For a more democratic union

May 27, 2014

Members of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865, the union for graduate assistants and undergraduate tutors in the University of California (UC) system, have authorized a statewide strike during finals week, starting on June 7, in response to continued intimidation and threats from the UC administration.

The left-wing caucus Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU) has led Local 2865 since 2011, when the AWDU platform of union democracy and class struggle unionism won members' support over a rigid and undemocratic leadership. Shortly after the local's last strike on April 2-3 of this year, the AWDU again won elections, sweeping the statewide executive board and taking a supermajority of positions on the local's joint council, despite a mudslinging campaign from the opposition caucus led by the former leadership.

Katy Fox-Hodess is a graduate student in sociology at UC Berkeley and the newly elected guide on the statewide executive board of UAW Local 2865. Fox-Hodess spoke to Michael Billeaux, co-president of the Teaching Assistants' Association at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Ty Carroll, a union organizer, about the significance of AWDU's election win.

WHAT WAS AWDU's platform for the election, and what part of it do you think resonated most with the rank and file?

OUR PLATFORM during this election focused on four key points. First, we believe in rank-and-file union democracy. We are committed to transparency, member participation, accountability and campus autonomy within our statewide union.

Second, we believe in fighting for and winning ambitious demands at the bargaining table. These demands during our current contract campaign include winning large gains on traditional bread-and-butter issues, like wages and health care, as well as on cutting edge social justice issues, like the right to all-gender bathrooms and lactation facilities and the right to employment for undocumented graduate students. We are also fighting for class size caps for our students.

Third, we remain committed to building bridges between the student movement and the labor movement through continuing to stand in solidarity with other campus workers and students.

Finally, we believe that our primary tool to build the public university we all deserve is mass mobilization. We believe in mass mobilization not because we enjoy conflict, but because we know it's what works. For more information about our election campaign, please visit

UC grad employees on the picket line in Berkeley during a two-day strike
UC grad employees on the picket line in Berkeley during a two-day strike (Lilith Dornhuber de Bellesiles | UAW local 2865)

BY CONTRAST, it seems like the so-called administration caucus didn't have much of a platform, at least not one they wanted to run on. Can you say something about the tactics your opponents used in the election?

Unfortunately, the older generation of leaders in the opposition caucus, who were active in the leadership of our local prior to AWDU winning our last election in 2011, chose to focus almost exclusively on attacking us through a negative campaign of misinformation, rather than offering an alternative vision.

We felt this was a disservice to our membership because in fact our respective caucuses do have very different visions of what unions can and should be, and we would have welcomed a debate over these ideas. Nevertheless, we are actively reaching out to newer activists from the opposing caucus, because we believe that we can find common ground on many organizing projects.

COULD YOU summarize the results of the election? Has AWDU gained or lost electoral ground since the last election in 2011?

What you can do

UAW Local 2865 is asking for resolutions of support before their upcoming strike, from union locals and community organizations. For more information, e-mail Katy Fox-Hodess at [email protected].

OUR TRIENNIAL election is the only time when all positions on our statewide Executive Board and Joint Council are contested at the same time. The results of the 2014 election were very close to the results of the 2011 election in terms of the numbers, but there were some additional developments this time that were very exciting.

First of all, it's important to say that we believe that contested elections and internal caucuses are a good thing--they are a sign of robust internal democracy in our union, and something that we didn't have in the past. This year, rather than simply having two statewide caucuses, we've seen the development of a number of campus caucuses, including POWER at UC San Diego, Rise! Rank and File at UC Santa Barbara and the ABCDEFG Alliance at UCLA.

At the statewide level, these campus caucuses supported AWDU's candidates, and they won campus positions at both San Diego and UCLA, and made a valiant effort at Santa Barbara. In terms of the numbers, AWDU+ (as we now call it--meaning statewide AWDU plus our campus-specific caucus allies) swept the 10 positions on the statewide Executive Board and won a majority of positions on the statewide Joint Council, including all seats at Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Davis, San Diego and Los Angeles.

IT SEEMS like your strike was successful in winning gains at the bargaining table. Now that you've won the election, what are the next steps for winning a contract that grad workers deserve?

