(Bloomberg) -- Thousands of unionized graduate student workers at University of California campuses across the state are poised to walk off the job after members voted to authorize leadership to call a strike, escalating tensions stemming from the university’s response to pro-Palestinian protests on campus.

United Auto Workers Local 4811, which represents the students, said Wednesday that 79% of participating members approved the strike authorization.

It would be the fourth work stoppage among UC graduate student workers. The last one, in November 2022, was the largest strike in the history of higher education—all 48,000 members walked off the job for six weeks, culminating in a new contract with a more than 50% raise to workers’ base pay.

“The university violated their obligation to protect student-workers’ right to free speech and their freedom from discrimination for their political view viewpoints,” UAW Local 4811 President Rafael Jamie said in an interview. “The university engaged in unlawful action, unlawful practices throughout by changing its policy pertaining to protests on campus, and discriminated against those expressing pro-Palestinian views.” 

The strike vote comes as unions representing academic workers are ratcheting up the pressure on universities over how they’ve handled pro-Palestinian protests at over 100 campuses across the nation. 

Graduate student unions at Brown University, Harvard University, and the University of Southern California have filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees labor matters involving private-sector employers.

UAW Local 4811 is calling on the UC system to reach an agreement that gives amnesty to all academic employees and students who face disciplinary action or arrest for protesting, solidifies a right to free speech and political expression on campus, and allows researchers to opt out of funding sources tied to the Israeli Defense Force. 

Union leadership is also calling on the university to disclose and unwind all its known investments in weapons manufacturers, military contractors, and companies profiting from the Israel-Hamas war. 

Officials at the University of California Office of the President said in a statement before the vote that the union’s demands fall outside the scope of negotiation for employment. 

“UC believes that the vote currently being conducted by UAW leadership sets a dangerous precedent that would introduce non-labor issues into labor agreements,” the statement said. “If a strike is allowed for political and social disputes, the associated work stoppages would significantly impact UC’s ability to deliver on its promises to its students, community and the State of California.”

In a Wednesday letter after the strike authorization, the university said it considers the strike to be unlawful and any worker who participates could face “corrective action” and would not receive pay for days on strike.

Read more: Harvard Gaza Protest Response Violated US Labor Law, UAW Claims

Jaime said the union would utilize the “stand-up strike” method used against Detroit automakers last summer, calling out the graduates at individual schools rather than all 48,000 at once. Workers have been told to be ready to walk out as soon as the results have been announced, he said. 

The union said its executive board will evaluate and announce on Friday whether to call on a campus to go on strike.

A strike among the graduate students, who work as teaching and research assistants and perform much of the day-to-day labor involved in classroom instruction, could delay the school’s ability to deliver end-of-year grades and provide more leverage to the undergraduate and graduate students who are demanding the school disclose and discontinue their ties to Israeli institutions.

UAW 4811 leadership called for the strike vote after filing unfair labor practice charges with the California Public Employment Relations Board, accusing the university of violating state labor laws by changing campus policies and restricting union members’ rights to protest.

The union says UC called in police earlier this month to arrest over 200 students at the University of California, Los Angeles after allowing pro-Israeli demonstrators to injure dozens of them in a clash the previous evening.

“A strike is one of the most powerful tools we have as workers and we are going to do everything in our power as students and as workers at this university to push for divestment, to push for a boycott of any companies that are contributing to, or profiting from, the genocide of Palestinians, and to get the cops off campus to make it actually safe for us to study here and work here again,” said Dana Kopel, a Ph.D. student in history at UCLA and member of UAW 4811.   

While the workers’ current contract contains a no-strike clause, California law protects the right to walk out over unfair labor practices. 

To prove that a strike among the graduate workers falls in that category, the union must show that the protests constituted protected concerted activity surrounding the terms and conditions of their employment, and that the university’s response amounted to unlawful retaliation.

(Updated with the vote count and more detail from the university’s response.)

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