Another step for grad employees at UC

April 23, 2014

On April 2-3, graduate employees across the University of California's (UC) 10-campus system went on strike over unfair labor practices--the administration's record of intimidation and threats toward student workers. On the first day of the strike, more than 20 strikers and supporters were arrested by UC police at the Santa Cruz campus, provoking an outpouring of solidarity from other graduate employees unions and supporters around the country.

The graduate workers are represented by United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865. The organizers responsible for building the local into a fighting organization are members of Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU), a reform caucus within the union that won statewide leadership in 2011. The caucus has just put together a new slate for union elections taking place on April 29-30.

Shannon Ikebe is a Sociology PhD student at UC-Berkeley, an AWDU activist and the outgoing Northern Vice President for Local 2865. Ikebe was interviewed by Michael Billeaux, co-president of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Teaching Assistants' Association (American Federation of Teachers Local 3220), and Ty Carroll, a union organizer, about the strike and the experiences of the AWDU.

YOUR TWO-day strike on April 2-3 got a lot of attention. Can you tell us about the issues at stake, and what provoked the local into taking this step? How long were you preparing for the strike, and how did you do that?

SINCE WE, the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU), the radical caucus of UAW 2865, took control of our union in 2011, we have been organizing a grassroots campaign to stop privatization of higher education. We participated very actively in the California student movement in 2011-12 as a union, and successfully stopped the proposed massive tuition hike.

For this contract campaign, we have prioritized smaller class sizes, employment rights for undocumented grad students, access to all-gender bathrooms and a living wage. We started our Bargaining Survey in Fall 2012 and held the initial Bargaining Convention for members to discuss and ratify our demands in February 2013, so we have been working on this campaign for at least a year and half. We started bargaining in the summer of 2013.

Graduate employees and their supporters picket at UC Santa Cruz during their two-day strike
Graduate employees and their supporters picket at UC Santa Cruz during their two-day strike (Alex Darocy |

The unfair labor practices strike on April 2-3 was due to the intimidation we have suffered in the course of our contract campaign in the fall 2013. In one instance, a group of union activists at Berkeley, who went to the Graduate Dean's office to ask for his support for our demands for a living wage and smaller class sizes, were met by police officers filming us. In another instance, in our solidarity strike with AFSCME Local 3299 (service workers on campus) in November 2013, management at UCLA sent an erroneous, threatening e-mail to international students that their visa might be revoked if they participated in the strike. We filed ULP charges with the state Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) right after these occurred.

I think that many of our members were outraged by management's tactics of intimidation. Many of our members used to believe that management would want the best for grad students, and that they would negotiate with us in good faith. These incidents of intimidation clearly demonstrated that was false. The sense of outrage was crucial in galvanizing support for the strike.

If you want to know more, you can check out this very good article on the strike.

WHY DO you think management has stepped up the repression?

I THINK that management feels threatened by the power of workers actually mobilizing on the ground, and particularly by solidarity between different unions on campus.

Because our union had been controlled by the bureaucratic Administration Caucus before 2011, management was used to a kind of union leadership that they could contain within the bargaining room. Since the AWDU is actually willing to fight for the workers against management, its leadership of the union is a threat to their project to continue privatization of the university.

HOW STRONG was the strike across the system? Were you able to cancel a majority of grad-led classes?

I DON'T have the exact numbers on this, but I know that at least in my department (Sociology at UC Berkeley), every single teaching assistant canceled their sections and joined the strike.

HOW HAS the strike impacted morale among activists? Are people ready for further escalations in order to win a fair contract?

BASED ON what I saw at Berkeley, I can say for sure that the strike has mobilized and politicized hundreds of grad student workers, who came out to the picket lines. I heard similar accounts from comrades at many other campuses--especially at Santa Cruz, where 22 activists were arrested for picketing.

WHAT IMPACT did the AFCSME strike last November have on preparing your members to take job actions?

WELL, WE ourselves went on strike in solidarity with AFSCME!

THE AWDU ran on a platform of establishing democratic practices in the local. What was the internal climate in the local, and why was it necessary to run an alternative slate to change it?

THE INTERNAL climate of the local was extremely toxic and repressive before AWDU won in 2011. The main problem was not just that we had a political disagreement with the Admin Caucus; not only did the Admin Caucus leadership have a very "business union" conception of the union's role and power; but they set out to actively repress workers who had a vision for social movement unionism.

