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.”
bob dorn says
This is really a big deal. People who haven’t worked in the knowledge industry may not know that grad students survive on insomnia and cheap(ish) food, while they take on teaching loads. Congratulations to them, and also to the university that recognized, after all, its own role in the commodification of people and the enfranchisement of dollars we’ve been experiencing in this country. There’s no reason that universities shouldn’t become a vehicle for social change.
They’ve helped produce the CIA and Wall St. (Yale’s Skull and Bones Society), nuclear weapons (Lawrence Livermore) political polling and Big Pharma for a long time. Now, at least for a while, maybe they’ll work on social justice.
PADDY MENON says
It is the prime duty of any management to take appropriate action according to the requirement of the people they manage. If workers have to tell the management ,what to do,then it is time to clean up the management board. If a worker is failing to do his work ,worker is immediately removed.Why not apply the same principle to management who fails in their duties. If management can’t look after their people ,then what is management ?
Good Luck to all of you!
Ricardo Ochoa says
Although clearly not intentional on SDFP’s part, it is nevertheless disappointing that it has allowed itself to be used as a tool in a factional struggle within UAW Local 2865. SDFP readers would be excused for not knowing after reading this article that the union is currently in the middle of leadership elections (voting takes place April 29-30), in which the incumbent AWDU leadership is facing a serious challenge from a rival slate – SWITCh (UC Student Workers for Inclusive Transparent Change: vote4switch.org). At a minimum, that fact should have been disclosed, rather than descending into a hagiography of AWDU’s leadership over the last 3 years.
This article suffers from the conceit that, we’re it not for AWDU, none of this militancy would have existed, and none of these gains would have been won. The truth is:
* UAW Local 2865 has a proud tradition of striking – including engaging in solidarity strikes in 2002 – which predates AWDU. In fact, due to the tenacity of the former union leadership in the 2003 negotiations, Local 2865 is the only statewide UC union which guarantees in its contract the right of individual employees to honor a union picket line;
* The Local has long pushed for greater rights for immigrant workers, both within and outside the UC, and the current campaign around the rights of undocumented students is not solely (or even primarily) attributed to AWDU. In fact, many of the strongest supporters of immigrant rights within Local 2865 have recently sounded the alarm about a potential AWDU sellout of undocumented students in order to trumpet a “win” right before the union election;
* It was the previous leadership which initially won child care subsidies for academic student employees – and AWDU’s failed bargaining strategy has now jeopardized those gains;
* Under the current AWDU leadership, the Local has become an insular clique. They inherited a union with over 55% membership (out of 13,000 employees), a membership level which had grown steadily since 2001, and in three years that figure has plummeted to almost 40%. Nearly half the workforce is in the STEM (science, technology, engineering & mathematics) disciplines, yet only 3% of AWDU candidates hail from STEM disciplines. And the AWDU leadership recently told UAW International President Bob King that they cannot simultaneously build a majoritarian union and fight for social justice. The truth is, they are incapable of either.
The AWDU leadership contrasts itself against a caricature of the labor movement – one that plays on hipster anti-union stereotypes with a leftist gloss – while it sneers at the hard work of actually being (not just posing as) a social justice unionist: to wit, organizing majoritarian unions, negotiating strong contracts, representing members aggressively in the grievance process, and building progressive electoral coalitions.
Let me suggest that, for balance, SDFP offer space to SWITCh activists fora column detailing all the awesome work they are doing (such as organizing to win collective bargaining rights for UC’s 13,000 Graduate Student Researchers, pushing for undocumented student rights and comprehensive immigration reform, or many other such efforts).
Full disclosure: from 1997 to 1999, I was the elected President of UAW Local 2165 (Local 2865’s predecessor Local at UC Berkeley) and helped organize the first-ever system wide strike at UC in 1998, which resulted in our finally winning recognition of our union after a 15-year struggle. During that time, our union was also centrally active in the fights to preserve affirmative action, to save Ethnic Studies, to support the UFW’s strawberry campaign in California’s Central Coast, and to fight tuition increases. We negotiated the first fully-arbitrable contract at UC and established the first-ever workload protections for student employees. And our leadership was centrally active in the campaigns to organize academic student employees at NYU, University of Washington, and California State University, not to mention the postdoctoral researchers at UC, who are now part of UAW Local 5810 (I was part of many of these efforts while on UAW Staff from 2002 through 2006).
So forgive me if I have little patience for those (like AWDU) who ignore that history and squander that legacy, or for those (like SDFP) who allow people to peddle revisionist history, no matter how innocently.
Doug Porter says
“…for those (like SDFP) who allow people to peddle revisionist history, no matter how innocently.”
Speaking as an editor: We had NO CLUE this was anything but a story about a union victory. I supposed if we had any actual paid staff we could have dispatched investigators. We accepted copy from somebody whose reports have been reliable and praised in the past and now we just a bunch of tools.
