We Are Workers: The Case Against Grad Student Exceptionalism in the UAW

Jacob Denz

The division between UAW leadership and the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU) could perhaps best be described as a difference between unionists who want to make academic activism more like a union and academics who want unions to function more like campus activist groups. (GSOC-UAW Local 2110/ Facebook)

Unionization is surging among faculty, staff, and graduate student workers at public and private universities. In part, that’s thanks to the United Auto Workers (UAW). The union has emerged as an essential ally in some of the most successful campus campaigns, including a recent National Labor Relations Board decision that said graduate student assistants at private universities have the right to unionize.

The relationship, however, between some graduate student activists and experienced leaders in the UAW has not always been easy. Achieving union recognition and strong contracts requires strategies and tactics that are different from those many students are familiar with.

Barry Eidlin’s article on graduate student worker unionism, first published by Jacobin and re-printed by In These Times, illustrates the one-sidedness with which some self-proclaimed radical academics have caricatured the UAW. Eidlin presents a struggle between graduate student workers committed to democracy,” especially those affiliated with the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU), and an otherwise monolithic UAW bureaucracy haunted by the ghost of Walter Reuther. This has been the basic narrative about the UAW that has emerged from AWDU caucuses at the University of Washington, New York University (NYU) and the University of California system, where Eidlin himself was a founding member of AWDU (though he failed to identify himself as such in the Jacobin piece).

Once every conflict between activist graduate students and other leaders in the UAW can be attributed to Reutherism,” there is no need to consider the facts of a given situation to know that the graduate students are in the right. Unfortunately, when the reality does not fit the image of shining young radicals democratizing an otherwise moribund union, AWDU supporters have had a tendency to resort to creative mythmaking and a distinct political branding” strategy.

Elections at NYU: AWDU’s dishonesty

For example, at NYU the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC-UAW) is a part of the amalgamated UAW Local 2110. With a highly-diverse membership, Local 2110 also represents clerical workers at Columbia University, Barnard College, Teachers College and the State Bank of India, professional and retail staff at the Museum of Modern Art, editorial workers at The Village Voice and the Stamford Advocate, and other white-collar workers in the New York area. 

In a recent controversy at NYU, an AWDU press release falsely accused the Local 2110 leadership of a Zionist” conspiracy to suppress a vote to support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. (The word Zionist” was later removed from the release.) Eidlin repeats a milder version of this when he writes, Meanwhile, the NYU BDS vote was marred by local UAW leadership efforts to disqualify many strong supporters of the BDS resolution. NYU members went ahead with the vote, which was held in conjunction with a union steward and delegate election, and both the BDS resolution and BDS-supporting candidates won handily. At a subsequent local-wide meeting, however, local delegates invalidated the NYU election results. They are now under appeal.”

The reality is somewhat different. Local delegates” never invalidated” the results of the BDS referendum vote. The UAW International (not Local 2110) had struck down a BDS resolution by UAW Local 2865, which represents graduate student workers in the University of California system, as inconsistent with the International’s position on BDS, and its decision was upheld on appeal by the UAW’s external public review board. Nor was the disqualification of candidates for office based on considerations of support for or opposition to BDS. Rather, it reflected an ongoing dispute between the NYU AWDU caucus and the elected leadership of Local 2110 concerning union membership, an issue that sharply reveals the true stakes for union democracy. 

The NYU AWDU caucus’s position, enshrined in recently drafted unit bylaws,” is that “(f)ull membership rights in this unit will be given to everyone eligible to work in a union position who signs a union membership card.” In practical terms, this would mean that almost all graduate students at NYU, about 17,000 in total, many of whom might never work under the contract, pay union dues, or have any material stake in the union, would be eligible to run for union office and vote in union elections. This is because our union contract, like all collective bargaining agreements involving graduate student workers, does not cover all graduate students but only graduate students who work in an included position such as teaching assistant or research assistant. These are the individuals legally represented by the union, covered by the contract and required to pay dues or an equivalent agency fee.

