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

Jacob Denz September 19, 2016

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.

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.
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