If We Are Serious About Building Powerful Unions, We Must Look to the Rank and File
Sean Larson and Natasha Raheja
This article was first posted at Jacobin.
The union has come to dwell in higher education. As graduate employees face increasing precarity, rising workloads, and low job prospects, the opportunity to join the union movement is a source of immense pride and a beacon of hope. Under a Trump presidency, building rank-and-file power will be especially important in offering a way forward for graduate workers to stand up to corporate university administrations and to fight anti-labor legislation more broadly.
In the wake of the August NLRB ruling in favor of graduate workers’ organizing rights, tens of thousands of graduate assistants are now organizing union campaigns in their university workplaces. The United Auto Workers (UAW) has been a major player in graduate unionization efforts of recent years, but its dominant organizing strategies have been subject to extensive critique by many grad workers organized within the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU) caucus across the country.
Despite the origins of the UAW among dissidents in the radical labor upsurges of the 1930s, the vibrant history of the union has been marred by repeated suppression of reform movements within the union ranks by the Administration Caucus, the longtime ruling faction within the union. As the UAW has branched into higher education, this repressive legacy has manifested anew in attempts to discredit AWDU reform efforts.
The latest installation takes the form of a zealous defense of the methods and practices of UAW leadership by Jacob Denz in his article “We Are Workers: the Case Against Grad Student Exceptionalism in the UAW.”
With reference to various campaigns in the AWDU-led unions at the University of California system and New York University, Denz attempts to portray the democratic reform caucus as trapped in the mindset of campus activism and unwilling to learn from the “proven methods” of the stalwart UAW administration. Unfortunately, Denz’s frequent omissions and distortions prevent grad workers now forming unions from reaching conclusions based on the facts.
This history is an important one, especially as graduate workers continue to debate the merits of differing strategies to build union power. A look at the reality shows that the UAW’s model of top-down business unionism, in which union experts service a disenfranchised membership, disempowers workers and weakens them in the struggle against the employers and the corporatization of universities. Within the UAW, a rhetorical commitment to social justice has come to coexist with an organizing approach based on narrow legalism and conciliation with management, a peculiar combination sometimes referred to as “Reutherism.”
Workers have been organizing to build fighting unions for over a century, but it is only in the last fifty years that a reliance on legal mechanisms has come to replace reliance on workplace power in labor’s arsenal. Across sectors, these methods have achieved weaker and weaker union contracts in the ensuing decades, while member-led unions actively promoting rank-and-file democratic initiatives and cultivating broad movement alliances to combat all forms of social injustice have successfully won real material gains and built a powerful bulwark to defend them.
Majorities that can win
To understand why Denz’s analysis is harmful to the building of effective, democratic unionism, it’s necessary to see how has this played out in reality.
At first glance, the strongest aspect of Denz’s case against AWDU is the emphasis he places on the need to win majorities. In order “to be taken seriously by management,” he asserts, a union’s demands must have majority support from the workers it represents. The argument seems logical enough. Any union organizer worth her salt knows that having a majority of the workplace for the union is essential to the campaign, whether in winning union recognition itself or contract negotiations.
The question Denz avoids, however, is what happens with this majority once it has demonstrated its support. The history of graduate worker unionism at NYU provides a revealing illustration.
Before it was recognized, GSOC, the graduate workers’ union at NYU, consistently gathered member support through petitions, which were then delivered to the university administration. Over the course of a decade, numerous such petitions and a card drive indisputably demonstrated that a majority of graduate workers supported unionization.
Having clearly demonstrated its majority backing, GSOC was well-positioned to begin applying pressure on the NYU administration and compel them to recognize the union. Historically, the application of pressure on the employer has required workers to mobilize collectively through actions like strikes, slow-downs, and pickets. This demonstration of worker power imposes costs on the employer, and wins not only union recognition but concessions on compensation and workplace conditions.
