On the Political Meaning of an Apolitical Election

22 Apr

by Zach Williams
PhD Student and TA, Political Science
AWDU Candidate for Head Steward at UCLA

Recently, in a posting titled “Say No to Dirty Tricks,” the USEJ caucus alleged that a number of members of the AWDU caucus have been using ‘dirty tactics.’  I have no interest in getting involved in tit for tat personal attacks, but I do feel it is necessary to clearly combat the attempt by the administrative caucus to describe democratic political practices as ‘dirty tricks’ through their own rhetorical gymnastics (for a response to some of the defamatory allegations, see “Union Democracy at Santa Cruz”.)

Their first allegation concerns attempts to ‘intimidate’ opposition candidates by daring to talk to them, ask them questions, and try to understand their position.  AWDU is contacting candidates on the other side, because, as fellow members, we want to understand their concerns about the union and their knowledge of what is going on.  This is to say that anyone who wants to hold office in the union must be prepared to converse and talk with their fellow members, and should not view such conversation with hostility and suspicion but as a necessary, communal part of democratic politics.

Given that we know at least some candidates had little to no knowledge of the contested nature of the election when they accepted their nomination, and that others, when informed of the controversy, have decided to drop out and have had their names removed from the USEJ list, while yet others were propositioned with running under the assumption that they would drop out and be filled by special election if successfully elected, we are interested in making sure that our fellow members fully understand the context of the debate occurring within the union and empowering them by informing them to make their own decision, rather than manipulating them into inflating a candidate list (cf. fellow UCLA union member Jason Ball’s comments earlier this week).

The second allegation concerns abuse of the nomination process.  Inquiries into the eligibility of candidates are a necessary part of the election process.  USEJ has itself launched investigations into, as well as challenged, the eligibility of our own candidates (specifically, Rob Connell, Head Steward candidate at Berkeley).  In fact, in the previous Head Steward election, multiple AWDU candidates were  disqualified  from running because they submitted their acceptance  of nomination to the wrong e-mail address.

Actions by both sides are to some degree politically motivated, but our basic position is that democratic politics and contestation are a healthy part of an active union.  Accordingly, when USEJ concludes the relevant section of their letter with the statement, ‘we’re not playing politics with participation and eligibility rules,’ one should be immediately suspicious of attempts to label common democratic practices ‘divisive’ or ‘dirty.’  Both sides have had legitimate concerns about the eligibility of candidates running for the opposing slate.  In good democratic fashion, these concerns have been resolved, or are being resolved, within the framework provided by the union.

Next we have accusations of ‘future personal attacks.”  While AWDU had not publicly attacked rival candidates in its election materials at the time ‘Dirty Tricks’ was posted, in this very publication, USEJ goes ahead and engages in personal attacks.  We do not deny having concerns about the interests and motivations of members of our union who have received numerous career benefits during their long tenures in office, for which we have interrogated them in the appropriate forums and discussed amongst ourselves.  We had not, however, aired these concerns over the internet.  Since the posting, AWDU members from UC Irvine have responded publicly with suspicions about the eligibility of a USEJ candidate – but, again, this is merely an element of the transparency to which a democratic election must necessarily give rise (cf. “An Open Letter to Daraka” from our comrades at UC Irvine).  One should not expect themselves to be immune from criticism when running for a democratically elected office.

Finally, USEJ asks us to ‘run on our record’ and speaks of wishing to ‘grow the union’ rather than ‘defend themselves from personal attacks.’  But these critiques are not personal – they are political – or rather they are personal only to the extent that personality bears on the functioning of our union.  They are political  because they are critques which reflect substantive concerns with the way in which this union is run and substantive criticisms of the behavior of our leadership.  What we are confronting here is not a call for an end to personal attacks, but a call for an end to political criticism.  An election without criticism, contestation, and debate, is not an election – it is a plebiscite, a ritual of acclamation.

Throughout the UC, the vast majority of campus positions such as head stewards– which are positions that are specifically in place to encourage rank-and-file participation as well as accountability of the leadership to the membership– have sat vacant for years.  It is the concerted effort of AWDU activists that has raised member involvement across campuses and forced the union leadership to scramble for votes and candidates, concocting a platform where before they had run merely on the expectation of plebiscitary approval.  It is no coincidence that AWDU started out, and has drawn many activists to its side, because union leadership has been uninterested with rank and file member input and has, outside of voting time when their own positions are at stake, done little to encourage rank and file critique and democratic participation (which is not to say they have not encouraged union membership – but membership and participation are vastly different things).  It is also no coincidence that the mobilization of the AWDU campaign around the contract vote saw higher election turnout than years prior and has started a race to fill long vacant positions in our union.

We have a record, visible in the healthy debate that has occurred within our union in the last few months, visible in the pushes for change in policy which we have instigated and the administration has co-opted, visible in our evident concern about the quality of our union and the large number of rank and file members we have drawn into union politics.  It is relatively easy for the current leadership to claim credit for every advance the union has made in the past dozen years, discounting the responsibility shared by members long gone or members who fall on the wrong side of party lines and as such do not deserve credit for any accomplishments in the eyes of our leadership (cf. the forthcoming post by Kyle Arnone, UCLA candidate for Recording Secretary and Union Trustee).

This credit claiming is only meaningful with reason to believe that the adminstration’s slate is wholly responsible for the gains we have won and that a different organization of our union with different leaders would not have made even greater gains.  We believe we can make these greater gains and we believe we are responsible for some of the success our union has recently had, and our evidence for this lies in the strength we have already brought to our union, merely by speaking out, acting up, and taking part.

One should take this concerted attack on rank and file membership for what it is – an attempt to once again silence the salient tactical and strategic concerns of a vast segment of the union membership.  We do not question our opposition’s commitment to social justice and a powerful union.  We all want a powerful union and social justice.  No one is against pay raises, fee remissions, and increases in childcare funding.  No one is against standing in solidarity with our allies in other movements.  If the leadership of this union changes, it will not all of a sudden start working to become less active and win our membership less.  We, like our colleagues across the campaign lines, fundamentally want the best for our members, our community, and our society.

We at AWDU, however, believe that strength can be achieved not by the technocratic management of our current leadership, whose skills we respect and whose abilities we do not deny are a meaningful and important part of what gains our union has made, but only by the concerted and active participation of rank and file members throughout the union in a decentralized, democratic manner – not through a centralized, hierarchical administration.  In the final instance, though the expertise of our leaders aids our cause, it is our membership which gives us strength.  A union which privileges expertise over participation is not a union fighting with its full power.  There is power in a union – and we, the members, are that power.

*I would like to thank my colleagues Dustianne North, Kyle Arnone, Elise Youn, and Julia Tomessetti for their helpful comments.

Check out Zach’s post about the contract vote on Those Who Use It


One Response to “On the Political Meaning of an Apolitical Election”


  1. Another UCLA TA exposes UAW 2865 bureaucrats’ consistent contempt for union democracy | THOSE WHO USE IT - April 22, 2011

    […] of depoliticizing the rank-and-file membership.  We proudly recommend this piece.  See also the same author’s response to the Administration Caucus’ recent attack on […]

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