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Academic workers at the University of California (UC), who are entering their second month on the picket line, are internally weighing strategic questions about how their union should move forward with negotiations. Roughly 36,000 graduate teaching and research workers, represented by two different United Auto Workers (UAW) locals, remain on strike after a third UAW local representing 11,000 UC postdocs signed a five-year contract with the university and returned to work December 9.
UAW Local 2865 is the largest of the UC unions on strike. It represents some of the university’s lowest-paid workers—about 19,000 teaching assistants, tutors and readers, some of whom make an estimated $24,000 a year.
In These Times spoke with more than a dozen rank-and-file members of Local 2865 about their thoughts on negotiations. Many expressed frustration with the bargaining team, which they say has been too quick to compromise on key contract demands.
At the center of internal debates at Local 2865 is a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) which would tie workers’ yearly raises to median rents on a campus-by-campus basis. Unlike a fixed raise, a COLA would ensure that incomes keep pace with inflation in the housing market, allowing workers to ride out the cost of living crisis in California. But on November 20, the bargaining team for Local 2865 voted 10-9 to drop the demand for a COLA provision in favor of demanding a 7% yearly raise as part of a larger package proposal. On November 30, the bargaining team voted 10-9 to drop its base salary demand from $54,084 to $43,020.
“There have been a few decisions that were not widely felt by the rank-and-file,” says Rachel Forgash, a Teaching Assistant (TA) at UCLA and a Local 2865 member who resigned from her union officer position in late October to focus on grassroots organizing. “There was a much greater need for the bargaining team to hear workers’ voices on this.”
In These Times reached out to the UAW Local 2865 bargaining team for comment on members’ specific claims. We received a reply from a media consultant with BrightLine Communications, a boutique PR firm, expressing concern this article would be one-sided and harm negotiations; however, the consultant declined to set up an interview with a bargaining team member. Instead, BrightLine said they would be sending over a statement “signed by many rank-and-file members” shortly, and in the meantime followed up with a written statement from Local 2865 president Rafael Jaime.
In the December 9 statement, Jaime acknowledges that UC’s insufficient offers had generated “a lot of frustration and a big range of opinions about what should be done.”
Jaime goes on: “Disagreement and debate are important parts of this union. We are a democratic organization — our forward movement will be guided by the majority. We have a democratically elected bargaining committee, town halls, polls and surveys, and ultimately every member of the union will have a vote on any agreement that is reached.”
The Local 2865 bargaining team first informed members about dropping the COLA demand on a November 21 Zoom call as hundreds of academic workers poured into the meeting, quickly exceeding its 500-person capacity. The announcement was met with dismay as many members went off mute and chanted, “no COLA, no contract,” a phrase that also dominated picket lines and social media. In the days that followed, many workers began to use various UC rank-and-file caucus Twitter accounts to organize and promote events, teach-ins and strategy sessions dedicated to reinstating the COLA demand. Many workers we spoke with have said they will likely vote “no” on a contract without it.
“Rent burden is really what drives this whole movement,” says Marie Buhl, a Local 2865 member who works as a TA at UC Merced. “My rent has risen 20% this past summer.”
Ten days after dropping COLA, the Local 2865 bargaining team voted 10-9 to lower the base salary demand to $42,000. Within hours, a petition opposing the package began circulating and gathered more than 1,800 signatures, according to UC San Diego’s student newspaper The Triton. In response, the bargaining team raised the base wage demand slightly to $43,020. The bargaining team also made compromises on demands for disability accommodations, dependent health care and childcare subsidies.
Despite widespread media attention on the strike, members’ debates over contract priorities have not previously made it into mainstream news coverage. Part of the reason might be workers’ hesitation to speak with the press about internal tensions. Many workers In These Times interviewed chose their words carefully. Several declined to be quoted, offering to speak on background only.
Cyn Huang, a tutor and grader at UC Berkeley with Local 2865, says there has been some concern within the union that “disagreement is going to undermine us and signal weakness to the university. But I don’t think there’s going to be unity without a political basis for it, so we need to debate these things internally.”
Animating members’ discussions over how to move the UC administration are two competing theories of what constitutes strike power. While many rank-and-file workers told In These Times they believe the power of the strike grows over time, bargaining committee members and their supporters worry the strike’s “peak power” has passed or is steadily declining. Some union members say these strategic disagreements reflect a larger tension between the service model bargaining approach of the UAW’s old guard and the more militant strategy favored by a new generation of labor leaders.
“There are concerns about the sustainability of the strike,” says Local 2865 member Keith Brower Brown, a geography department steward at UC Berkeley. “[The bargaining team] had hoped for a short strike with huge numbers. I think there’s concern from leadership that participation on the picket line is declining, which in my mind always happens [during a strike].”