Now that we’ve been made aware–which we apparently were supposed to just “know”, let me say that we’d be pleased to correct the record as long as it doesn’t amount to a personal attack.
It is my understanding that we have been asked to provide space for a rebuttal, which we’ll be glad to consider doing. It’s too bad we have to do it under the threat of being accused of being practitioners of revisionist history.
Ricardo Ochoa says
First, let me take responsibility for my admittedly uncomradely tone toward the SDFP. It is a fair point that you all are volunteers, and that you had no reason to question the details of Daniel’s column, given his previous contributions to SFDFP (which I have always enjoyed and appreciated). And I recognize that the SDFP does an admirable job of giving space to labor and community activists.
To be clear, I never accused SDFP of “being practitioners of revisionist history.” I accused AWDU of that (about which I will say more below). What I criticized SDFP for was allowing ADWU to make those claims in the heat of an internal election battle. And I clearly acknowledged (both at the beginning and end of my comment) that this was likely innocent on SDFP’s part. There is a big difference between what I said and what you accused me of saying.
I do still think that calling AWDU’s verison of Local 2865 history “revisionist” is a fair characterization (although I recognize that Daniel is only in his first year of grad school, and probably was unaware of the actual history of his Local rather than consciously trying to deceive people). And given my personal experience in, and knowledge of, this history, is a judgment I think I am in a position to make.
And more broadly, I do take issue with much of the rhetoric in this column (and AWDU’s rhetoric more broadly) which to me smacks of a form of “AWDU exceptionalism”, which starts from the premise that the labor movement has been uniformly corrupted, and that AWDU alone represents “the kind of rare and precious leadership which does not come along very often” (to paraphrase the latter-day RCP).
If your point is that I should pick this particular bone with Daniel rather than the SDFP as a whole, fair enough. It actually was my intent to primarily criticize the piece (and AWDU), but the secondary criticism of the SDFP not only detracted from that point, but was in retrospect overstated.
I hope this clarifies.
Philippe Marchand says
Ricardo: As a UC graduate student prior to AWDU’s formation in 2010, the only time I ever saw union representatives was during membership drives at the beginning of the semester. After I signed my card in 2008, I didn’t receive any information about the union (i.e. membership meetings, elections and so on) for two years.
I would argue that a local where there is no effort to promote meetings, where elections are uncontested and half of the leadership positions are unfilled, is much more symptomatic of an “insular clique” that one where rank-and-file members run for positions, show up at bargaining and generally participate in the union’s democratic structures. We can deplore the tone of some of the ongoing debates but the current level of membership engagement can only be beneficient in the long-term.
Duane Wright says
Citing strikes in 1998 and 2002 doesn’t prove revisionism, AWDU has consistently talked about honoring the legacy of how the union was formed by pressuring the UC during the 1998 finals week strike by returning to that militancy. That you had to cite strikes more than 10 years ago proves our point, that the local has been bargaining mainly over the summer and not using strikes and other militant tactics to pressure UC admin. Thanks for that. ;) AWDU formed in 2010 as a reaction to the slippage toward business unionism – no involvement in the 2009-2010 student movement and what many perceived as a concessionary contract in 2010.
“In fact, many of the strongest supporters of immigrant rights within Local 2865 have recently sounded the alarm about a potential AWDU sellout of undocumented students in order to trumpet a “win” right before the union election;” This is nothing but pure propaganda by SWITCh. They are trying to create the perception that the AWDU bargaining team wants to give up on that demand, but that has NEVER been the case. They even started a petition to create this perception after bargaining team call after bargaining team call where we have said that that demand is a priority and we won’t settle without it. Furthermore at least 3 of the AWDU bargaining team members have undocumented family members, so this is something very close and personal to us.
Can you explain how the strategy (of open bargaining, member participation, and on the ground pressure) has “failed” and how it has “jeopardized” previous gains?? That would be news to me! We have not lost ground on child care so that assertion is a complete lie, we have already gotten an increase on the childcare subsidy and are still bargaining to get it higher.
It is very hypocritical that you call out the article for being biased and then claim that AWDU has no gains – the article is about an historic gain!! hello!! — and THEN you literally copy and paste from USEJ/SWITCh’s website (which has little in the way of facts on it).
From a UAW 2865 bargaining team member from Davis and proud AWDU member who brought more people to the bargaining room on my campus than all the SWTICh people did on all their campuses combined!
For more on the election: http://workeducationresistance.blogspot.com/2014/04/uaw-2865-elections-awdu-and-switch.html
Doug Porter says
I see no further purpose to be served by a further airing of union dirty laundry here. So I’m suspending comments. The rest of the world simply does not care about this (what should be) internal squabble.
We opened the door unknowingly on this topic, thinking we were giving coverage to a union struggle.
Now I’m closing it.