Last month, a group of UC San Diego grad workers disrupted an alumni event at La Jolla’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Upset with the implementation of the university’s historic contract, they took the stage and presented Chancellor Pradeep Khosla with a cardboard sign that read “the most overpaid worker.”
The students gave a speech from the podium, as guests watched. Several museum staff members rushed to the stage, eventually forcing members of the newly formed union outside the venue, where they continued to chant their frustrations.
The students are now on the defensive. In response to the act of civil disobedience, the university has brought administrative violations, including physical assault, against 67 people, according to the union. Some contend they did not attend the event and others graduated years earlier. The allegations of violating the university’s student conduct procedures could result in the suspension or dismissal of the workers.
The university seems to have levied three identical violations against all the grad workers – physical assault, conduct that threatens the health or safety of any person, and obstruction or disruption of teaching, research, administration, disciplinary procedures, or other University activities. The grad workers insist no physical assault occurred.
Alex Wenzel, a grad worker who received a notice of violations by the university, attended the protest and live streamed it on Twitter. He said the workers decided to protest because they felt the university was not adhering to their contract, and previous grievances and petitions had fallen on deaf ears.
When he received the notice on June 9, he was shocked.
“I witnessed exactly what happened, which was an entirely peaceful demonstration based on violations of our labor rights,” Wenzel said.
He thinks all the violations are unfounded but is particularly bothered by the assault accusation. He said his uninterrupted livestream that shows where he was throughout the entire protest should be proof that there was no assault.
“I really think it is an attempt to dissuade us from union organizing,” Wenzel said.
Matthew Nagel, UCSD’s director of public relations, said the university could not comment on student disciplinary cases because of student privacy laws.
In a letter sent to grad workers, the university wrote that the protesters had “physically bumped Chancellor Khosla and took the microphone away from him.” The letter cites a witness who described the students as “aggressive” and noted that several champagne glasses were broken when students took to the stage.
“No one I saw, no one I’ve talked to, touched anyone,” said Gwen Frank, a grad worker who took the stage. “It was all peaceful. We stood on stage, held up some banners and gave some speeches.”
Frank is facing administrative violations, too. She said that while the crowd had mixed reactions while they were on stage, after the event she was approached by multiple alumni who congratulated her for demonstrating.
“They had heard what’s going on with everything at UC … and they were supportive, that it wasn’t okay, and someone needed to do something and speak out,” Frank said.
But while the university letter states that “about 20” students “rushed” the stage, the grad workers say that the university has accused 67 people of violations. Wenzel said the grad workers have identified 18 people who received the identical violations who either did not attend the event or had no knowledge of it. The grad workers’ suspect the list was based on RSVPs to the event and did not consider whether those who RSVP’d were present.
Adam Cooper is one of the grad workers accused of violations and said he wasn’t even at the event.
“I was actually working, doing research while it was happening,” Cooper said. He’d RSVP’d for the event before he’d known a protest had been planned. Because he’s a climate activist, he said, he tries to seek out opportunities to connect with administrators.
“Some folks in that community are really pretty upset. They see this kind of as an attack on all forms of free expression on campus,” Cooper said. “This sets a really dangerous precedent that’s going to discourage similar acts of expression on campus and off campus.”
In response, the United Auto Workers – the union that represents grad workers – created a petition calling on the university to drop the violations and abide by the terms of the workers’ contract.
“Although it was worrying to get and it does make me anxious, and it does impact my work, I’m fully confident that none of these … charges will stick and we’ll be able to organize around them,” Cooper said.