Meditations on the Importance of an Engaged Union

25 Apr

by Julia Tomassetti
PhD Student and TA, Sociology
AWDU Candidate for Recording Secretary

The occasion for this meditation on the potential of our academic student workers union is actually a nonevent- wearisomely mundane, completely unremarkable, and ritually predictable. Last week, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block released his now almost annual Op-Ed in which he lamented the UC budget situation, the unraveling of the Master Plan, and the slow decline of a world class university system: “Cuts to higher education: The Master Plan Turncoats.” The “turncoats” are the Assembly and Senate Republicans who graduated from UC schools and yet won’t allow a ballot measure to extend taxes to help fund the system. While the chancellor’s previous article of December 2009 read much like an apologia for the regents – who had just voted to increase undergraduate fees by 32%, this Op-Ed is bolder—a more strongly worded, personally targeted, and fitting rebuke. Nonetheless, the article seems a part of a UC tradition to which we have grown accustomed—a hand-wringing jeremiad by the administration that will momentarily punctuate its inactivity, otherwise known as “saving face” and “too little too late.”

Rather than getting a stalwart defender of higher education for a chancellor, one fears we have a timorous toreador seeking to deflect the bull of angry and disillusioned members of the UC community away from the administration, thereby also deflecting attention from the administration’s internal mismanagement, including crude low-road cost-reduction strategies (e.g., slashing instructional positions, reducing course offerings, and cutting writing programs and library services, all while swelling senior management), misguided restructuring and privatization programs, questionable investment decisions, and the opacity, exclusion, and apparent conflicts of interest enclosing the decision-making processes.

The UCLA administration again presents us with a bewildering double-speak or disconnect between goals and solutions. Chancellor Block notes in his Op-Ed that most UC alumni stay in CA and become “leaders in every segment of our society,” and he attributes Silicon Valley, the aerospace industry, and the reputations of our state government institutions to CA higher education. The UC administration commissioned a three hundred-page impact study showing that the UC is a “Dynamic Engine for California’s Economy.” At the same time that the administration constantly reminds us that the UC system is California’s covert industrial policy, or its most critical piece of infrastructure—civic, political, and economic—the administration also tells us that this cost centre of the enterprise that is the state of California should be” self-supporting.” This has become the administration’s mantra when it comes to solutions.

The UC administration’s wan defense of public higher education in California puts the potential role of the UC’s academic student workers union—UAW Local 2865—into deep relief. For me and my fellow graduate students running as Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU) in the April 26-28 elections, our union represents a potentially powerful force in the fight for public higher education, and one that should be at the forefront of a broad coalition of UC stakeholders—graduate students, undergraduates, lecturers, clerical staff, service workers, technical workers, senate faculty, and other UC community members. Unions, due to their permanent and formal organizational structure, large membership, class orientation, resources, and accumulated leadership experience, are one of the only institutions in the U.S. today capable of organizing effective struggles for social justice and serving as a strategic fulcrum of collective action and cooperation for diverse coalitional partners.

However, to fulfill this role, many unions have had to undergo the necessary soul-searching, leadership change, reassessment of priorities, and the plodding work of building internal democracy to overcome the habits of business unionism and reinvent themselves into what labor scholars have dubbed “social movement unions.” Business unions tend to be hierarchical, centralized, and dependent on cadres of paid staff who focus their energies on individualized contract enforcement. Social movement unions, on the other hand, attempt to integrate member mobilization, organizing, coalition building, and strategy—without sacrificing formal organization and expertise. Rather than depend on wit at the bargaining table to win good contracts, effective social movement unions understand that their leverage at the table is only as good as members and allies are mobilized. To that end, they prioritize meaningful member participation and internal democracy. Research strongly suggests that labor organizations practicing social movement unionism tend to perform better in terms of winning elections and first contracts, achieving better contracts, and organizing members (particularly those from traditionally excluded groups). (See e.g., Bronfenbrenner, Kate. 1996. “Role of Union Strategies in NLRB Certification Elections.” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 50:195. December 11, 2010; Bronfenbrenner, Kate, Richard W. Hurd, and Rudolph A. Oswald. 1998. Organizing to win: New research on union strategies. Cornell University Press.)

