO IDEA when or if we will be called to strike.

In contrast to this tactic, the caucus proposes “disruptive actions that will SHUT CAMPUS DOWN” and suggests a variety of tactics, ranging from a sickout strike to what appear to be actions by limited numbers of workers:

We should rally those of our members who are prepared to take on more risks for direct actions aimed at disrupting the function of the university … Everyone should do what they are comfortable with, but there is a range of possibilities and risk levels, and we will carefully plan and discuss the risks together.

The desire for urgent action is understandable, but in the class war, workers’ power lies in numbers and unity above all. A successful strike shuts down production. This is absolutely correct, and something that most labor leaders seem to have forgotten. But this shutdown should be the result of united mass action and coordination.

Otherwise, the most advanced and militant layers risk cutting themselves off from the rest of the workers, and therefore, from the only source of strength and defense we have in this struggle. Rank-and-file militancy can lead the charge as long as it is channeled into efforts to win over the rest of the union, rather than leaving the bulk of the membership behind.

Mass strike action is the way forward!

This strike is unfolding at a pivotal moment in the US class struggle, with implications that reach far beyond the police crackdown on April 30. By shifting the battlefield from the terrain of the encampments to direct political strike action by organized labor, UAW 4811 is pointing the way forward for the entire labor movement.

The union now has a golden opportunity to address the broader labor movement—and the Gaza solidarity movement—with a practical initiative that can ratchet the movement to a higher level. Before the encampments, the mood of the Palestine solidarity marches were showing clear signs of impatience with the apparent tactical dead end. Thousands of protesters continued to show up each time activist groups called another rally, yet the shipment of US arms and funds to the genocidal slaughter continued. The encampments, inspired first by the students at Columbia, were the natural response to this impasse.

Now that the encampments themselves have largely hit a wall, Local 4811’s courageous political strike can act as a further catalyst—if the union takes advantage of this opportunity to make the strike successful.

That’s why it was a mistake to limit the strike to one campus—and then, to not even choose the site of the attack as its starting point. Strike action at all ten campuses on the same day would have made a bigger public impact, even if it was a relatively short strike. It’s not too late to correct course, by mobilizing the entire 48,000-strong membership, and combining this with public rallies to link up with the students and the movement as a whole.

To achieve this, the union’s executive board should call for mass meetings of its members at each of the ten campuses. These meetings should not be mere rallies, but urgent preparation for action, beginning with the election of strike committees at each campus to coordinate the battle. These meetings would also clarify what this battle is about. The above-mentioned caucus has proposed an expanded list of strike demands, and mass meetings are the best place to discuss and vote on such proposals.

This struggle is not only about defending members’ rights and fighting against the unfair practices of management—it is part of the historic fight against US imperialism and its criminal backing of Israel’s attempt to destroy Gaza.

The fact that Local 4811’s initial demands involve cutting university support for US imperialism and Israel is a good step in this direction. But it will take a serious strike battle to back this up—and this requires drawing the entire membership into immediate preparations.

Executive board members should be free to run for strike committee positions, but the elected committees should be responsible to the membership. Representatives from each of the ten campuses could form the overall Strike Committee, which would take responsibility for coordinating the day-to-day running of the strike, outreach to the press and public, and most importantly, spreading the struggle.

This struggle is not only about defending members’ rights; it is part of the historic fight against US imperialism. / Image: UAW 4811, Instagram

Expand the strike to other campuses and beyond!

A strike can start with one local, but for a struggle on this scale to achieve victory, it must encompass broad swathes of the labor movement. It goes without saying that UAW 4811 does not have control over the rest of the labor movement, but their inspiration and outreach has the potential to expand this much further.

The recent statement by Rank and File for a Democratic Union points out that California AFSCME, which organizes service, care, and skilled craft workers on UC campuses, is calling its own statewide rally at all UC locations today, May 22, to protest their own low pay and mistreatment by the university. If the two struggles linked up and acted in unison, they would bring the UC regents to their knees.

Already, United Steelworkers Local 675 has passed a resolution in support of Local 4811’s political strike. This is a small glimpse of the potential out there right now! A concerted campaign of outreach to the rest of the unions, beginning with the universities and colleges throughout California, combined with maximum mobilization throughout the UC system, would be more than enough to seize the attention of millions.

By appealing directly to Shawn Fain, this battle could extend beyond the campuses to other UAW locals, as well as every labor council, starting with California. This is the way to fight US imperialism and its bloody proxy war on Gaza! Organized labor has the power to achieve what the street and campus protests have so far been unable to—the paralysis of the production and shipment of the arms, and the end of the slaughter itself.

Shawn Fain has called for organized labor to prepare for a general strike on May Day 2028. As communists, we applaud this proposal—but why wait four years? Why not set a far earlier date and begin preparations now? Just imagine the effect it would have if organized labor appealed to the unorganized workers to join a national strike that drew clear links between the massacre in Gaza and the plight of American workers.

Workers and students in the US have no interest in the unspeakable atrocities being committed on the Palestinian people. A broad mobilization of the working class could go beyond campus divestment demands, and fight for the billions of dollars in US imperialism’s bloody war chest to be spent instead on urgent working-class needs: higher wages, housing, education, and healthcare. In this way, the fight to defeat US imperialism and its support for genocide can be tied to the fight for a better life for workers here in the belly of the beast.

The US government, which has had little trouble ignoring the street demonstrations so far, would be thrown into a panic. Both “Genocide” Joe and Donald Trump would be put on notice as to the real power of the awakening working class.

An escalating campaign of political strikes against the slaughter in Gaza is precisely what is needed! Communists in California and around the country—both in the UAW and outside of it—will be part of these strikes and protests, putting forward a class-war perspective. When the labor movement speaks with one voice and moves forward in unity, it will turn the country upside down.

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