California Academic Workers on Strike for Palestine
California Academic Workers on Strike for Palestine
Why do university students and graduate workers in the US organize in defense of Palestine? How did the demand for universities to divest from Israel turn into a labor issue? UC Santa Cruz labor activist Isabel Kain gives her view on the ongoing strike

Suzi Weissman: Police in riot gear entered the UC Santa Cruz campus early Friday morning on May 31 at around 1 a.m., arresting some 80 pro-Palestinian protesters who set up an encampment and blocked the main entrance to the campus. It looked pretty violent, and they’ve been arresting people. So, I guess the way to frame it is that up until that time, even though Santa Cruz was the first to begin the strike, unlike UCLA, which had a really brutal response, the administration had been passive and did not call in the police. And that all ended at 1 a.m. on Friday. So, just in time for finals week at the UC campuses. Let’s start with what happened.

Isabel Kain: Sure. I want to be really clear that there are two parallel threads running here. There is the Palestine Solidarity Encampment, spearheaded by students at various universities. The last time I checked, there were nearly 200 of these solidarity encampments across the globe, including here at UC Santa Cruz. There’s also the academic workers strike that I’m a part of, which went on strike at Santa Cruz. Other campuses were getting called out week by week to join us and stand up and strike for the encampment. I don’t want to speak too much for these people. I am not part of the encampment. Many graduate workers or academic workers or UAW members have participated in the encampment. 

But I want to be clear about who is spearheading these actions. It’s the students themselves. The students are stepping up and taking this initiative. So, a few nights ago, they took the intersection to escalate their action. They promised to occupy the road permanently or indefinitely, until their demands were met by the administration, which had until then negotiated in bad faith, refused to make substantive movement over the table, and essentially tried to wait them out. I believe these campers were camping –– you should check this number — but I believe for almost a month, almost thirty days. When they took this intersection and escalated late last night, UC made the despicable choice to call in cops from, I believe, more than five different precincts from all over California. 

The encampment, the encampment’s actions, and the strike are distinct from one another, and one of our strike demands is amnesty for all protesters in these Palestine solidarity encampments. So, we stand in solidarity with our students. We stand against cops brutalizing our students for practicing their right to free speech. And one of the things that we’re negotiating for are the same demands that the encampment is negotiating. We want amnesty for all these protesters. We want the right to free speech in our campuses and our workplaces. We want disclosure of all the investments in our university. We want divestment from the war machine, from weapons contractors, arms manufacturers, and companies that profit economically from Israel’s occupation of Palestine. And we want centralized, transitional funding to enable and empower workers to opt out of the war machine. If you are doing research that is militarized and you are experiencing moral injury because of that misuse of your intellectual property, the resulting pinch should not be incurred upon the worker. The pinch should be incurred on the university as they pivot away from that research. We are standing in solidarity, side by side with these people.

— Earlier you mentioned the two threads between the encampment and the Palestine solidarity movement and then the union struggle. I’m curious about the kinds of discussions that went on between these two threads, Palestine and the union, and how you organized the stoppage. Why do you think the response of the administration was at first passive and they didn’t call the police like UCLA had, as their first resort? What changed this week? Is it because finals are starting? 

I’ll answer your first question first. You talk about these separate threads of Palestine organizing and union organizing, and I don’t think they’re separate at all in the labor movement, as a labor organizer. Because of Palestine, I was brought into organizing after October 7th because I’m a graduate worker in STEM, and I know that there are a lot of really intimate connections between the military industrial complex and the research that I do, the research that I really care about, and the research that I think makes the world a better place. I research exoplanets. That in itself is not weaponizable, and I think that science and research for research’s sake is a good thing. But there are some really, really troubling connections there. 

So, in the aftermath of October 7th, you know, as a researcher at a research university I was trying to talk to other researchers around me to metabolize my grief and my rage and figure out what I was positioned to do. There was a call for solidarity that was released from the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions on October 16th, the call to end all complicity, stop arming Israel. And this call for solidaristic action from trade unions around the world explicitly outlined military research and military funding as something that had to be stopped. 