Unfortunately for GSOC members, UAW staff leading the campaign at NYU never took that crucial step from winning the majority of members to fighting the boss.
For over seven years, petitions with majority support were treated in practice as an end in themselves. Rather than using the majority petitions as a stepping-stone to building actual workplace power through taking actions against the employer, “majority support” was reduced to a prop in the arguments of a core of “expert” union organizers in their attempts to “be taken seriously by management” during private discussions. Even though this strategy repeatedly failed to bring results, good relationships with the employer continued to be prized over any reliance on workers themselves to organize direct actions or encouraging other member-led organizing initiatives. The strategy results not only in worker disempowerment but ever-closer cooperation between labor and management.
When NYU finally did recognize the union in 2013, it was not because year after year of prop petitions and expert charisma finally made them see reason, but because they were compelled to concede in the face of a sustained organizing campaign which mounted faculty, student, and community pressure against the administration, and scandalizing public scrutiny in that year. As the history of GSOC demonstrates, the third-party, service-model approach to unionism underestimates what is required to build power and democracy in the workplace, and its predominance in the labor movement has resulted in defeat after defeat over the last four decades. It didn’t work at NYU, and it hasn’t worked elsewhere.
Union organizers around the country know that employer hostility is not a problem of miscommunication. The boss has a permanent interest in opposing workers’ demands: there are profits, exorbitant executive salaries, and basic control of budgets and the workplace at stake. That is why unions are most effective when they can raise the costs for an employer not to concede to their demands — whether through public campaigns, interference with internal business as usual, damage to valued public ratings, or most importantly, strikes.
Denz is right to encourage graduate students in “pursuing the labor organizing strategies that have proven to be effective in university contexts.” But these have not come from the UAW “experts.” Effective organizing must recognize that an ever-hostile management responds only to union power, which is a product of the actions an informed membership takes that raise the costs for the employer. This simple truth has been proven time and again at NYU, most prominently during the preparations for a strike that immediately preceded the contract.
GSOC members prepare to strike
GSOC launched its campaign for a contract shortly after winning recognition in fall 2013. But the UAW leadership’s bargaining during the first nine months was notable for its stalled progress, opacity to GSOC membership, and a conciliatory stance toward management that failed to secure many gains.
The bargaining committee — handpicked to run by UAW staff organizers to prevent radicals from playing a role — was so demoralized by the lack of progress to a contract that in summer 2014, half of them either dropped out entirely or broke from the concessionary strategy, soon to be supported by over a hundred GSOC members in an open letter. Far from an effective strategy for building a union, the model Denz defends was driving graduate workers away from the union.
The dissidents, forming the AWDU caucus, went on to call for a stronger, more democratic union, and with the support of rank-and-file members developed a strategy to both win the best contract and play an ongoing role in social-justice struggles. Almost a year after contract negotiations began, AWDU swept the elections by the margin of two to one as GSOC members voted to put the rank and file in control.
GSOC turned away from the strategy of backroom negotiations. Private conversations between the union officials and NYU administration alone, even when petitions of the membership could be cited as external evidence, had proven themselves a worthless strategy over the previous year. In the fall, rank-and-file members were invited for the first time to attend bargaining. For many, the experience of testifying about their working conditions was the action that brought them in as organizers for the strike campaign.
The strategy advocated by the UAW treated “credible union power” as a rhetorical refrain to use in negotiations with management. But union power is credible when it is real, and real union power is rooted in the preparedness and determination of its members.
Some of the most serious accusations Denz levels against AWDU in his piece refer to the strike preparation at NYU. He claims both that “staff organizers managed directly by the UAW leadership were able to secure a majority strike authorization vote in fall 2014,” and most egregiously, that “the AWDU majority on the bargaining committee undercut this by failing to set a strike deadline until the next semester, when many of those who voted to authorize a strike were no longer working.” Although this depiction of events would certainly be convenient for Denz’s anti-rank-and-file narrative, it doesn’t hold up to the facts.
