After Winning Historic Labor Strike, UC San Diego Grad Students Are Hit With Misconduct Allegations and Arrests

by on July 11, 2023 · 0 comments

in Education, Labor, San Diego

By Peter Lucas / The Intercept / July 11, 2023

On May 5, as Chancellor Pradeep Khosla began his opening remarks at the 44th University of California, San Diego Alumni Awards at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, some 60 academic worker activists took the stage carrying a cardboard sign. They were there to present him with UC’s “Most Overpaid Worker” award; Khosla had received a $500,000 raise while, the union says, the university was simultaneously refusing to fully implement their recently ratified collective bargaining agreement.

Khosla quickly left the stage amid chants of “Pradeep, Pradeep, the rent is too steep!” When the police arrived, the graduate students had relocated outdoors to the sidewalk where, separated by a glass wall, they continued chanting their demands: “What do we want? Our promised wages. When do we want them? Now!”

While the action ended peacefully, just over a month later, the university charged 59 graduate student workers from the event’s registration list with “physical assault,” “physical abuse and threats to health and safety,” and “disruption of university activities.” Almost half of the people accused deny even being in attendance.

The university claims workers “bumped” Khosla and stole the microphone. The union disputes the allegations and points to a livestream of the action by a member, which, though blurry, does not show evidence of either charge. The students now face disciplinary hearings for the union action, which could result in probation or even expulsion from the university.

It was the latest provocation by the university in what workers say is an escalating retaliation campaign against them since ratifying a collective bargaining agreement late last year. The university has now brought multiple sets of misconduct charges against students and workers following three separate union-led protests.

Michael Duff, a law professor at St. Louis University, said the repeated charges speak to a pattern. “You can’t see this in isolation. There’s been a pattern of retaliation against the members involved,” he said, noting that “the nature of this case seems overly aggressive.”

Nearly 50,000 academic workers across the University of California system went on strike for six weeks last winter, the largest higher education strike in U.S. history. They won substantial wage increases, unprecedented new protections against workplace bullying, and immigrant worker protections.

But since ratifying their collective bargaining agreement last December, workers at UC San Diego say the university has not implemented aspects of their contract like establishing an office to process complaints of workplace misconduct or hiring workers at 50 percent of full-time employment, which is the standard appointment for graduate student researchers. Workers also say there have been dramatic reductions in teaching assistant appointments in certain departments and that two dozen students received unsatisfactory grades for participating in the strike.

“We signed a legally binding contract, and instead of implementing it, they’re trying to punish us.”
“We signed a legally binding contract, and instead of implementing it, they’re trying to punish us,” Udayan Tandon, who was recently elected as a unit chair of United Auto Workers Local 2865, told The Intercept.

Most recently, two UC San Diego graduate student workers and one post-doc were arrested by university police at their homes for writing pro-union slogans on the sidewalk during an action a month prior. Charged with conspiracy and vandalism, some union members believe the arrests are an extension of the pushback student workers have been facing on campus.

“Under the First Amendment, speech restrictions which are based on the content of the speech face strict scrutiny in the courts,” said Will Bloom, a labor lawyer who deals with First Amendment cases. It is “a standard that virtually no restrictions can survive,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine the university pursuing felony charges for kids chalking a hopscotch court on the sidewalk outside of the marine center.”

In a public statement on the arrests, university officials said, “UC San Diego supports its community members rights to voice their concerns lawfully. UC San Diego does not tolerate vandalism or other damage to university property.” While the union says it used “washable chalk,” the university claims the students used “materials other than chalk,” costing over $12,000 to repair.

The workers’ arraignment, scheduled for Monday, was delayed because the university has not submitted the cases for review with the district attorney’s office, which they have up to three years to do. As a result, no charges have been filed by the DA at this time. UAW locals 2865 and 5810 rallied outside the San Diego Court House prior to the scheduled hearing to demand the university drop the charges.

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