And so, we realized again, as researchers at a university, we were perfectly positioned to intervene. We realized that what we were intervening in was actually the very beginning of the military supply chain. The research that people like me do creates the killing machines of tomorrow. The research that was done a decade, two decades ago, is now killing Palestinians before our eyes. And so, we organized a lot over those months to identify and map out the funding from the Department of Defense that was flowing into our universities and flowing into our workplaces and supporting graduate workers, reaching out to these graduate workers, trying to organize them around how they felt about the implications of this funding, and supporting their research.

— This is something that I’m sure took a lot of investigation, not just from the Department of Defense, but from the Navy as well. They’ve historically funded things that didn’t seem to immediately have a military raison d’être. For example, they have funded anthropological projects, trying to look at things like the cultural responses to pain, which was then used for understanding how people would respond to torture, that kind of thing. But the project’s objective is so opaque that the people engaged in the research may not know how it’s going to be used. So, the question is, was it obvious in your department, what these contracts were and how they could be used?

That’s a great question. And it’s a question that we talk about a lot with these grad workers who often are like, I’m an ecologist and I study elephant seal behavior. That seems like a good thing to have in the world. And I agree, I think that is a great thing. But the Department of Defense and other military entities invest in basic research for a couple of reasons. The DoD is an extraordinarily well-funded entity. You’ll have to check my number on this. This number is not quite up to date, but I believe the DoD receives upward of $800 billion per year in funding. And so, it has the money to throw around, and it funds basic research in the hope that something weaponizable and something useful will shake out of this seemingly disconnected research. 

Here’s an example from a comrade at UMass Amherst who’s a civil engineer. He was talking about going out with his friend who was also a civil engineer, and she was talking about her research on using lidar to assess the structural integrity of buildings. Her project was explicitly like “Oh yeah, I’m saving people. I am. I’m making sure that houses don’t collapse on people. I’m making sure that houses are up to code.” It came to our attention later that this was explicitly for applications in war zones, for assessing what buildings would be prime targets to be bombed. And so, these connections are intentionally kept secret. Also, the DoD is investing in this benign research in the hope that something insidious can shake out of it. 

The other reason is that investing in this basic research that everybody recognizes is good for the world helps organizations like the DoD launder its reputation. I was chatting with someone from the Just Math Collective about the connections between mathematics research and the NSA specifically, and he was pointing out to me that when the NSA funds a mathematician, especially in a field like math, that it’s really hard to get funding for basic research. You create scientists who are willing to publicly go to bat for these institutions, willing to recommend that their students go take internships with the NSA, willing to, you know, apply for these grants over and over again, agree to collaborations with NSA scientists. You bring people into this ecology of the military industrial complex. That’s the kind of reasoning behind this benign research.

— That has broad implications not only for unfair labor practices but also the conditions for a strike. One of the demands is to break this kind of connection between the war machine and its research. Given how broad what you’re describing, it’s a little far afield from what I wanted to ask about [police] violence. But how do you see this playing out in terms of negotiations to separate the money, and how will research continue to be funded?

I want to first point out that this is incredibly field dependent. My funding landscape as an astronomer is different from someone who’s an engineer, is different from someone who’s in the humanities. But I want to point out that federal funding for basic research is actually a very small proportion of the total money flowing in and supporting that kind of work. When we talk about turning down DoD funding and pivoting to other things — and again, highly field dependent  there’s often lots of other funding sources that we can rely on. I’m personally supported by a National Science Foundation grant. 

I also think when we talk about this stuff, we risk falling into the trap of thinking: this is dirty money, this is clean money. And that’s just not an accurate way to think about this stuff. When we talk about the military industrial complex or the ecology of war, what’s implied by that phrase is that it has tendrils everywhere and everyone is a participant in it. It’s not so much about opting out of dirty money and opting into clean money. It’s trying to kick the military industrial complex out of research entirely. Not just accepting DoD funding, but also making sure that my intellectual property doesn’t flow back to militarized applications.

— And as we can see, the strike has expanded this week to three more UC campuses with an end date for June 30th. I wondered if you could talk more about why this week in particular and how it will affect the University. How do you see it coming to an end on June 30th — or will it?