Expanding union membership rights from the group of graduate students who actually work under the contract to include all graduate students who are merely eligible” to do so would make graduate students at NYU the overwhelming majority of potential voters in Local 2110, notwithstanding the fact that graduate students are a minority of dues-paying members in the union.

No reasonable group of workers would accept such an undemocratic outcome. Not surprisingly, elected Local 2110 leaders on both the executive board and the joint council voted not to accept the provision of the NYU unit bylaws concerning union membership, and spent months explaining to AWDU representatives that it was in conflict with the Local’s own bylaws and the UAW constitution. They offered AWDU a compromise in which union membership rights would be extended for a year to any NYU graduate worker who held a bargaining unit position and paid dues during at least one semester. Yet the AWDU leaders ignored Local 2110’s position and conducted their own election in violation of the Local’s rules. Consequently, the Local 2110 joint council voted to uphold the disqualification of candidates for office who had submitted their names but had never worked or paid dues under the contract. And, in fact, when this was done a greater proportion of anti- than pro-BDS candidates were disqualified.

Implementing NYU AWDU’s membership definition would amount to a full-scale gentrification of UAW Local 2110, unfairly disadvantaging older members who built the Local and are overwhelmingly people of color, men and women with dependents, and longtime New York City residents, in favor of young, transient, and disproportionately white and socioeconomically privileged NYU graduate students. That Eidlin and others can somehow spin this move as consistent with an agenda of social justice is just one of many examples of the AWDU caucus’s skewed, self-serving rhetoric.

Workplace organizing vs. campus activism”

I have dedicated much of my intellectual and emotional energy in the past four years to understanding the conflict between members of the AWDU caucus and other leaders in the UAW. As a graduate student teaching assistant in the German department, I got involved with the organizing campaign for collective bargaining rights for graduate workers at NYU. For me, organizing during the union recognition and contract campaigns was among the most intellectually and politically formative experiences of my life, and I proudly count the lifelong labor activists I met as great influences and mentors.

Eidlin credits academics with shaking up their locals.” I would sooner congratulate the UAW for introducing analysis and strategies of labor organizing into university campus politics.

As a UAW organizer, I have learned a few simple lessons. First, it is possible to base strategic and tactical decisions on an objective analysis of the power relationship between workers and an employer. Second, strength lies in numbers: a union that wants to be taken seriously by management must ensure that the workers it represents actually support its demands and are willing to take united, public action for them. Third, most workers are not inherently interested in becoming involved” in an extracurricular advocacy group, but many can be convinced to take specific actions if they believe those actions will lead to the success of demands that are important to them. The difficult, thankless task of mobilizing this majority of potentially supportive workers is called organizing.

Prior to the appearance of NYU AWDU, UAW staff organizers worked tirelessly with graduate workers, turning out a 98 percent majority to vote yes” for a union and securing over 1,000 signatures on an open letter in support of the union’s demands during our contract campaign.

The impact of the refusal to learn from these proven methods can be seen in the operations of UAW Local 2865, which represents graduate teaching and research assistants in the University of California system. Local 2865 has been under AWDU leadership since 2011, and since then membership in the union reportedly dropped from around 60 percent in 2010 to some 38 percent in 2014. Thus, what Eidlin calls AWDU’s messier, more militant approach” has only ever engaged a limited minority of the workers the union represents.

Some of my fellow stewards and graduate students at NYU think that AWDU leadership sees as their constituency not the entire community of workers they represent but instead the small group of activists” for whose benefit they manage a wide range of democratic structures” and 31 flavors of meetings: membership meetings, assembly of stewards meetings, committee meetings, working group meetings, caucus meetings. Instead of using the meetings to organize for majority support, NYU AWDU caucus leaders typically, at most, plan direct actions” involving the same small core of graduate students.

In other words, graduate students have the opportunity to ally ourselves powerfully with the UAW by pursuing the labor organizing strategies that have proven to be effective in university contexts, winning union recognition and strong contracts from recalcitrant administrations. Yet AWDU caucuses are characterized by their rejection of those democratic, majoritarian labor organizing principles in favor of the mindset of campus activism, in which a small number of self-selected students form extracurricular organizations to plan actions” envisioned less as part of a coherent overall strategy than as opportunities for political self-expression.

