How University of California Strikers Snuck Past Security and Gave the Bosses Hell

Like something out of a heist movie, the biggest strike of last year ended with a carefully orchestrated direct action involving spycraft and disguises. The mission: to disrupt a meeting of University of California regents and force the administration’s hand.

The first group of arrestees celebrating right after being released and meeting picketers outside during University of California strike action in Los Angeles, December 14, 2022. (Shota Vashakmadze)

By early December 2022, striking members of United Auto Workers (UAW) 2865 and Student Researchers United–UAW had brought University of California operations to a halt. What began with a majority work stoppage and high-participation pickets had expanded into an array of disruptive tactics. Picketers diverted deliveries before dawn and orchestrated strategic building takeovers that shut down campus research and teaching. The effects were immediate: our public campaign garnered astounding local and international support, while our strike actions made business as usual impossible for the university. Yet despite this impact, the university’s bargaining team still refused to make any significant movement toward our demands.

After weeks of attempting to break this deadlock, members were eager to further escalate our tactics and provoke a direct response from the university, heeding the advice of labor strategist Jane McAlevey. Opinions varied about what shape this escalation should take, but as conversations on the picket line turned into conversations across campuses, the university’s Board of Regents emerged as a clear target. In a series of disruptions designed to directly confront their intransigence, we would leverage the mass action of a high-participation strike and the direct actions of small organizing teams engaging in civil disobedience. This campaign would culminate with a disruption of the quarterly Board of Regents meeting scheduled on December 14 at the Luskin Center, UCLA’s $162 million conference hotel.

Amid the intense pressure of thousands rallying outside the building and waves of disruption to the meeting inside, university president Michael Drake sidestepped negotiators and finally conveyed a serious offer: 55–80 percent raises for teaching assistants, tutors, and readers, and 25–80 percent raises for student researchers phased in over the two-and-a-half-year contract. After dozens of actions and scores of planned arrests, this offer came as a response to not only the high-stakes disruptions themselves, but to the high level of organization our union had demonstrated in planning, executing, and sustaining the escalation campaign. In short, while the targeted disruptions each had an impact, the larger campaign also conveyed that, until a real offer was on the table, we would not stop. President Drake made these concerns explicit when delivering the offer, imploring the voluntary mediator that our workers halt the actions and leave the regents alone.

Thanks to high participation, disciplined organizing, and a fair amount of nimble improvisation, our escalations forced victories in bargaining and put an end to dragging negotiations. From our view as organizers of the regents’ meeting, we’d like to situate the campaign within the sources of our strike’s power: a strong base of organized members and their capacity for large-scale coordinated actions resulted in the ratification of an industry standard–setting labor contract.

The Spycraft

Over two weeks, organizers across the state planned and executed this campaign, turning up the pressure each day by targeting decision-makers at their homes and workplaces. While building momentum and the organizing infrastructure necessary to keep it up, we developed a new expertise in covert “heists.” Our actions required careful reconnaissance; we staked out our intended targets, found clever routes into secure areas, and even snuck infiltrators into a regent’s office under the guise of a holiday flower delivery. To amplify their impact, we coordinated these actions with high-turnout pickets that could energize our members engaging in civil disobedience and witness these actions’ profound power.

We staked out our intended targets, found clever routes into secure areas, and even snuck infiltrators into a regent’s office under the guise of a holiday flower delivery.

The success of December 14, we reasoned, would require a massive intensification of these parallel disruptions. We outlined a multipart plan: we would stage both a rally surrounding the hotel — which Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello eagerly volunteered to headline — and a carefully orchestrated, two-part infiltration that would allow us to repeatedly disrupt the meeting taking place inside.

Ten days earlier, we had engineered a takeover of the very same building, the Luskin Center. After planting organizers inside the building to surveil security and secure access to the building’s various entrances upon the march’s approach, picketers streamed into the building en masse. Some contracted security officers responded violently, while others, including management, blocked emergency egress routes. (It bears noting that many security officers were kind and highly sympathetic.) Hundreds of protestors then set up camp with sleeping bags and tents, and occupied the lobby. We threw a party complete with a professional sound system, dozens of smuggled-in pizzas, and dancing that lasted late into the night.

After partygoers left the scene, hotel management fortified the building, locked almost every door, hired dozens of extra security guards, and blocked public entrances with temporary fencing and steel barricades. To prevent another infiltration, the only ways in or out were then routed through a security desk, where guards screened visitors via a list of “legitimate,” registered hotel and restaurant guests.

Pulling this second Luskin action off, then, would require a whole new level of spycraft, and its impact would be all the greater against the backdrop of a newly militarized campus building — the tangible outcome of the anxiety our campaign had incited in the university.

We threw a party complete with a professional sound system, dozens of smuggled-in pizzas, and dancing that lasted late into the night.

