Judge halts UC academic workers' strike, citing 'damage to students'

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 six UC campuses, including UCLA, above, are on strike after alleging their rights were violated by the university during crackdowns on pro-Palestinian protests. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

An Orange County judge Friday ordered the union representing UC academic workers to halt its strike at six campuses, ruling that the walkout appeared to be causing "damage to students' education" during the critical end of the term when finals are taken.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Randall J. Sherman said the University of California had made its case for a temporary restraining order to stop the strike, which the university contended was causing "irreparable harm" to students and university operations.

The next hearing on the case was scheduled for June 27, which could effectively end the walkout that was approved by union membership through June 30. Sherman alluded to that fact at the end of a roughly hourlong hearing, telling both sides to notify the court if "the strike will expire on its own terms."

Sherman's decision does not resolve the long-term question of whether the strike is an illegal breach of "no strike" contract clauses, the allegation at the center of UC's lawsuit filed against the union that represents 48,000 academic workers at 10 campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

UC officials celebrated the decision.

"We are extremely grateful for a pause in this strike so our students can complete their academic studies. The strike would have caused irreversible setbacks to students' academic achievements and may have stalled critical research projects in the final quarter," said Melissa Matella, UC associate vice president for systemwide labor relations, in a statement.

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

UC officials had previously twice failed before the state Public Employment Relations Board to halt the United Auto Workers Local 4811 strike that kicked off nearly three weeks ago at UC Santa Cruz before expanding to campuses including UCLA and UC Irvine.

Union President Rafael Jaime, a doctoral student in literature at UCLA, alluded to those losses by the university system in a statement Friday, saying workers were "ready for a long fight."

"UC academic workers are facing down an attack on our whole movement," Jaime said. "PERB, the regulatory body with the expertise to rule on labor law, has twice found no grounds to halt our strike. I want to make clear that this struggle is far from over. In the courtroom, the law is on our side and we’re prepared to keep defending our rights — and outside, 48,000 workers are ready for a long fight.”

The union represents graduate teaching assistants, researchers and other academic workers who lead discussion groups, grade papers, conduct research and administer exams, among other responsibilities. It authorized the strikes last month, alleging its members’ free speech rights were harmed during crackdowns on pro-Palestinian protests at UCLA, UC San Diego and UC Irvine, as well as other charges. It also cited harm to workers who participated in a UCLA encampment that a mob attacked April 30 without police intervention for hours.

Most of Friday's hearing was taken up by lawyers for each side attempting to persuade the judge — who indicated at the onset that he leaned toward halting the strike — on two main issues: the question of whether the Superior Court should have taken up the case and the extent of the "irreparable harm" the university alleged the strike has caused.

UC attorneys argued that the walkout violated "no strike" provisions in contracts it has with the union.

"We are purely here on a breach of contract. ... Our no-strike clause is clear and unambiguous," said Tim Yeung, a Bay Area-based attorney who represented the university system.

Margo Feinberg, a Los Angeles-based lawyer representing the union, said the university was "forum shopping," alleging it had looked for a friendly venue after losses at the labor board, which typically oversees higher-education union-employer disputes.

"We're in the wrong place," Feinberg said. "No disrespect, your honor, but we should be before the Public Employment Relations Board."

Sherman, the judge, sided with UC on whether his court was the proper place to argue the issues.

"I am not sure this is a labor dispute. Parties did not have a disagreement over the terms and conditions of employment," he said.

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

Yeung said the strike was damaging student academics permanently, including through class cancellations. He said many campuses will hold finals next week and that union workers were key to the process.

"We have grades due immediately after finals. Students are depending on those grades," he said, noting that some union workers do grading. The strike "may affect [students'] ability to move on to the next level. ... There is going to [be] harm to our students if this is not stopped."

UC officials have told The Times that they do not know exactly how many classes, discussion groups or other work led by union members has been affected by the strikes. The union has also not replied to questions from The Times about how many union-represented workers are participating in strikes.

Feinberg said in court that UC's legal filings were broad and vague as to how the strike has hurt campuses. She also said the same union went on a longer strike in 2022 over pay and benefits with "no irreparable harm" to schools.

"Some of this stuff is just made up. ... I understand there is a lot drama they are trying to create around this, but ... it's like, where's the facts?" Feinberg said. The union's filing quoted a university website that recently said, "Class sessions, examinations, and other academic activities are still continuing and the university expects that academic work will be completed" during the strike.

UC has also contended the strike is about politics, not traditional labor issues.

In court documents, UC cited an instance in which a union member pushed their department to vote for the strike, stating, “The top demand that matters here is disinvestment. This is about Palestine first and our ability to work comfortably at UC second." In its filings, the union disputed many of UC descriptions of the strike and its intentions as "hearsay."

The union maintains its strike is legal and unrelated to its contracts because the walkout is over broad worker rights it alleges were violated during university actions against pro-Palestinian protesters, including arrests and academic discipline that has prevented some workers from access to university-owned housing.

The union filed unfair-labor practice charges with PERB over those accusations. UC has filed its own charges with the board, contending that the strike is illegal.

The labor board denied two UC injunction requests, ruling the university did not meet the legal threshold for it to stop the walkout while mediation over both sides' charges continued over the long term.

The labor board had also requested to be a party to the Orange County case, arguing that it has "exclusive initial jurisdiction over aspects of this dispute." The judge on Friday denied the board's expedited request to join the case but said it could file the motion again on a normal court schedule.

UC's decision to go to state court was described as a "brazen" move by a UC Irvine professor of employment and labor law.

"It’s not that they clearly do not have the authority to go to Superior Court," Veena Dubal, the professor, said Thursday before the hearing. "That is a legal issue for the court to decide. But it is pretty brazen because they are going simply because they did not like the outcome at PERB, which is the agency charged with actually dealing with these issues."

John Logan, a professor in the department of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State, said Friday's decision would not be the "final word on the strike, of course, and the UAW strikers will still be confident that they can prevail. But the timing of the ruling will make it difficult for them to get the leverage they would have had by striking at the end of the quarter."

Some union members Friday said they would consider potentially ignoring the judge's order.

"It's go time!" said a post on X by UCSC4COLA, an account representing an unknown number of rank-and-file union members at UC Santa Cruz, where the union went on strike May 20. The union, where members have previously gone on unauthorized wildcat strikes, is one of the strongest chapters in UAW 4811.

The post linked to a thread from earlier in the day, prior to the court decision, that said some Santa Cruz workers would spend the weekend deciding "whether or not to defy" the judge's order, "even as it weakens our legal protections against discipline and quite possibly annuls our access to the strike fund."

"The stakes are very high," the posts said.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.