Two things happened in late November 2014: in consultation with UAW representatives, the AWDU-led bargaining committee cautiously agreed to enter mediation sessions in an attempt to reach a satisfactory agreement with an intransigent NYU, and a strike authorization vote was initiated to escalate pressure. Rank-and-file members, the vast majority AWDU-affiliated, stepped up to organize themselves into a decentralized, department-based committee structure to prepare escalation.
In a report at the time, AWDU stressed the importance of “one-on-one organizing alongside collective participation and direct action” for a strong strike mobilization. With this in mind, AWDU organizers went department by department to prepare members to walk off their jobs on the day of the strike and actively participate in picket lines.
In the case of NYU, it was especially important to have a number of active picket lines in place, as union power in striking would not just derive from withholding labor, but also from giving a publicly known institution like NYU critical press coverage and ensuring other unions did not cross the picket lines. In-depth preparation and discussion with the membership is never easy, but it is necessary to build a capable union.
The bargaining committee kept its ear to the ground as a large group of AWDU organizers obtained the majority of strike authorization votes by coordinating across departments and schools. All bargaining committee decisions were strongly influenced by the information flowing through this infrastructure, and by the end of the semester, it was the basis of the recognition that further strike preparations were needed. A key reason for this had to do with the circumstances of the mediation at the time.
At this stage in the negotiations, refusing mediation meant giving up on the bargaining process altogether. But as AWDU assessed in a report to the membership, mediation came with certain sacrifices in transparency and potential power.
Mediation had taken some of the initiative out of the hands of the bargaining committee and the members at the end of the semester, shifting the balance of power away from GSOC. After deliberation, the bargaining committee decided to allow more time to prepare a strike in the coming semester and thereby regain the upper hand.
Public rallies organized by AWDU were one way of gauging the willingness of members to walk the picket lines at different stages in the campaign. To cite a well-known example disparaged by Denz, an elaborate piñata symbolizing NYU’s astronomical profits garnered widespread media attention that ratcheted up public pressure. Creative tactics like these infused life into the campaign and its rank-and-file organizers, but they could only facilitate, not substitute for, the member empowerment needed to challenge the boss.
As the new semester began, AWDU-affiliated rank-and-filers took up all aspects of the strike in detail, holding department discussions with members across the university on what a strike would look like in concrete terms, organizing flying picket squads, and building alliances with sympathetic faculty and undergraduates to ensure broad-based community support. In the lead-up to the strike, the mobilization committee under AWDU’s leadership recruited rank-and-file members from across the university to publicly pledge to organize a strike in their departments if NYU continued refusing a fair contract. This extensive, on-the-ground preparation by and of the membership created the conditions to secure a powerful win.
Confronted with this threat, something incredible happened: NYU caved. The GSOC contract was an unequivocal victory, ratified by 99.1 percent of members and praised by graduate worker unionizers around the country.
California gains at the bargaining table
Not only does Denz make groundless attacks on NYU-AWDU’s victories, he also extends his target to University of California-AWDU, a sister caucus of NYU-AWDU. He cites the last contract struggle, when the AWDU-led union “deliberately prolonged negotiations past the previous contract expiration in 2013.” According to Denz, the numbers reveal “losses at the bargaining table”:
“They finally settled in June 2014 for a 17 percent wage hike over four years (the state allocation to the UC system had gone up 20 percent for the single academic year 2013 – 2014), but failed to win retroactive coverage, so their members effectively experienced a pay freeze during 2013-2014, losing up to $1,850 in wages and benefits.”
But do Denz’s seemingly damning claims against AWDU have a basis in reality? The 17 percent wage increase over five years, from 2013 – 18, represents the greatest nominal wage increase in that period in the history of the UC grad local since its founding in 1999, even if we take the lack of retroactive increase in 2013 – 14 into account. Moreover, the rate of real wage increase in the academic years 2014 and 2015 was greater than any in the fourteen years of Administration Caucus – negotiated contracts in 1999 – 2013.
