In what follows, an ally at UCLA describes his initiation into internal union politics in UAW 2865, how he developed a distaste for Administration Caucus authoritarianism, and why he’s decided to run on the AWDU slate. This is a sequel of sorts to the illuminating piece written by another UCLA grad student that we posted a couple of days ago. Both identify anti-democratic tendencies in the way the incumbent leadership runs the union, coupled with a strategy 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 AWDU.
Remembering the Contract Vote: Union Administration versus Union Democracy at UCLA
I found myself drawn into our union around the time of the recent contract vote. I was concerned and upset with the way we, as academic workers, were being treated by the UC administration on the basis of the reports from our leadership. Their reports told of stonewalling, illegal actions, unwillingness to negotiate, and little ground given on many of our demands. Some small concessions were won, but up to October 27th, the tone from the bargaining team was chiefly one of disappointment and frustration.
Through my contact with UCLA Fights Back, a coalition heavily involved in the protests against fee hikes and the attack on public education at UCLA, I found out about the internal division within our union and the split in strategy between the AWDU caucus and the union leadership. I learned of the effort headed by AWDU to hold a statewide membership meeting to discuss our tactics for bargaining on the contract. I learned of the race to file for a membership meeting between what was, at the time, chiefly a North (AWDU) – South (Administration) divide. The race to file for the meeting turned around location – a meeting in the “North” (Berkeley) would favor AWDU turnout and more radical action, a meeting at the “South” (LA) would favor the administration.
As members of AWDU attempted to collect the required signatures for filing for the meeting in early November, they were beaten to the punch by the administration and the membership meeting was announced, to be held in LA on November 30th. That same day the contract was accepted with good cheer. The 2% raise that did not keep up with inflation was applauded, though the October 27th bargaining update stated we were already paid 7% less than GSIs at comparable institutions, and our raise was 4.3% less than the 6.3% increase in compensation enjoyed by UC executives according to the September 25th bargaining update. The full childcare reimbursement we had sought, which would have cost a mere $400K statewide, was reduced to a tripling of the current reimbursement, without being brought near the actual costs of childcare. The partial fee/tuition remission for foreign students – a mere 3% of the total fees – made a minor dent in tuition costs.
And yet our contract was a monumental victory that it was deadly important we approve. And it was necessary that we approve it from November 30th to December 2nd, concomitant with our statewide membership meeting, originally planned by AWDU in order to discuss the contract and member opinion of it, on the 30th, during finals week at most campuses. We had a contract that was, by the administration’s own standards before November 15th, a failure, a meeting to discuss said contract, which we had already negotiated and settled, and a vote to cast during the busiest time of our quarter.
Further, we were told by the union administration that failure to ratify the contract could result in the loss of all our hard won gains. Of course, regressive bargaining is illegal under the Higher Education Employee-Employer Relations provisions within the Public Employment Relations Board of California, and by law we could not lose any of the gains we had made. And yet, apparently, we were at risk.
But by this time it was clear to me where the risk lay. I had started out agitated by the tactics the administration of the UC was using against our union, and I ended up agitated by the tactics our union’s leadership was using to protect itself from democratic challengers and to pass a contract on its own terms – rather than the democratically decided terms of its membership. So I did what I could during a busy time to inform my department and my friends of stakes of the contract vote. I made contacts with other concerned members and we did what work we could, with no prior organization, to get out the word for a no vote.
There were maybe half a dozen of us organizing and we were able to turn out over 90 no votes – a dissent of 12%, in the face of paid union staff and elected officials from UCLA and other southern California campuses campaigning for a yes vote day in and day out at all the UCLA polling locations. I know that I presented both sides of the argument to every fellow union member I talked to; I know that I presented links to the arguments of both sides and clearly stated my position. In sum, I know those people I got to vote made an informed decision reflective of their own agency and reason. And I know that those who voted ‘yes’ often voted under the false information that the UC could engage in regressive bargaining when such tactics are prohibited by state law – because these scare tactics were deployed in e-mails sent out under the stamp of UAW 2865.
This is what is at stake in our election now – not the gains we have won and hope to win in the future, but the way in which our union conducts itself and draws upon the intelligence, skill, and concern of its membership. We are college students and graduate students – we’re not stupid. But by the way our current administration treats us and tries to manipulate us, you’d think maybe we were. Well it’s time to prove them wrong, and show them that our membership is perfectly capable of deciding what it wants and figuring out how to get it without being directed around by individuals who have made our union into their careers; individuals who see our opinions as something to be ignored rather than integrated into our collective decisions. I don’t doubt that our opponents are honest in their conviction that their leadership style is appropriate to the situation and is the best course for our union’s success. What I doubt is that we should continue to take them at their self-estimation, when they have shown themselves so impervious to criticism.
Ph.D. Student and TA
AWDU Candidate for Head Steward at UCLA