I’ll back up a little bit and explain the model of the strike that we’re on. In 2022, all of the campuses went on strike together and they stayed out together. We all voted on the same tentative agreement that, in the end, did call an end to the strike. We accepted that contract and all workers went home. This is a different model of strike, called a stand-up strike that was pioneered by the Big Three. In this model, instead of going out altogether, the campuses are sent out at strategically staggered times. We talked about Santa Cruz having strong strike muscles and being the first to call up to strike. The week after that, we had two other campuses, UCLA and UC Davis, stand up as well because their workers were ready to strike, ready to go, feeling strong. And now we’re seeing three more campuses being called up this week. I want to point out that one of the strengths of the stand-up strike is that you can use the calling out of different campuses to stand up and strike as a negotiating chip. To my knowledge, my union has met with a mediator through PERB. I believe that, for a while, UC was refusing to schedule a second mediation session. And so there you go. Three more campuses are getting called up. What do you want? We can use this strategy to punish the employer for bad faith bargaining practices.

— That’s brilliant. Given the energy you have described — and we still don’t know the outcome of the police response at Santa Cruz today — do you see this as the official response from the administration? Will they want to negotiate further? 

I think, you know, in these parallel threads of the strike and the encampment, the UC has been very cold and uncompromising in the negotiation sessions so far. They’ve tried their best to wait out the encampment and engage in bad faith. No movement negotiations with the encampment. And now they’re using police brutality, militarized police to suppress the encampment. 

To me, this says that the university is terrified of what it would mean for students and workers to have control over how the machinery of the university runs. So, they’re fighting this as hard as possible. Too bad for them. I’ll speak, at least for the strike. We are prepared to withhold grades. We are prepared to withhold research. We are prepared to withhold the service work that makes this university run. Yeah, there are a lot of really impactful choke points and deadlines that are on the horizon between now and June 30th, the nominal end date of this strike. And I think the UC is going to figure out who actually holds the power here. It is the workers, and it is the students who are the lifeblood of this university.

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California Academic Workers on Strike for Palestine
California Academic Workers on Strike for Palestine
Why do university students and graduate workers in the US organize in defense of Palestine? How did the demand for universities to divest from Israel turn into a labor issue? UC Santa Cruz labor activist Isabel Kain gives her view on the ongoing strike

Suzi Weissman: Police in riot gear entered the UC Santa Cruz campus early Friday morning on May 31 at around 1 a.m., arresting some 80 pro-Palestinian protesters who set up an encampment and blocked the main entrance to the campus. It looked pretty violent, and they’ve been arresting people. So, I guess the way to frame it is that up until that time, even though Santa Cruz was the first to begin the strike, unlike UCLA, which had a really brutal response, the administration had been passive and did not call in the police. And that all ended at 1 a.m. on Friday. So, just in time for finals week at the UC campuses. Let’s start with what happened.

Isabel Kain: Sure. I want to be really clear that there are two parallel threads running here. There is the Palestine Solidarity Encampment, spearheaded by students at various universities. The last time I checked, there were nearly 200 of these solidarity encampments across the globe, including here at UC Santa Cruz. There’s also the academic workers strike that I’m a part of, which went on strike at Santa Cruz. Other campuses were getting called out week by week to join us and stand up and strike for the encampment. I don’t want to speak too much for these people. I am not part of the encampment. Many graduate workers or academic workers or UAW members have participated in the encampment. 

But I want to be clear about who is spearheading these actions. It’s the students themselves. The students are stepping up and taking this initiative. So, a few nights ago, they took the intersection to escalate their action. They promised to occupy the road permanently or indefinitely, until their demands were met by the administration, which had until then negotiated in bad faith, refused to make substantive movement over the table, and essentially tried to wait them out. I believe these campers were camping –– you should check this number — but I believe for almost a month, almost thirty days. When they took this intersection and escalated late last night, UC made the despicable choice to call in cops from, I believe, more than five different precincts from all over California. 