The development of wage levels further demonstrates that the years of AWDU-negotiated contracts represent a notable spike in both nominal and real wage levels, recovering from the stagnations under the previous Administration Caucus leadership.
His criticism of the negative consequences of extending negotiations is likewise groundless. In November 2013, UC management offered a contract with a 3 percent increase in wages for three years, 2013 – 16 — which, as a result of sustained AWDU mobilizations, was already greater than what the union had won in most previous years. By refusing to settle in November and further developing the contract campaign mobilizations, the AWDU-led union won a contract that was a further improvement for the vast majority of workers.
Because of the higher wage increase the union eventually won in the years 2014 – 17 (5 percent the first year, 4 percent the second, and 4 percent the third), the base pay in 2017 under the eventual contract exceeds that under the November 2013 offer, even assuming that the union would win the same 3 percent increase in 2016 – 17, which was not included in the November offer. The higher base pay by 2017 in turn raises the wages for all workers in many years to come, which far outweighs the slight losses for those working under the contract in 2013 – 14 even on purely quantitative terms.
Denz claims that “their members … los[t] up to $1,850 in wages and benefits” in 2013 – 14; the basis of this claim is obscure and dubious, and there is no plausible counterfactual to sustain such a claim, considering the earlier offers from management and the earlier rounds of bargaining in the union’s history.
Beyond the wage gains, the union also won other significant gains in undocumented student rights, trans rights, child-care benefits and parental leave, access to lactation rooms, and negotiability of class size, which Denz’s claim of a concessionary contract trivializes. No less significantly, letting the contract expire and refusing to settle early enabled UAW 2865 to strike in solidarity with the service workers at UC organized under AFSCME Local 3299, because the grad union was no longer bound by a no-strike clause in the contract.
Contract enforcement wins at NYU
But the gains of even the strongest contracts must be enforced, and if possible, expanded. Even successfully enforcing the contract most often requires a union capable of disrupting business as usual. This is illustrated in the recent “Fight the Fee” campaign at NYU, where member mobilization successfully pushed a slogging grievance process toward a victory for graduate workers.
Soon after the contract, NYU reneged on its contractual obligation to abolish a burdensome matriculation fee for graduate students at the Steinhardt School of Education, Culture, and Human Services, who are predominantly women and one of the most poorly funded schools.
During an arbitration process spanning three semesters, stewards affiliated with AWDU organized a bottom-up campaign targeting all graduate students in the school, regardless of which of the semesters they happened to receive work assignments (graduate student jobs are typically contracted on a semesterly basis, and individuals may not receive a work assignment every semester of their enrollment). Dozens of members taking ownership over their union for the first time organized their colleagues to build up teams of point people across all departments. This rank-and-file infrastructure was used to mobilize GSOC members to disrupt university town halls and impose on the arbitration hearings themselves.
One in six doctoral students in the school personally contributed much-publicized testimonials against the fees, faculty were organized in solidarity, and several departments passed resolutions demanding the fee be abolished, and the issue was kept in the spotlight through a lively “Walk of Shame” protest tour. The pressure yielded a successful arbitration abolishing the fee for students while they are working, but the deep networks built during the campaign continue to organize escalating actions until the fee is completely eliminated.
Inclusive unions are stronger unions
As “Fight the Fee” and other campaigns have demonstrated, fighting the boss requires the union to mobilize graduate students regardless of their formal employment status in a given semester. The members of the NYU unit have demonstrated their support for inclusive union membership criteria that allows all grad student workers to contribute to, vote in, and run for office in their union. But Denz would restrict these rights exclusively to those “individuals legally represented by the union, covered by the contract, and required to pay dues or an equivalent agency fee.”