IN FACT, our strike was not over bargaining, but over a concerted campaign of intimidation by management. Ironically, though we struck in solidarity in the fall with our fellow workers in AFSCME, who were facing intimidation during their contract campaign, and we struck this spring against unfair labor practices committed by management during our contract campaign, management responded to our strike in April with further intimidation practices, including arresting 22 students and workers on a picket line in Santa Cruz. In response to this ongoing campaign of intimidation, we will be striking again next month over unfair labor practices by withholding our labor during the grading period at the end of the school year.

We have, however, made major progress at the bargaining table, including historic contract language guaranteeing access to all-gender bathrooms and lactation stations. We have also made progress on bread-and-butter issues, including a wage increase that is 50 percent higher than last time around, but we need to see further movement at the bargaining table to win the contract that our members really deserve.

BEFORE THE next election in three years, what concrete goals does AWDU hope to accomplish in the leadership of the local?

AT THE moment, all of our energy is concentrated on winning the best contract possible for our members. We will continue to support the work of the Anti-Oppression Committee, a non-partisan body in our union that has done wonderful work pushing us to prioritize social justice issues as a union. In particular, there is a good deal of interest and momentum in supporting the struggles of undocumented students and working parents.

In terms of democratizing our local, we would like to build up our network of department stewards. I personally would like to see a steward in every department statewide. We are also interested in building stronger ties with other TA locals and other locals within our national union. And of course, we will continue to support the struggles of other campus workers and students by playing a leading role in the movement to keep our universities truly public in California.

HOW DO you think Local 2865's strike on April 2-3 impacted AWDU's electoral success?

THE BROAD-based, grassroots contract campaign we've organized over the past two years has played a big role in our electoral success. In the past, contracts in our local were negotiated in closed-door sessions with management, with little input or participation from the membership.

In this round of contract negotiations, we first of all developed contract demands through a long process of consultation with the membership. We ran a comprehensive survey, took the results of that survey to a statewide bargaining convention to be approved by the membership, and then took the results of that convention to the full membership for a statewide vote.

At the bargaining table, AWDU members fought for and won open bargaining, meaning that all of our bargaining sessions (except those with a mediator, for legal reasons) are open to all members. Additionally, we've greatly improved transparency by communicating regularly and in-depth about contract negotiations with the membership through a variety of media, including e-mail, Facebook, our website, campus membership meetings and department walk-throughs and meetings. Finally, we have a fantastic statewide anti-oppression committee that has played a major role in developing anti-oppression demands and organizing around them.

Taken together, this work has succeeded in engaging a much broader swath of the membership than in the past. The solidarity strike in the fall and the ULP strike in the spring were opportunities for members to take a stand against bullying by management. Many striking members were participating in union actions for the first time and we had a tremendously positive response.

Additionally, many of our new AWDU elected officers have gotten involved in the union as activists just over the course of this past year through the anti-oppression committee and the strikes, which is tremendously gratifying for those of us who have been doing this work for many years.

The influx of a new generation of activists shows that AWDU was not just a project that was relevant in 2010-11, but continues to attract members from across the state. Our election victory was confirmation that the rank-and-file supports the direction we've moved the union in over the past three years.

HAS THERE been any response from the UC administration about AWDU keeping leadership of the local?

OUR NEW president, Michelle Glowa, has been a leader on the bargaining team and an active AWDU member from Santa Cruz for the last four years. Both the local labor relations rep and the head of labor relations reached out to congratulate her on the election. She has made it clear to them that this election is a mandate from our membership to continue our strong commitment to being an activist union.

I feel confident saying I'm sure that management would rather we just go away--but that's not happening any time soon!

REFORMERS RECENTLY won control of United Teachers of Los Angeles, and we just heard on May 10 that a reformer running on the Educators for a Democratic Union slate has won the presidency of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. What do you think is behind this trend?

MOVEMENTS FOR rank-and-file democracy and a return to a more robust social justice unionism are kicking off everywhere right now.

As educators, and as public-sector workers, we are facing unprecedented attacks. What we see today are people in this sector across the country coming to feel that we have no choice but to stand up and fight, and in order to do so, in many cases, we have to first struggle against entrenched bureaucrats in our own unions who are holding back the power of the rank and file.

In the U.S., we've seen a decades-long trend of declining union density and unions on the defensive. Younger people, in particular, are especially aware of the challenges we face as workers today relative to our parents' generation.

I would connect our work as AWDU not only to that of reform caucuses in other unions of educators around the country, but to the struggles of other young workers in sectors like retail and fast food who are organizing against exploitation. This is a cross-sectoral and -generational struggle, and we're proud to play a role.

Further Reading

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