color photograph of an outdoor protest. people in short-sleeve shirts walk towards the camera holding white and blue wood picket signs that read "uaw on strike unfair labor practices"
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 15: Union academic workers and supporters march and picket at the UCLA campus amid a statewide strike by nearly 48,000 University of California unionized workers on Nov. 15, 2022, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In November, 48,000 academic workers went on strike across the University of California system, making it the largest higher education worker strike in history. The United Auto Workers (UAW) ended the strike when they reached a new labor agreement the next month, but for many of us involved in the strike, we went into the new year with a better understanding of what the university is capable of. The strike revealed the tactics and maneuvers the university was willing to use, showing just how far the administration would go to avoid acquiescing to the demands of graduate employees who lacked adequate food, housing, and wages. No matter the strike’s outcome, this moment must be understood as something more significant than the working conditions of these specific academic employees. This is about everyone who has been forced to endure the conditions that the UC has created.

The strike may be over, but a significant portion of rank-and-file workers had an alternative vision for the movement, one that required a critical analysis of the university’s history and its foundational mission as a land-grab settlement on Indigenous land. We also considered the broader community that we were accountable to—not just as academic employees, but as people positioned against the UC. This made the stakes higher because our commitment went far beyond the territorial borders of the university, and our beliefs disrupted its founding logic. In this camp, the strike was—and continues to be after its sanctioned completion—an incomplete act of resistance. 

In looking closer at the demands that were removed from the final contract offered to employees, we can see precisely why it is so crucial to view the strike as just the beginning of a broader movement against the university. 

Just days after the strike ended, the UC sunk $4 billion into the “private equity giant” Blackstone Real Estate Income Trust after arguing that it lacked the funds to give academic employees affordable housing or a cost of living adjustment. Blackstone is part of the reason the cost of housing is becoming more unaffordable; the company is snapping up apartments and homes across California, and the UN has accused the group of contributing to a global housing crisis. The UC’s role as an agent of gentrification and a business that renders its employees and community members houseless offers a poignant reminder. The struggles of academic employees are just one part of a broader campaign against the dispossession that the UC has been engaged in as one of the largest landlords in California. The strike created an opening to educate graduate students on these issues and to fight for accountability from the institution. The new labor agreement was never going to mark the end of the struggle to fight for LANDBACK, affordable housing, and divestment from global institutions of gentrification.

A second, crucial demand that was removed from the bargaining table was a contract article on community safety, more broadly known as Cops Off Campus. Again, this was another demand that moved the ideological position of the strike beyond the realm of the university walls back onto the streets, building on a broader abolitionist movement to defund police everywhere. Cops Off Campus presupposes an understanding of the role of the UC itself as a tool of carceral surveillance and an employer of private police forces. 

During the strike, UCLA students overtook a building that included a display of the “heatmap” technology that the school proudly contributed to the Los Angeles Police Department as part of its development of PredPol, a predictive policing system that has automated racist displacement. A movement like Cops Off Campus must consider the requisite connection between the UC’s intellectual work for police departments, the land theft and gentrification that establishes the campus itself (and its resulting violent dispossession), and how these culminate in the specialized policing of the university’s territorial limits. The UC’s carceral apparatus reaches far beyond its specialized police force, though it is one of the most visible manifestations of the policing that pervades the university at both a physical and ideological level. 

The university has to respond to an understanding of liberation from itself. Through the activism of rank-and-file academic workers, we were able to unmask the university and stake a claim toward the redistribution of its stolen wealth, setting a precedent for those who follow us in a continued struggle for liberation from the UC. What made the strike so powerful was our ability to show how the university runs as an extractive business, a real-estate giant, and a carceral institution—and how much that necessitated constructing our community broadly and inclusively. 

Like many educational institutions in the U.S., a behemoth like the UC garners its power through exclusion and perpetuates its power through a professionalized academic class, who are incentivized to follow the university’s neoliberal austerity policies. Academia rewards academics who are rarely accountable to any meaningful sense of community. The strike was an opening to build power through the refusal of this logic and to work alongside and on behalf of the people the university has excluded and pushed out.

The hope is that this momentum does not fade away. Considering how many people, communities, and ways of knowing the university has intentionally silenced, student activism and organizing are plagued by forced institutional memory loss, the deliberate silencing of radical voices, and rates of student turnover that necessitate strikes over the same key issues every few years. 

It is crucial to seize on the foundational threat we have posed to the UC and to recognize it as an opportunity for a complete reimagining of the university itself. We must push forward toward the end of this university and the beginning of something else. The demands of the strike that were erased must constitute the future of our organizing against the university, rooted in an abolitionist tradition that refuses the epistemic limits of institutions like the UC itself.

Khirad Siddiqui is a Ph.D. candidate in Criminology, Law & Society at the University of California, Irvine. She is a prison abolitionist working on Islam, the carceral state, and international traditions...