The encampment, the encampment’s actions, and the strike are distinct from one another, and one of our strike demands is amnesty for all protesters in these Palestine solidarity encampments. So, we stand in solidarity with our students. We stand against cops brutalizing our students for practicing their right to free speech. And one of the things that we’re negotiating for are the same demands that the encampment is negotiating. We want amnesty for all these protesters. We want the right to free speech in our campuses and our workplaces. We want disclosure of all the investments in our university. We want divestment from the war machine, from weapons contractors, arms manufacturers, and companies that profit economically from Israel’s occupation of Palestine. And we want centralized, transitional funding to enable and empower workers to opt out of the war machine. If you are doing research that is militarized and you are experiencing moral injury because of that misuse of your intellectual property, the resulting pinch should not be incurred upon the worker. The pinch should be incurred on the university as they pivot away from that research. We are standing in solidarity, side by side with these people.

— Earlier you mentioned the two threads between the encampment and the Palestine solidarity movement and then the union struggle. I’m curious about the kinds of discussions that went on between these two threads, Palestine and the union, and how you organized the stoppage. Why do you think the response of the administration was at first passive and they didn’t call the police like UCLA had, as their first resort? What changed this week? Is it because finals are starting? 

I’ll answer your first question first. You talk about these separate threads of Palestine organizing and union organizing, and I don’t think they’re separate at all in the labor movement, as a labor organizer. Because of Palestine, I was brought into organizing after October 7th because I’m a graduate worker in STEM, and I know that there are a lot of really intimate connections between the military industrial complex and the research that I do, the research that I really care about, and the research that I think makes the world a better place. I research exoplanets. That in itself is not weaponizable, and I think that science and research for research’s sake is a good thing. But there are some really, really troubling connections there. 

So, in the aftermath of October 7th, you know, as a researcher at a research university I was trying to talk to other researchers around me to metabolize my grief and my rage and figure out what I was positioned to do. There was a call for solidarity that was released from the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions on October 16th, the call to end all complicity, stop arming Israel. And this call for solidaristic action from trade unions around the world explicitly outlined military research and military funding as something that had to be stopped. 

And so, we realized again, as researchers at a university, we were perfectly positioned to intervene. We realized that what we were intervening in was actually the very beginning of the military supply chain. The research that people like me do creates the killing machines of tomorrow. The research that was done a decade, two decades ago, is now killing Palestinians before our eyes. And so, we organized a lot over those months to identify and map out the funding from the Department of Defense that was flowing into our universities and flowing into our workplaces and supporting graduate workers, reaching out to these graduate workers, trying to organize them around how they felt about the implications of this funding, and supporting their research.

— This is something that I’m sure took a lot of investigation, not just from the Department of Defense, but from the Navy as well. They’ve historically funded things that didn’t seem to immediately have a military raison d’être. For example, they have funded anthropological projects, trying to look at things like the cultural responses to pain, which was then used for understanding how people would respond to torture, that kind of thing. But the project’s objective is so opaque that the people engaged in the research may not know how it’s going to be used. So, the question is, was it obvious in your department, what these contracts were and how they could be used?

That’s a great question. And it’s a question that we talk about a lot with these grad workers who often are like, I’m an ecologist and I study elephant seal behavior. That seems like a good thing to have in the world. And I agree, I think that is a great thing. But the Department of Defense and other military entities invest in basic research for a couple of reasons. The DoD is an extraordinarily well-funded entity. You’ll have to check my number on this. This number is not quite up to date, but I believe the DoD receives upward of $800 billion per year in funding. And so, it has the money to throw around, and it funds basic research in the hope that something weaponizable and something useful will shake out of this seemingly disconnected research. 

Here’s an example from a comrade at UMass Amherst who’s a civil engineer. He was talking about going out with his friend who was also a civil engineer, and she was talking about her research on using lidar to assess the structural integrity of buildings. Her project was explicitly like “Oh yeah, I’m saving people. I am. I’m making sure that houses don’t collapse on people. I’m making sure that houses are up to code.” It came to our attention later that this was explicitly for applications in war zones, for assessing what buildings would be prime targets to be bombed. And so, these connections are intentionally kept secret. Also, the DoD is investing in this benign research in the hope that something insidious can shake out of it. 