As a student of labor relations and political economy, the more that I learned about and interfaced with AWDU and Local 2865, the more that I perceived AWDU’s role in Local 2865 in the context of the larger narrative of the struggle for union revival in the U.S. through social movement unionism. AWDU is a reform movement of student workers that has been working to transform Local 2865 into a social movement union. Unfortunately, the characteristics described above that broadly define the business union model—a model that has not served U.S. organized labor well since the 1970s—largely define Local 2865 as well. Current members and former graduate students have attested to these unhelpful institutional habits. (See also,; Sullivan, Richard. 2003. “Pyrrhic Victory at UC Santa Barbara: The Struggle for Labor’s New Identity.” Pp. 91-116 in Cogs in the Classroom Factory: The Changing Identity of Academic Labor, edited by D. M. Herman and J. M. Schmid. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.)

Since AWDU began organizing in 2010, you might have noticed a surge in Local 2865 activity—the almost unprecedented turnout for the recent contract vote; a scheduled election to fill long vacant Head Steward positions; the unfair labor practices charge, mass grievance filing, and other kindling of publicity and activity pertaining to the graduate student fee remission caps –and the Berkeley AWDU activists’ success in delaying implementation of these backdoor cuts; better-attended membership meetings; and increasing transparency (for example, the publishing of meeting minutes on the Local 2865 website). Last week, AWDU members participated in a UCLA teach-in on the budget that continued the national teach-in facilitated by Frances Fox Piven and Cornel West. Now, the growing contingent of graduate students organizing through AWDU has galvanized the first seriously contested election in the Local’s history!

Apart from, as discussed above, active organizing and engaging with other UC community groups organizing to save the UC system, AWDU has achieved this incipient union revival through fostering internal democracy. Internal democracy means that AWDU seeks to incorporate all of our participants into decision-making about goals, strategy, and tactics; and AWDU activists support one another in trying to encourage and empower each of our campus groups to become effective leaders and make independent decisions that take into account the particular interests and needs of each campus. No doubt what has in part fueled AWDU’s growth is widespread dissatisfaction with the incumbent leadership—who negotiated a contract providing wage increases that fails to keep up with the cost of living, and exhibited a rather sublime inactivity surrounding the graduate student fee remission caps. Yet this is not all that is responsible for AWDU’s popularity: we are creating a model of union leadership showing that de-centralized and participatory governance is not incompatible with solidary, informed strategy, and proven results. Student-workers seeking a meaningful role in their union are finding in AWDU a forum where their individual efforts and ideas are respected and strategically harnessed as a collective resource.

Finally, the location of academic student workers at the intersection of production and consumption makes us uniquely poised to play an important role in the struggle for public higher education. We experience the consequences of the budget cuts and the administration’s shortsighted solutions as both producers (e.g., as our wages decline) and as consumers (e.g., as graduate fees rise). As teaching assistants leading discussion sections, we produce instruction for undergraduate students as we consume experience meant to develop our professional capability to succeed in academia. For those of us still able to get positions, our work intensifies as class size increases and teaching assistant appointments decrease; and the more that undergraduate fees increase, the more we must struggle to reconcile engaging our students with difficult course material while they juggle school with full-time work. At the same time, we experience these consequences as consumers—our education suffers as teaching becomes a less rewarding experience and takes up more time away from the other essential component of graduate education—research. Thus, as student-workers, we experience the commodification of education doubly and simultaneously, such that we are acutely aware of the movement our university is making towards free market privatization and in a unique position potentially to spark a broad countermovement against it.

So, while I appreciate the chancellor’s rhetorical stance on our behalf, the administration has shown that we cannot depend on it to save California’s perhaps most valuable public investment. As student-workers, AWDU wants our union to participate in the countermovement to save public higher education in partnership with other UC stakeholders—students, workers, and faculty throughout the UC—who feel the painful consequences of this commodification. We encourage you to join AWDU and your academic student workers union in the struggle for a democratic union for a democratic university!

Thank you Elise Youn, Kyle Arnone, and Renee Hudson for your very instructive comments on this entry.


One Response to “Meditations on the Importance of an Engaged Union”

  1. Labor Relations Strategies May 27, 2011 at 8:17 am #

    Hi friends,
    Really this is amazing blog post. I saw and read your site; this site is useful to all its visitors….

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