A recent survey sent out by the University of California student workers union has reintroduced the possibility of a student organizing group demanding the university divest its financial holdings from companies supporting Israel.
An Oct. 19 survey sent to members of United Auto Workers Local 2865—the union which represents UC graduate student researchers (GSRs), teaching assistants (TAs) and other graduate-level campus employees—contains a pair of questions that give graduate students the opportunity to weigh in on how high a priority divestment from private prisons, fossil fuels and “oppression of Palestinians” is to them.
Graduate students are being asked their preferences and opinions on a variety of
issues — including divestment — ahead of a new round of contract negotiations with the UC administration next year. The results of this survey will better inform UAW leadership on which priority areas to focus in the negotiations.
The first question—the fifty-fifth of the survey—asks students to measure the importance of meeting the demands of “three major UC Divestment Campaigns” and gives four priority level options to that question. A second question allows students to select which, if any, of the individual divestment campaigns are important to them.
Images from UAW Survey
“The question is about control over the university’s finances,” Jonathan Koch, UAW’s unit chair for UCLA told Ha’Am in a phone interview. “Even though we don’t pay very much into [pensions], we’re still making contributions, and we want a say in where those contributions are going.”
Koch explained that the survey is being used to inform the formation of a ballot, which graduate students will vote on in December. The results of the binding December vote will solidify “demands” that the UAW union leaders will bring into contract negotiations with UC leadership next year.
In the event the union membership does not ratify an agreement with the UC administration, members may be asked to vote on a strike authorization. UC leaders, including President Janet Napolitano have repeatedly rejected calls to boycott divest from Israel.
Though the first question may seem to imply bundling of the three issues together, Koch notes that in survey tabulation, the priority level indicated in question 55 will be applied to the campaigns noted in 56—not divestment in general.
“One may rank a choice in question 55 while only supporting one, or no campaign in question 56,” he said. “[The survey] doesn’t roll the three together.”
Jacob Schaperow, a Ph.D. student in Engineering at UCLA and member of UAW 2865, says he thinks that the word choice for the survey questions could be confusing.
“It is misleading to raise the question of divestment from Israel together with divestment from fossil fuels and private prisons,” he said. “Someone who is not familiar with the situation in Israel but is against the other issues may make an uninformed decision by association.”
The choice of wording “Oppression of Palestinians” differs from divestment from Israel, Koch explained, because of the types of financial holdings that would be targeted.
“It’s worded this particular way on purpose,” he said. “It’s not ‘divestment from Israel.’ The companies we would be talking about are American companies.”
Koch cited Caterpillar as a company that would likely be targeted in divestment demands. Caterpillar is a company that has been mentioned frequently in divestment resolutions on UC campuses during Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement campaigns at the undergraduate level.
In 2014, UAW 2865 held a UC system-wide vote on divestment from Israel as well as an academic boycott of Israeli institutions. That measure passed with 65% supporting the divestment and 52% supporting the academic boycott. The result was later overturned by appeal when a UCLA graduate student retained legal counsel and appealed the decision.
Koch says the motivation for including the question on the survey was not any affiliation with the BDS movement by the union or its leadership.
“It is precisely a question about members’ opinions,” he said. “Such a large percentage of our members showed support for this issue in the past and shows that it’s a large issue of concern. This is the reason why we chose to include it in our survey.”
Schaperow said that he felt the inclusion of the divestment issue in the survey itself did not belong in contract negotiations for the workers’ union.
“It seems off topic,” Schaperow said. “The student union should focus on securing benefits for student workers, as well as good working and living conditions.”