After discussing possible security configurations with a friendly insider who supplied us with hand-drawn maps of security lines and access areas based on their memory of a previous regents’ meeting held in the main ballroom, we determined that we would need to scope out the building well in advance of the action. Despite our disguises as well-heeled “suits” ready for happy hour drinks, the barricade turned our planning team away, and instead urged us to book dinner reservations at the upscale (but mediocre) hotel restaurant. We therefore returned for Sunday dinner and took turns sneaking away to survey possible ways to get infiltrators in and out, assess security layouts and floor plans, find cameras, and locate potential screening areas near the ballroom.

In parallel with this recon, we workshopped plans with our network of campus leaders to solidify details and organize participants to picket indoors — including those willing to risk arrest, ensure mass turnout to the rally, and provide crucial logistical support. In addition to UCLA, members from UC Irvine and UC San Diego quickly mobilized to ensure the plan’s success. Many were especially excited to step up for the planned civil disobedience. Our legal team had strongly advised against recent arrestees risking a police encounter for a second time, but we found no shortage of members willing to take their place.

The Heist

Aware that it would be impossible to access the hotel — even disguised — on the day of the regents’ meeting, we booked a slate of hotel rooms for the night before. Our plan to disrupt the meeting from the inside would require a “Trojan horse,” as the frantic Los Angeles Police Department later aptly characterized it. We would need to get our names on security’s prescreened guest list and get as many room keys as possible to validate our infiltrators: our guests who would be variously disguised as “business associates,” invitees to “my cousin’s bar mitzvah,” and plucky political staffers hoping to make an impression at the regents’ meeting.

On December 13, we met with organizing teams to finalize the plan and ensure everyone was prepared for their part. We formed tactical teams, considered contingency plans, and established communication protocols. This process included a civil disobedience training to ensure the safety of arrestees, as well as trainings for the disruptors who would infiltrate the hotel to provide support (but who would obey any dispersal orders issued by police). Because of the mutual trust built on the picket line and the democratic ethos of a majoritarian organizing model, each participant felt empowered to play their part without losing sight of the wider goals of the action. The risks and complexities of the plan, though significant and intimidating to many of us, were eased by confidence in our solidarity, and in our union siblings’ capacity to maintain discipline in demanding circumstances.

Our plan to disrupt the meeting from the inside would require a ‘Trojan horse,’ as the frantic Los Angeles Police Department later aptly characterized it.

That evening — after packing megaphones and UAW T-shirts in our suitcases, filling garment bags with picket signs, disguising ourselves to avoid recognition from the earlier occupation, and preparing cover stories — we checked into our rooms. Late that night, with sheet masks on our faces and drinks in hand, we ironed out final details and relayed last-minute updates to infiltrators. Despite our desire to keep a low profile amid the anxious hotel atmosphere, the buzz of activity in our rooms (and loud laughter) drew the attention of hotel security. After an ominous knock on the door, we called it a night.

In the early morning, after only a few hours of sleep, we arose and began to put the plan into action. Between 5:00 and 7:00 a.m., we snuck about three dozen infiltrators inside by relaying key cards and information about room numbers, cover stories, etc. Meanwhile, our second group of disruptors lined up at the entrance outside — early risers awaiting security screening to join the public hearing portion of the meeting. A separate group dispatched to addresses near the regents’ homes to notify our tactical teams of their departure to Luskin. Over the next two hours, preparations for the large rally commenced in parallel: safety marshals assembled, sound equipment was staged, speakers practiced their speeches, and giant signs shaped like regents’ heads were delivered to organizers.

Inside, however, we were jarred to find that the increased security presence had totally deviated from the setup we had anticipated. Where we expected to find a strategic point of access leading to the ballroom — one which our civil disobedients had planned to block — we found a series of parallel paths, apparently designed to prevent such a bottleneck. We hurried to survey the hotel, each of us keeping our eyes and ears open to prepare an alternate plan.

Over this hour, we witnessed flurries of security guards, police officers, and hotel staff become agitated about a possible disruption. We overheard them saying, “We don’t know who could be here. . . . they could be pretending to be guests,” and “We should have closed off reservations weeks ago,” and “They could be hiding in the bathrooms!” Taking stock of the panicked energy in the hotel, we concluded that without a strategic corridor at the lobby, our best bet would be to block the doors to the meeting room itself.

The Disruption

We reconvened upstairs and gathered every participant in one hotel room to go over a new plan, packed like sardines and whispering quietly to avoid attention. The planned arrestees would casually mill around the lobby until the supporting picketers marched out en masse from the elevator hallway with picket signs and megaphones blaring. In the ensuing disarray, the larger group would engulf the arrestees to form an unstoppable march toward the ballroom doors. A third team would remain undercover and make tactical decisions, circulating through the lobby to overhear intel and coordinate across the groups of arrestees, picketers, and organizers outside.

