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Working In These Times

Tuesday, May 3, 2011, 2:32 pm

Alleging Election Irregularities, Reform-Minded UC Grad Students Occupy Union Office

BY Mike Elk

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Ballot counting will restart Thursday, as sit-in continues

Yesterday, dozens of graduate student teaching assistants in Los Angeles and Berkley began a sit-in at the Berkeley and Los Angeles offices of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865, the union that represents them. They allege that union officials were engaged in irregularities while counting ballots in a union officer election.

“Well, we aren’t really occupying it. We are dues-paying members," says Larisa Mann, a University of California Berkeley law school student. "It is our office technically.”

UAW Local 2685 represents 12,000 graduate students working as teaching and research assistants throughout the University of California system. Allegations of election irregularities are occurring in a heated election between an incumbent leadership slate (the United for Social and Economic Justice slate) and a union reform slate (Academic Workers for a Democratic Union, or AWDU). (Local 2685 leaders could not be reached for comment.)

The AWDU caucus began during the mass student protests and occupations during the University of California system budget cut fights in 2009. The reform caucus claimed that the incumbent union leadership wasn’t at the forefront of the movement and were unresponsive to student groups looking to form alliances.

The reform caucus complained that the union had become largely ineffective and absent from the campuses. Many campuses lacked even single shop stewards and trainings for rank and file members were non-existent. Also, students complain that for years, many of the elected union officials had not been working graduate students and were therefore removed from the-day-to-day concerns of most rank-and-file members.

Finally, things boiled to a head in 2010 when the leadership of the union refused to allow rank-and-file members to attend bargaining sessions during contract negotiations. Members of the reform slate say unnecessary concessions were made that would not have been agrred to had union members been allowed to attend these hearings. This led reform-minded people to organize their slate to run against the current incumbent leadership.

The election last week was heated, with unprecedented level of turnout for union leadership’s elections. On Saturday night at UCLA, the incumbent slate-dominated election committee counted all of the votes, except for the ones from UCLA and Berkeley, the biggest campus, which was expected to go heavily in AWDU’s favor. Then the vote counters went out for a dinner break; three hours, later they finally returned.

Then they announced that because there were some "questions" about the integrity of the Berkeley balloting, they were going to stop counting the ballots altogether. Incumbent leadership, dominated by election committee members, claimed the ballots were tampered with at these locations. AWDU members dispute that any vote tampering occurred there.

Election committee members then announced that they're going to go ahead and “partially certify” the election as it stood, with no Berkeley or UCLA votes counted, a process that reform caucus members claim is not allowed by the union's constitution. The committee would figure out what to do with the Berkeley ballots in July, it said, at a meeting of the Joint Committee of elected leadership—which is dominated by the incumbent leadership slate. 

After this, the election committee members simply decided to leave the UCLA union hall where vote counting happening, leaving the ballots unsupervised. In response, members of the reform caucus decided to occupy the union hall at UCLA to ensure that nobody would tamper with the ballots. Members of the reform caucus have slept over night at the union hall and vow to remain there until all the votes are counted.

Today (Tuesday), the AWDU's website announced that the Local 2685 election committee has decided to restart ballot counting on Thursday, May 5:

This is a huge victory for rank-and-file members who joined or supported the sit-in at the statewide offices in Berkeley and LA and for everyone who helped with emails, media contacts, petitions and with securing support from progressive faculty and labor activists!!

By drawing on the proud tradition of rank-and-file activism and direct action in the US labor movement, the tradition which built the UAW in the first place, members made clear that they would not stand by and allow themselves to be disenfranchised...

Given the extraordinary and outrageous circumstances in which the count was suspended, we plan to continue the sit-in until the voting process is fully complete and a certified result has been issued.

The struggle for a fair union election at the University of California is a black eye to all in organized labor. Speaking a month ago at the National Conference on Media Reform, labor journalist Steve Early said that many of the negative stereotypes about organized labor are self-inflicted. Unions can engage in practices that look shady and aren't fair to their own members. This case in California is only the most recent example of the type of bad publicity that, especially in the wake of Wisconsin, the labor movement desperately needs to avoid.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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