The other reason is that investing in this basic research that everybody recognizes is good for the world helps organizations like the DoD launder its reputation. I was chatting with someone from the Just Math Collective about the connections between mathematics research and the NSA specifically, and he was pointing out to me that when the NSA funds a mathematician, especially in a field like math, that it’s really hard to get funding for basic research. You create scientists who are willing to publicly go to bat for these institutions, willing to recommend that their students go take internships with the NSA, willing to, you know, apply for these grants over and over again, agree to collaborations with NSA scientists. You bring people into this ecology of the military industrial complex. That’s the kind of reasoning behind this benign research.

— That has broad implications not only for unfair labor practices but also the conditions for a strike. One of the demands is to break this kind of connection between the war machine and its research. Given how broad what you’re describing, it’s a little far afield from what I wanted to ask about [police] violence. But how do you see this playing out in terms of negotiations to separate the money, and how will research continue to be funded?

I want to first point out that this is incredibly field dependent. My funding landscape as an astronomer is different from someone who’s an engineer, is different from someone who’s in the humanities. But I want to point out that federal funding for basic research is actually a very small proportion of the total money flowing in and supporting that kind of work. When we talk about turning down DoD funding and pivoting to other things — and again, highly field dependent  there’s often lots of other funding sources that we can rely on. I’m personally supported by a National Science Foundation grant. 

I also think when we talk about this stuff, we risk falling into the trap of thinking: this is dirty money, this is clean money. And that’s just not an accurate way to think about this stuff. When we talk about the military industrial complex or the ecology of war, what’s implied by that phrase is that it has tendrils everywhere and everyone is a participant in it. It’s not so much about opting out of dirty money and opting into clean money. It’s trying to kick the military industrial complex out of research entirely. Not just accepting DoD funding, but also making sure that my intellectual property doesn’t flow back to militarized applications.

— And as we can see, the strike has expanded this week to three more UC campuses with an end date for June 30th. I wondered if you could talk more about why this week in particular and how it will affect the University. How do you see it coming to an end on June 30th — or will it?

I’ll back up a little bit and explain the model of the strike that we’re on. In 2022, all of the campuses went on strike together and they stayed out together. We all voted on the same tentative agreement that, in the end, did call an end to the strike. We accepted that contract and all workers went home. This is a different model of strike, called a stand-up strike that was pioneered by the Big Three. In this model, instead of going out altogether, the campuses are sent out at strategically staggered times. We talked about Santa Cruz having strong strike muscles and being the first to call up to strike. The week after that, we had two other campuses, UCLA and UC Davis, stand up as well because their workers were ready to strike, ready to go, feeling strong. And now we’re seeing three more campuses being called up this week. I want to point out that one of the strengths of the stand-up strike is that you can use the calling out of different campuses to stand up and strike as a negotiating chip. To my knowledge, my union has met with a mediator through PERB. I believe that, for a while, UC was refusing to schedule a second mediation session. And so there you go. Three more campuses are getting called up. What do you want? We can use this strategy to punish the employer for bad faith bargaining practices.

— That’s brilliant. Given the energy you have described — and we still don’t know the outcome of the police response at Santa Cruz today — do you see this as the official response from the administration? Will they want to negotiate further? 

I think, you know, in these parallel threads of the strike and the encampment, the UC has been very cold and uncompromising in the negotiation sessions so far. They’ve tried their best to wait out the encampment and engage in bad faith. No movement negotiations with the encampment. And now they’re using police brutality, militarized police to suppress the encampment. 

To me, this says that the university is terrified of what it would mean for students and workers to have control over how the machinery of the university runs. So, they’re fighting this as hard as possible. Too bad for them. I’ll speak, at least for the strike. We are prepared to withhold grades. We are prepared to withhold research. We are prepared to withhold the service work that makes this university run. Yeah, there are a lot of really impactful choke points and deadlines that are on the horizon between now and June 30th, the nominal end date of this strike. And I think the UC is going to figure out who actually holds the power here. It is the workers, and it is the students who are the lifeblood of this university.

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