The new plan relied on the momentum of the mass, unlike the precisely choreographed plan we had disseminated beforehand. We knew that not everyone would be able to make it inside, so we would have to think on our toes: members would need to take on new roles based on changing circumstances and would have to stay in constant communication via text threads, shouts, whispers, and eye contact.

In the final preparations, arrestees wrote an organizer’s phone number on their arms and left their possessions in the room — everything except for an ID — to reduce incriminating evidence. They went down to the lobby at 9:00 a.m. and got in position, ready to jump into action as soon as the chants became audible. Seven minutes later, the three dozen strikers packed into two elevators and distributed the megaphones and picket signs.

The elevator doors opened to the first floor and the picket flooded out, quickly moving through the panicked crowd of security guards. Taken by surprise, security reacted instinctively but with little cohesion. They blocked portions of the hallway to keep some disruptors from passing but failed to slow the larger group. Upon finding a police presence at the ballroom doors, the march veered toward the side entrance to the room — a brilliant split-second decision made by the arrestee group’s tactical lead. As a result, the disruption managed to extend into the meeting room itself, with our group spanning across the side entrance to make sure that the event could not proceed as planned.

Taken by surprise, security reacted instinctively but with little cohesion. They blocked portions of the hallway to keep some disruptors from passing but failed to slow the larger group.

Once in position, the picketers chanted our contract demands. They shared stories of rent burden, being overworked and undervalued, and the failures of the university’s academic mission. Police and security came and went, assessing the situation and realizing the scale of the action. Regents periodically peered into the meeting room and were quickly escorted out, while our undercover members in the lobby overheard their phone conversations with an individual named Michael (President Michael Drake?) about what was transpiring and how to respond.

University Labor Relations personnel soon joined the coterie of hotel management, security guards, and police in attempting to assert control over the now-derailed meeting. They demanded that we leave, declared that our disruption was far beyond the scope of the strike, threatened arrest, and attempted to intimidate us with threats of escalating legal action. Our high level of organization made such efforts ineffective: each member was committed to seeing our plan through and acting in concert, tirelessly working to keep everyone safe and united. Before the police announced a dispersal order, Kim Massih from Labor Relations left us with a final thought: “You know this won’t accomplish anything, right?”

We arranged a call from the occupiers in the ballroom to be broadcast through the rally’s mic and connected the two actions, each invigorating the energy of the other.

Over these hours, the rally outside had started and steadily grown in size. As many as 1,500 people assembled to confront the regents with our message, including supporters and members who had arrived from campuses across the state. They took over the street and encircled the building, creating a presence in front of every entrance to draw attention to the parallel action inside.

Union members gave speeches and the crowd sang along with Tom Morello; the emcee provided updates about the disruption inside. We arranged a call from the occupiers in the ballroom to be broadcast through the rally’s mic and connected the two actions, each invigorating the energy of the other. For the picketers outside, this call clarified the stakes of the collective action, while for those inside, the support of a collective behind them kept spirits high in tense and risky circumstances. Our model of direct action drew its strength from the visibility afforded by moments such as these, where the mass political expressions of our union became inseparable from the direct pressure applied by escalatory actions.

Police began the legal process of removing the occupiers two hours into the action, after all other options had been exhausted and it became clear that we wouldn’t leave. UCLA police announced two dispersal orders, the first of which was obeyed by the supporting picketers, and the second of which was disregarded by those prepared for arrest. Four arrestees who had remained in the ballroom took their positions blocking the door, while a member trained in liaising with police stayed behind to document the process and ensure that the arrests proceeded safely. The four began singing “Solidarity Forever” as the ten arresting officers assembled around them. After the arrests had been made, they were processed and cited at the hotel’s staff entrance, where rally attendees rushed to witness their release. As the rally wrapped up and the police demobilized, the next stage of our action was set to begin.

The four began singing ‘Solidarity Forever’ as the ten arresting officers assembled around them.

The Escalation

In the early afternoon, twenty-five members of “the general public” were let into the severely delayed meeting — the unassuming occupiers who had been standing in line since 7:00 a.m. The meeting began with the regents, various dignitaries, and a media presence in place, all believing that the disruptions of the day had ended. President Drake sat in the “VIP” area, frequently checking his phone. Organizers had stacked the public comment list in advance, each writing in to submit their name, so that when any of us were called we could cede our time to Wesleigh Gates, who was prepared to deliver a comment on behalf of striking members.

