Notes from Overground

26 Apr

by Jeremy Schmidt
PhD Student and TA, English
AWDU Candidate for Unit Chair

I had the same reaction many folks did when they first joined UAW 2865: I laughed. It felt strange—not to be joining a union for the first time but to be joining the United Autoworkers Union in particular. Because two of my closest relatives, aunt Elissa and uncle Neil, had been rank-and-file UAW members for much of their working lives, I felt acutely the white-collar embarrassment that comes, for some, with joining a student-worker union. Neil and Elissa had begun working on the auto lines, organizing, and protesting in Detroit in the early 1970s. Grading papers, leading sections, designing courses—that hardly seemed comparable.

As soon as I sat down to talk to my aunt about the union, however, I realized my mistake. For her and Neil it was not what kind of work but the fact that I was selling my labor that mattered, and the growth of the labor movement as a whole was something to support. In fact, the one note of hesitation in my aunt’s voice came as she described her struggles against union bureaucracy, with its unnecessary concessions and its refusals to foster open debate among members.

After our discussion, I began reading up on the U.S. labor movement, UAW, and about my aunt and uncle’s experiences. I learned how Elissa had lost her job during a strike broken by UAW bureaucrats. And I read, in Andy Stapp’s Up Against the Brass (1970), about Neil’s participation in the American Servicemen’s Union (ASU), the bold attempt to unionize the United States Army during Vietnam. During that attempt, Colonel G. V. Reberry posted the following prohibition at Fort Lewis, where my uncle was stationed:

No member of this command will disseminate, distribute or post material or publications whose subject matter promotes disloyalty or discontent, nor will they attempt to gain the sympathy of persons for membership in organizations which advocate dissension or disaffiliation.

My uncle replied by posting a message of his own on the unit bulletin board, right next to Reberry’s notice.

Let’s tell it like it is, Colonel. We are not discontented by what we read and hear. We are discontented because of the way we live. Discontent is not caused by newspapers but by harassment and lack of freedom.

We could take the low pay, lousy food and rotten living conditions if we thought that what we were doing was worthwhile or beneficial to the country. But we don’t think so.

Our dissension will end when the conditions that cause it end. You may succeed in driving dissension underground but you can never stop it. You may be able to extract sullen obedience as long as MPs are in range, but you will never get loyalty.

We are citizens, covered by the Bill of Rights. Your warning violates the Bill of Rights.

I share this story not to analogize the relationship between ASU and military leaders during Vietnam to that between AWDU and the incumbent UAW 2865 leadership, or even to that between UAW and the UC Administration. I share it instead because my uncle’s central claim—“You may succeed in driving dissension underground but you can never stop it”—applies with real force to the attempts of AWDU members to become more involved in our union. We dissent from the top-down style of the current leadership, and while that dissent has been alternately ignored and lampooned, it will not disappear. Today I am proud, rather than mildly embarrassed, to be a member of UAW, but I am angered by the inability of the current leadership to make its own members feel welcome and informed and by its refusal to properly train newly elected representatives. Since I began attending union meetings at UCLA, and even more so since becoming one of the Head Stewards for our unit, I have been repeatedly dismayed by the lack of interest on the part of long-standing leaders to educate newly active members about how the union runs.

AWDU will end that process of mystification. We will make sure that if you take the step of asking a question, attending a meeting, or joining a mobilization effort, you will better understand how and why the union works. You will also be encouraged to critique and improve our union. We believe that’s the best way to ensure that student-workers continue taking part in organizing efforts. The labor movement as a whole is itself a dissension: it dissents from the profit motive and affirms, instead, protections for workers, living wages, and public welfare. That dissension can only be strengthened by efforts to increase participation and transparency among all of its members, whatever their backgrounds and whatever their lines of work.

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