Denz’s restrictive version of membership is a considerable departure from existing practice in other UAW graduate worker locals such as 2865 in California and 4121 in Washington, whose reasonable arrangements on dues have been the basis of various GSOC proposals for member enfranchisement in Local 2110. Moreover, when GSOC members ratified the AWDU-initiated bylaws with inclusive criteria for its unit in October 2015, they merely affirmed the manner in which GSOC operated to include graduate workers irrespective of current formal employment status throughout its entire history prior to and after winning a contract, and with full backing from the UAW and Local 2110.
Indeed, in the recent NLRB case that won the right to unionize for grad workers at private universities around the country, the UAW argued in its own amicus brief to the NLRB that “all student employees who receive appointments of one semester or longer share a community of interest and should be included in the Unit.”
It is therefore all the more outrageous that in April 2016, Local 2110 interfered in the internal GSOC unit elections for stewards by unilaterally disqualifying many candidates who they claimed did not meet their new and arbitrarily imposed membership criteria. The last-minute disenfranchisement of NYU grads from serving in their union was an egregious infringement upon basic unit autonomy in GSOC that Denz entirely omits from his account.
Instead, Denz decries the influence of GSOC members within its amalgamated parent Local 2110. Allowing for inclusive membership criteria, Denz claims, would “amount to a full-scale gentrification of UAW Local 2110” by a group of “young, transient, and disproportionately white and socioeconomically privileged NYU graduate students.”
In reality, the April 2016 interference in the GSOC elections deprived the unit of fair representation in the Local Joint Council as well, even by the Local leadership’s own standard: GSOC workers are currently represented by only five delegates, despite being allotted eight slots, and thus receive far less representation than the other units in the local to this day. At a time when actual gentrification produces housing conditions that have literally put GSOC members out on the street, Denz’s concern with a “gentrified” local — in reality his own fabrication — rings hollow.
But this example is only one symptom of more substantial problems exhibited by Denz: a myopic approach to social justice and a fundamental lack of vision for the future of the labor movement.
The best traditions within the UAW itself have always understood the necessity of building broad social movements against racism, sexism, the oppression of LGBTQ people, and against all oppressions in order to protect the most vulnerable among us and advance the common interests of our class. As a social justice caucus, AWDU proudly affirms this heritage, and has actively supported social movements such as Black Lives Matter, ecological justice, and Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions in addition to the day-to-day defense of wonderfully diverse rank-and-file members.
Far from “gentrifying” the union, AWDU is striving to make the union a strong fighter for the most underprivileged across all workplaces by deepening our engagement with broader social movements.
The future is with the rank and file
Academic workers need unions that can stand up to today’s corporatized university administrations. There are no shortcuts to building a powerful union; it requires the patient work of organizing for the rank and file to take the lead. Because graduate assistants really are workers, they cannot afford the kind of unions advocated by Denz, in which “organizing” means the servicing of consumers by an enlightened few respected in the eyes of management.
Organizing means making every effort to seriously educate the membership base on every ongoing campaign so their informed decisions can guide union strategy. It means creating accessible avenues for member-to-member contact that can outlive direct mediation by union staff. It means being honest with members about what it will take to pose a real threat to the employer. It means advancing social justice as a core mission of the union. Ultimately, effective organizing means promoting the self-organization of the union rank-and-file. That is the source of union power.
Graduate workers around the country are spearheading union drives on private university campuses. As these proceed, the kind of unions they join and build will only take on a heightened importance. AWDU and other union reformers have an analysis and a strategy that sees rank-and-file member empowerment as the goal of our unions — that is the meaning of union democracy, and that is how we win against the boss. In graduate student workplaces, democratic unionism means inclusive membership definitions, and only democratic unions can rouse active support among the workers they represent. In turn, maximal member involvement is required to impose real costs on employers through strikes and mobilizations.
If we are serious about building powerful unions, we must look to the rank and file. Graduate unions built on this foundation today only confirm what has been true throughout the history of the labor movement: Collective action gets the goods.
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