When a name was called, Wesleigh assumed the podium and, looking the regents and President Drake directly in the eyes, spoke with passion: “Your role as regents is to advocate for the improvement of the university. This includes the financial and physical well-being of those who make the university run.” After briefly detailing our bargaining proposal — which, she told them, would “vastly improve the living conditions of the graduate workers who make this university run” — she implored them to “negotiate with us in good faith.”

The public comment period ended with a collective “Shut it down!” that cued occupiers to remove their sport coats and blazers and surround the regents’ table in red UAW shirts. The meeting chair immediately called for law enforcement to take action, once again beginning the legal process of removing the infiltrators. Massih, returning after the morning’s adventure, reiterated that our behavior was unconscionable and reprimanded the action’s “failing” organizer for apparently refusing to “give mediation a chance.” Fellow picketers saw this unfold on a public livestream, witnessing both the efforts of the disruptors and the alarm of the meeting’s facilitators. For the first time, we could see our messaging reach decision-makers directly and stage a crisis of authority that demanded an urgent response.

Once again, university police issued dispersal orders, and once again, a group remained inside, committed to seeing our mission through. Ten arrests were made in the meeting room.

Once again, university police issued dispersal orders, and once again, a group remained inside, committed to seeing our mission through. Ten arrests were made in the meeting room, and the meeting’s proceedings were delayed by two more hours. Public comments resumed via call-in, and our stack of picketers contributed statements celebrating our action and reiterating the core messages of our contract campaign. In response to the continued chanting, staff muted one caller, which the meeting chair reversed and declared out of order: “If that’s the comment then that’s the comment.” Ultimately, the chair moved to quickly adjourn. Although all agenda items had remained unaddressed, they would have to be tabled, since “the meeting was scheduled to be done in five minutes.”

The ongoing disruptions of our escalation campaign cumulatively forced the university’s hand. Mediation had started at 12:00 p.m. in Sacramento, playing out against the dramatic backdrop of the regents’ meeting action in Los Angeles. Bargaining team members had been kept apprised of the action’s progress throughout the morning, and in the afternoon, watched the livestream in pauses during negotiations. Darell Steinberg, the mediator, spent most of the early hours with the university team, who reportedly became frustrated with the process and soon got on the phone with President Drake. After the regents’ meeting had ended, Steinberg began directly presenting verbal offers made by the president, stating what lengths “he” — Drake — was willing to go to settle the strike and end the campaign against the regents.

He checked in roughly every hour with questions and propositions. Our bargaining team, meanwhile, kept a poker face and held the line on key issues. Sensing that our union had the upper hand, they pushed back on Drake’s original offers to lower campus disparities in funding and ensure that all researchers would be represented in the contract. At 10:00 p.m., they received the final verbal offer, one which included huge movement on our wages article and more modest progress on almost all of our demands.

Mediation had started at 12:00 p.m. in Sacramento, playing out against the dramatic backdrop of the regents’ meeting action in Los Angeles.

The shift between this offer and the previous one — which negotiators had intimated would be their best and final — was momentous. The pay raise jumped from 7–12 percent to 55–80 percent and 25–80 percent for their respective bargaining units. This amounted to a cumulative difference of between $500 million and $1 billion transferred to workers over the life of the contract. This was a win made possible by the critical tension our escalation campaign had precipitated.

The Analysis

When the proposal was ratified, we knew that it was the direct result of the simultaneously symbolic and material pressure we applied through nonviolent civil disobedience and high-participation picketing. It was a strategy that took many sleepless weeks of organizing, activated thousands of members, and captured the incredible momentum of our movement.

Our campaign’s power derived from the core of our strike’s organizing strategy, which aimed for high member participation that was “broad, visible, and complete.” Our model of escalation relied upon carefully calibrated disruptive actions carried out alongside simultaneous mass rallies that made the events visible and politically impactful. This parallel approach allowed large numbers of members to take leading roles within the campaign, energizing and organizing strikers. It also helped to assuage the fear associated with police encounters and allowed organizers to provide constant logistical support during planned arrests.

What made our historic wins possible was not the work of a few independent leaders, but a large, united coalition of members that included elected leadership, seasoned rank-and-file organizers, scores of new leaders, and critical assistance from field organizers. This network of organizers democratically planned, executed, and participated in both the civil disobedience actions and the mass rallies.

Direct actions can’t work if they only create isolated crises, nor can large campaigns of public sentiment win without a demonstrated threat of militant, disruptive actions. Our strike succeeded in part by shifting the balance of power through our sustained campaign that imposed myriad high-pressure tactics on decision-makers to the point that they had no choice but to act.

Our escalations marked a hard-fought win during the strike, but also bore lessons for continuing the struggle beyond our contract campaign. We’re excited to build upon these strategies as militant actions intensify across this historic period for the labor movement — and as we continue to use them to enforce our contract, push back against our boss’s union busting, and win even more at the bargaining table in eighteen months.

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