AWDU’s record

Unsurprisingly, an approach that virtually guarantees a less-than-majority union also results in losses at the bargaining table. At the University of California, AWDU leaders in UAW Local 2865 deliberately prolonged negotiations past the previous contract expiration in 2013 and spent nearly an entire academic year staging minority actions, including a symbolic two-day strike in which less than ten percent of graduate workers participated. 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.

At NYU, staff organizers managed directly by the UAW leadership were able to secure a majority strike authorization vote in fall 2014, but 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. Instead of focusing on majoritarian organizing, the AWDU-led bargaining committee pursued what it considered creative tactics such as open bargaining” (carefully choreographed meetings with the university in which a small number of graduate students gave testimonials about how the issues in the contract affect their lives) and rallies with piñatas. These activities may have emotionally engaged the people who participated in them, but unaccompanied by a credible strike threat they did nothing to move the university to further concessions.

Spinning social justice

Eidlin himself admits that AWDU members have made their fair share of mistakes.” The more typical narrative AWDU supporters present to deflect from their concessionary record is that they represent social movement” or social justice” unionism as opposed to business” unionism. Eidlin writes,

In recent years, UAW student workers have supported Occupy and Black Lives Matter, challenged budget austerity, fought for public higher education, opposed police brutality, promoted trans rights, and taken a more active role in showing solidarity with fellow campus unions.

None of this has happened with the blessing of Solidarity House (as the UAW’s Detroit headquarters is known). Indeed, much of the new student worker activism has been spearheaded by members of Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU), a reform movement within many UAW student worker locals.”

Statements like these suggest that the UAW leadership itself does not support the causes Eidlin lists or even attempts to suppress activism around them. Nothing could be further from the truth. The UAW strongly supported Occupy Wall Street. My own UAW Local 2110 has marched in New York City against stop-and-frisk and for environmental justice. Top leaders from Local 2110, the UAW and the national AFL-CIO were arrested protesting against NYU’s withdrawal of recognition from GSOC in 2005, and in 2003 Local 2110 members at Columbia walked off their jobs in support of the graduate workers’ campaign there for union recognition. UAW Local 4121, which represents graduate student workers at the University of Washington, has a thriving Trans Equity Working Group. It is simply untrue that AWDU’s professed support for these causes is exceptional within the UAW as a whole. UAW Region 9A, which includes New York City and New England, is a founding member of the Working Families Party in New York state and in Connecticut, the kind of real-world coalition politics that stands in sharp contrast with symbolic campus activism. 

A real division on the Left

The conflict between the AWDU caucus and leaders elected by other workers in the UAW might seem like a minor, even slightly comic sideshow. It is, however, symptomatic of an extreme disconnect between two of the relatively few institutional contexts in which left-wing activity takes place on a significant scale in the United States: labor unions and academia.

The founders of AWDU are inspired by the horizontalism of Occupy and a strain of labor sociology that explains the weaknesses of the U.S. labor movement by reference to issues of internal union democracy — to the exclusion of factors such as larger cultural, economic and political forces. This has resulted in perpetuating a mythic, monolithic picture of the labor movement and of individual unions such as the UAW.

AWDU has also gained support among a larger number of graduate students who are enamored of elaborate internal structures” and in-group practices that may remind them of Occupy or of other forms of campus activism they experienced as undergraduates. Like many students who participate in extracurricular activism, they apparently never question whether the forms of organization they feel are most internally democratic are automatically the ones most likely to lead to successful outcomes.

In short, the division between UAW leadership and AWDU could perhaps best be described as a difference between unionists who want to make academic activism more like a union and academics who want unions to function more like campus activist groups.

Where my loyalties lie is clear. But I hope that even those readers who have a different estimate of the relative merits of the approaches I have tried to describe, will agree — that the still emerging partnership between academics and unions is important to building a stronger Left.

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Jacob Denz is a graduate student in the department of German at New York University and a Local 2110 joint council delegate for the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) UAW Local 2110.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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