But Nate Edenhofer, a Ph.D. candidate who participated in the 2020 wildcat strike at UC Santa Cruz, says what matters is “not how big the strike looks, but the actual damage it inflicts, day after day, on the boss.” He explains that academic labor stoppages differ from factory strikes because, “if everybody walks out of a factory, the whole thing shuts down… if all the TAs leave the university for a couple of weeks, there aren’t any classes, but there are still grades being produced at the end.” Edenhofer says withholding labor past grading and grant deadlines — which, from an administrative perspective, are more tangible products of graduate labor than in-class instruction — adds additional pressure on the university to reach a deal.
Some union members believe that striking through these deadlines alone will not be enough to put sufficient pressure on the university to reach a fair deal and are telling members to be prepared for a “long-haul strike” — one that continues as long as necessary to extract concessions.
One UC worker explains the call for a long-haul strike in a recent Labor Notes article, writing: “we still have tremendous power left to use — a power they fear even more than that which we have already exercised…and we have a responsibility to use it to win for everyone.” Huang agrees, adding: “I think the recent history of academic worker organizing, especially the Columbia example, shows that we have to adopt a long-term strategy — one that acknowledges the unique rhythm, pressures, and leverage of academic work.” Graduate workers at Columbia University were on strike for almost ten weeks starting November 3, 2021. Their strike continued well past semester deadlines and won them many of their key demands.
Many rank-and-file organizers have an expansive understanding of the strike’s mandate. In an article for Truthout, UCLA Ph.D. candidate and Local 2865 member Magally A. Miranda Alcázar writes, “The COLA4ALL tendency builds on earlier ideas of ‘social justice unionism’ that animated the UAW’s struggle for gender-neutral bathrooms in the 2010s. This approach to unionism seeks to center the voices of the most marginalized workers and imagine a different horizon of worker struggle.”
The political significance of social justice unionism sheds some light on why many students told us they have committed to voting down a contract without a COLA provision. Workers we spoke with say that, as the largest landlord in California, the university has been instrumental in exacerbating the housing crisis. Linking wages to median rents in UC localities through COLA, says Berkeley Ph.D. candidate Alexandra Michaud, would “disincentivize predatory landlord behavior” and help alleviate living costs not just for their members, but for all workers and tenants near UC campuses.
Similarly, strikers note that winning COLA would benefit undergraduates. Dorm rooms that cost over $15,000 for an academic year, in addition to driving up rents, also “gouge the undergraduates who are forced in their first year, at least, to live on campus” and who often pay for dorms using student loans, says Jack Davies, a Local 2865 bargaining team member in Santa Cruz. Davies voted against dropping the COLA demand.
Forgash worries that tensions within the union can become counterproductive at this point. “There have been a lot of attacks and criticism of the bargaining team that are not always in good faith or productive on the part of rank-and-file,” Forgash says.
Some students believe Local 2865’s bargaining team has faced an unfair amount of blame for compromises on the contract. “Some decisions were made that I don’t personally agree with, that a lot of people on the picket don’t agree with,” says Local 2865 member Ros Herling at UC Berkeley, “but that are made by our bargaining team who are, in all honesty, doing their absolute best to get a good contract for us.”
Many workers mobilizing for a “no” vote and a long-haul strike also say that focusing on fighting the bargaining team “is a distraction we can ill afford,” as UCSC workers wrote in a recent pamphlet. Instead, they say a rank-and-file push for a long-haul strike is the way forward. “It is becoming clear to our official leadership, precisely as it dawns on the UC,” they wrote, “that rank-and-file workers are girding themselves behind the strategy of the long-haul strike as the only path to a real victory.” Many of the workers we spoke to agree, and see both a “no” vote and long-haul strike as preferable to the bargaining team’s current approach.
There are concerns that a “no” vote campaign will hamper negotiations, especially at a time when the union has voluntarily agreed to have an independent mediator oversee negotiations due to lack of progress at the table. On December 10, an open letter “Against an Anti-union No Vote Campaign” appeared on Twitter, which BrightLine sent to In These Times the next day as part of their response to our request for comment.
Written by “rank-and-file members of [UC grad unions],” the letter says that, “while dissenting opinions are welcome in our union, the current effort to stoke resistance to a future agreement has taken on an anti-union tendency that should be strongly rejected.” It claims that members pushing a “no” vote “have articulated no such strategy and criticize efforts by the most active rank-and-file organizers to escalate and build the power of our strike.”
The letter, signed by 146 workers across campuses, generated swift backlash on social media, both from union members and allies. Labor historian Robin D.G. Kelley summarized many of the criticisms of the letter in a video addressed to union members December 11: “Opposition caucuses, rank-and-file votes against union-negotiated contracts, wildcat actions, disagreements, and debates…this is labor history. Sometimes these actions lead to positive results. Sometimes they don’t. But these kinds of tensions are not the reasons why unions collapse. Unions are destroyed by employers.”
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Indigo Olivier is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic and a 2020-2021 Leonard C. Goodman investigative reporting fellow. Her writing on politics, labor and higher education has appeared in the Guardian, The Nation and Jacobin, among other outlets.