By Daniel Gutiérrez
La Jolla, California — On Tuesday, April 15th, UAW Local 2865, representing graduate student-workers across the University of California system, reached a tentative agreement with UC management regarding the procurement of all-gendered bathrooms and lactation stations. UC management succumbed to the necessities demanded by UAW Local 2865, acknowledging that both all-gendered bathrooms and lactation stations are a labor right to graduate student-workers. The historic achievement was reached after the union went on strike for two days early this month, in which nearly two dozen students were arrested and many others intimidated.
A New Role for Unions
That the student-worker union was able to secure both all-gendered bathrooms and lactation stations for their workers (and hence for all other workers at the workplace) is a historic achievement. This procurement has helped refine the role of the union in american labor history.
“It’s exciting that a union can help push that fight forward. This could be a model for other universities and workplaces so that gender variant workers don’t experience a hostile work environment,” said Amanda Armstrong. Armstrong is a doctoral student in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley and member of the Academic Workers for Democratic Union (AWDU) caucus within the UAW who has represented the workers at the negotiation table throughout the year. “This proves that unions can be instrumental to help push against structural, institutional transphobia” she added. The bargaining team has received a good amount of testimony regarding the physical and psychological discomfort produced by forcing workers into gender specific restrooms.
The lactation stations were another point of great importance for the workers. As Armstrong said, it’s part “of creating work-place culture that is supportive of student-parents, particularly of women who have recently had children. We are pushing a number of different improvements for recent parents, so they can continue working and continue their graduate studies. There are a lot of studies that show that—because of the lack of these kinds of support—women who have children in graduate school are less likely to finish their programs or get an academic job after finishing.”
“This is something that is and should be a right,” said Armstrong. “On a very basic level, rights to safe facilities for workers is a fundamental demand of the labor movement historically, and has taken different forms in different work places in relation to the needs of the workers.”
Armstrong points to a different kind of unionism that is historically specific. “This is what is meant by social justice unionism, in that unions focus also on issues that shape the experience of people who are working — especially people of color, queer/trans people, that are also involved in various forms of political organizing to fight oppression.”
“Because they happen in the workplace in particular ways, and beyond. A union that fights on these issues brings a new relevance to these struggles.”
Duane Wright, a UAW organizer also within the AWDU caucus and a doctoral student in sociology, highlighted the importance of the union’s new strategy and its challenge to an outdated, problematic framework. “By focusing on bread and butter issues only and by saying other issues should be dealt with by other groups allows the union to default to fighting for and from a working-class, straight white, cis-man position and ignores the fact that women, people of color, LGBTQIA folks and others, are workers too,” he said.
This is a radical departure from what unionism has come to be known for in the United States. This is a much more critical, more current analysis of today’s political reality and is based on inclusivity. What’s more, it challenges neoliberal thought that assumes equality, robbing the present of a historical context.
“Its painfully obvious that the old model doesn’t work. You can’t start from a position of exclusion and expect others to just get on board with the struggle and patiently wait for their turn for their issues to come up,” said Wright. “I say painfully obvious because of the state of working class people in this country,” he continued. “Inequality is ridiculously high, unemployment, homelessness, the number of people in prison, the number of people deported and the families and communities that are torn apart because of it.”
“The old model of organizing is a weak one because it hides the connections between class oppression and other oppressions, and therefore doesn’t put forth a critical enough or correct analysis of the system we live under. And if your analysis isn’t correct how can you have the right strategy to win? That’s why the old slogan ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’ has to be any union’s starting point,” Wright added.
The Return of the Strike
Since November of last year, the UAW has gone on strike two times for a total of three days due to the Unfair Labor Practices of the UC administration. The tactical use of the strike has declined in American labor history. According to statistics of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only fifteen strikes were called last year that included more than 1,000 workers.
These statistics further show that strikes were much more common during the period when income inequality was lowest in the history of United States, from the 1940s to the 1970s. Not surprisingly, income inequality is now at its highest since the Great Depression in correlation with the 3rd lowest number of strikes to be held in a year.
Strikes serve multiple purposes. As Wright said, “they put pressure on management to do the right thing, such as stop intimidating AFSCME members, or stop intimidating UAW members, and starting negotiating over mandatory subjects of bargaining. That one I think most people will agree with. And we saw that strikes and strike threats work, as AFSCME workers now have a contract.”
The strikes called by UAW Local 2865 have helped in their own negotiating process, as well. Prior to the November 20th solidarity strike with AFSCME Local 3299, UC management proposed giving graduate student-workers a raise of 1.5% annually. This was in fact a deduction in wages as the previous contract was settled at a 2% raise annually. However, soon after the November 20th strike, the UC management proposed a 3% raise (though still thousands of dollars behind competitor schools). The recent announcement of the UAW win regarding the all-gendered bathrooms and the lactation stations comes two weeks after the April 2nd and 3rd strikes.
Another point that has made progress on the contract is that of undocumented student employment. In past years, the UC administration did not even want to consider the idea of employing graduate students not covered by Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Graduate students who are undocumented and outside of the protection of DACA cannot receive needed work that reduces tuition from approximately $5,200 to $196, forcing such students to either look for funding elsewhere, go into (deeper) debt, or drop-out all together. But since the amount of campus activity in forms of strikes, organization, and coalition building, Amanda Armstrong states that management is now entertaining the idea. Or rather has been forced to.
“ Labor relations came with a counter-proposal that was not satisfactory. But still it indicates the potential to succeed and is starting to succeed,” said Armstrong.
Furthermore, the UAW has been able to make advancements for child-care subsidies. Though a tentative agreement has yet to be reached on improving graduate student childcare, much needed advancements have been made. “ Three years ago during last contract negotiation, child-care subsidies were successfully bargained for. If they have children they qualify. It was such that students received $900 per semester, or $600 per quarter [depending on the campus]. Either way, it was $1800 a year. But now we’re looking at $1,200 every quarter.”
Regardless, management has yet to make progress in other fields. They did not want to entertain the 18 quarter limit. The UAW had to file an Unfair Labor Practice with the Public Labor Relations Board regarding it, claiming that it is a mandatory subject. The 18 quarter limit has galvanized students at UCSD in particular to fight much more aggressively and visibly.
Visibility has grown so much for the UAW that even AlJazeera has picked up on it. In fact, it won them the title of the “nation’s orneriest” union. When asked regarding how she feels about being part of America’s orneriest, Amanda Armstrong laughed, and through a smile said, “It’s an honor.”
A Strategy Called Solidarity
None of the advancements made would have been possible without coalition-forming and grassroots organizing. Across UC campuses, student-workers have struck and organized in solidarity with members from other communities that face oppression. In Davis, Santa Cruz, and other campuses, solidarity was constructed with members of the LBTQ community. In San Diego, UAW members are beginning to do outreach in order to form alliances with the labor community and working class communities currently not recognized within institutional frameworks.
“Our struggle is not just our own,” said a graduate student-worker from UCSD. “Our struggle is part of something bigger than this campus, this community, even this city. We have to begin forging strong alliances with the rest of the working-class, in all its forms, so that we may move forward, together.”