The student-run group Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU) is working to reform the UAW Local 2865 in light of a recent contract ratification and the continuing budget cuts to the UC system.
AWDU hopes to make the union a more democratic and effective group in bargaining for the rights and wages of the 12,000 graduate student instructors, teaching assistants, readers and undergraduate tutors that it represents. The reformers secured 29 positions on the Joint Council and Executive Board of UAW after administrative caucus contestants withdrew last week – giving AWDU a total of 37 seats out of 71 on the board.
In a blog dedicated to the Social and Economic Justice Caucus of UAW, those running against the reformers said they withdrew from the election in order to focus on the union’s larger goal of defending public education.
“This year, too much energy has already been spent on infighting. Every hour spent campaigning between well-intentioned union activists is an hour not spent getting more people involved, turning out for the March 2 ‘Day of Action,’ filing grievances to enforce our contract or talking with members one-on-one to keep our union membership strong,” the blog stated.
While some see this as a victory for the reform movement, others point out that this move goes against the group’s goal for a democratic union.
“It kind of removes the opportunity for an election and debate about where we all stand on different issues. It doesn’t give everybody a chance to actually vote and be democratic,” said Tom O’Donnell, recently elected head steward of UAW at UC Davis. “It certainly points to what I think is a bigger problem within the union.”
UAW, while supportive of those wanting to get involved in the union, pointed out that internal conflict is not beneficial to anyone.
“We’d like to spend this quarter doing work to build the union and fight the budget cuts, and not fighting ourselves,” said Daraka Larimore-Hall, northern California vice president of UAW and graduate student at UC Santa Barbara.
AWDU aims to transform the union into one that’s democratic, where all members’ views are considered, said Charlie Eaton, graduate student at UC Berkeley and member of AWDU.
“There are a lot of ideas that have been brought forward, and a lot of those ideas are about letting members participate more in making decisions about what campaigns we take on and how we can make a mass mobilization to fight the budget cuts, fight the fee hikes and fight for the rights of our workers,” he said.
UAW is generally supportive of AWDU’s emphasis on getting members involved, and highlighted the importance of members being active in the union.
“It’s always beneficial to have more people getting involved. If there are a bunch of people who want to get involved and take responsibility and join the fight to save higher education and strengthen the union, then that’s great,” Larimore-Hall said.
Much of the reformers’ unhappiness with UAW’s current administration comes from the contract ratification that took place in November 2010. UAW and the UC finally ratified a long debated contract regarding benefits and salaries. And while some members of the UAW felt the contract was a victory, others felt differently.
“I felt that the union should have pushed back on the administration a little harder and demanded more from them on our behalf,” O’Donnell said. “I was also beginning to sense that the union leadership wasn’t as democratic as it could be, in terms of including its membership in all the decisions that are made, or when it came down to election time, how the election was actually conducted.”
Along with discontent about the recent contract ratification, UAW has recently been under fire for rumored election fraud. Accusations from members of the reform movement suggest that on one occasion, a member election was held before the local members meeting actually began, thus preventing many from voting in the election.
“I think this shows why we need to have a democratic and transparent union, that people can be confident and if they get involved, their voice will be heard. If we are not democratic and transparent, it will make our union weaker because our members will not want to participate in a united way to fight the fee hikes and the budget cuts,” Eaton said.
However, UAW urged members to be careful about the rumors that are spread and look for more concrete evidence than general accusations about any issues with the union.
“Our elections are transparent and democratic. We strongly encourage people to take responsibility for the things that they’re saying and any rumors that they’re spreading,” Larimore-Hall said. “Unfortunately, in the debate that we had about the ratification of our last contract, there was a lot of misinformation and innuendo that was put out by opponents, that wasn’t really substantiated, and that’s unfortunate. That doesn’t help anybody.”
HANNAH STRUMWASSER can be reached at email@example.com.