The Admin Caucus did not tolerate the existence of dissent--they even stopped counting the votes at the general election in 2011, once it became clear that AWDU would win. We had to occupy the union offices for many days for the votes to actually be counted. On the rule of the Admin Caucus before 2011, please also check out this account by long-time AWDU activist Sara Smith.

AFTER THE AWDU won leadership over the union in 2011, what were the main reforms undertaken by the caucus? How successful have these efforts been?

THE UNION is a completely different space today. If you look at Sara's article mentioned above, you will see how dictatorial the old union leadership was. All of these micro-managing, anti-organizing interventions were eliminated--so we could actually begin to struggle against university management, rather than the union leadership.

We substantially reduced the power of the Executive Board, and began to share and rotate power and duties, within the Board and on campus units.

We also created the Anti-Oppression Committee (AOC) in the statewide union, which has worked on anti-oppression demands in the contract campaign, as well as to transform our union into a space that is more empowering for comrades from marginalized and/or underrepresented communities. While there is certainly much more work to be done in this regard, the AOC has done a fantastic job! (The AOC, as an official union body, is distinct from AWDU.)

I think that the work of democratizing the union is actually a never-ending process. There is always a danger of lapsing into bureaucratization and inertia, and we have to remain critical of ourselves as well. It has been somewhat of a challenge to keep the caucus itself alive, since we began to run the entire union; especially due to the high turnover and geographical dispersion of this union, newer comrades without a direct experience of the old leadership find it difficult to believe just how bad it was.

WHAT HAS been the role of the UAW since the AWDU won in 2011?

THE UAW International takes away more than half of the dues we get, yet they have hardly helped us organize. Because of the high levels of turnover in our workforce--which is unavoidable in a grad student union--we constantly need organizers on the ground to organize new members. The high rate of tax makes it very difficult. So we asked for an organizing fund from the UAW International at the beginning of the contract campaign, but we were flatly refused.

On the other hand, the UAW International has not actively interfered with or repressed our local, probably because we are nowhere near powerful enough to challenge the larger power structure in the UAW beyond our local. Their preferred means of control seems to be to rule through the local Admin Caucus, rather than direct control and micromanagement. I do not know if, and to what extent, the International may have helped re-organize the Admin Caucus in the past three years.

WHAT NEW contract demands was AWDU able to bring to the table? What does your contract campaign look like now? Can you compare this contract campaign to how the previous contract was bargained?

WE HAVE just won our demand for the right to access all-gender neutral bathrooms, which we believe is one of the first labor contracts to have such a provision. We have also been campaigning for a smaller class size and the right of undocumented grad students to have a teaching assistant position. It has been AWDU's initiative to demand bargaining on class size and anti-oppression issues; the Admin Caucus leadership used to be extremely unreceptive to these demands. While this is hardly sufficient, we have also won a higher wage increase than the previous Admin Caucus leadership.

Their tactic was to not mobilize and to settle as soon as possible. They always like to attack us for not having settled the contract yet, but the AWDU strategy has been to mobilize our base to demand a contract we deserve, rather than accepting whatever they offer.

YOUR APRIL 2-3 strike rightfully earned a lot of attention and support from other graduate employee locals throughout the country, as well as from left publications like Jacobin, Truthout and Why do you think your struggle is resonating so deeply now? Do you see any similarity between your struggle to remake your union and the fight going on inside other teachers unions, and within manufacturing unions like the Machinists?

AS ACADEMIC labor has become more precarious, I think more grad student workers are beginning to realize that the university management merely sees us as cheap and disposable labor, and we have to struggle as workers to secure our rights and livelihood; indeed, AWDU grew out of the mass California student movement of 2009, against tuition hikes and the privatization of higher education.

Other unions, such as GEO at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, have also seen the rise of a reform caucus committed to activist, grassroots organizing; rejection of conciliatory approaches to management; and a commitment to anti-oppression principles.

I think--and I hope--this is part of the larger revitalization of labor militancy, in the context of escalating attacks upon workers amidst the ongoing capitalist crisis. The latest Labor Notes conference, for example, had the highest-ever attendance of 2,000 people.

The labor movement still holds so much potential to resist exploitation and precariousness, and transform our workplaces. The essential step for that is to transform the labor movement itself. I think AWDU is part of that much larger struggle, which is so crucial today.

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