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Davis, California

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Graduate students won’t vote on a state-wide COLA strike

UAW Local 2865’s bargaining team voted 10-8 to not call a strike vote, increasing current discontent with union leadership

Hundreds of phone calls and countless emails hounded members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865 Bargaining Team, asking them to call an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) strike vote. Wildcat grade strikes — unsanctioned by the union — that called for a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) ended by May, with graduate students instead building toward an Unfair Labor Practice strike vote.

The vote to authorize a ULP vote happened on June 2, resulting in the union’s bargaining team 10-8 vote to not call a ULP strike vote, leaving many hoping for a statewide strike demoralized, frustrated and angry.

UAW Local 2865, in March, promised the vote by early April. It would’ve given rank-and-file union members the chance to vote on a strike around two ULP charges filed by UAW Local 2865 against UC: the UC circumventing the union’s attempts to bargain over a COLA and the termination of graduate students withholding grades at UC Santa Cruz.

When the pandemic forced campus shutdowns, elected officers in the union held a meeting open to all members to discuss what a Spring Quarter strike would look like — if it began at all. Sixty-one out of the 81 elected officers representing nine UC campuses voted in favor of calling a strike should 5,000 current workers sign a pledge indicating their commitment to striking. By June 2, around 2,300 strike pledges were signed. 

The 10 members of the bargaining team that voted against calling a strike vote released a letter explaining their decision in response to irate union members. In it, they cited the importance of having a supermajority of members who wanted to strike.

“Militant stands by a ‘vanguardist’ minority union of grad workers in the social sciences, arts and humanities who strike, without the support of the majority of their co-workers, will not generate the power needed to beat our state’s largest employer, the University of California,” the team wrote.

But the letter wasn’t formally distributed — the UAW 2865 website, at the time of writing, still had the strike pledge on its front page, never released a formal statement about the vote’s results and its Twitter contained one thread about the decision the day after it was made. 

Sean Arseo, an eighth-year sociology PhD candidate at UC Davis who was involved in COLA organizing in his department, said via email that he and other student-workers were baffled to stumble across it online. 

He alleged that there were nearly 4,000 ULP Strike Pledge signatories and added that none of them — including him — ever received an officially-shared rationale. 

To Arseo, the bargaining team’s argument about supermajorities was faulty and could be countered with examples of previous worker strikes.

“People show up when there is something meaningful to fight for and they see the urgency and significance of their own participation,” Arseo said. “In fact, we have evidence for righteous action’s snowball effect in the wildcat strike at UC Santa Cruz — once they set the tone, thousands of coworkers across the state stepped up alongside them.” 

Arseo added that he wasn’t surprised by the vote given the union’s initial response to the movement, saying that when UC Santa Cruz workers launched the movement they were met with union ignorance. 

“After the strike grew to other campuses, they tried to slyly claim it for themselves by buying domain names associated with COLA and hosting poorly attended symbolic ‘days of action’,” he said. “I initially felt disempowered [by the results of the vote] — that when I and thousands of others desperately wanted to take action to defend our coworkers, our elected leaders stood in the way.” 

His frustration speaks to a broader pattern of workers’ growing disenfranchisement with union leadership.

Even UAW 2865’s UC San Diego unit chair, Muhammad Yousef, acknowledged that the union had structural issues that made it seem opposed to worker organizers on campuses. Yousef was one of the eight bargaining team members who voted in favor of calling a strike vote and said that the pressuring of pro-strike union members often contained harsh sentiments. 

“A lot of folks are fed up because they feel like the union isn’t working for them, and I resonate with that because I felt like that before I joined union leadership,” Yousef said. “The union is very top down, meaning the board has an immense amount of power and control over information and resources. One big issue is the campuses’ lack of autonomy.” 

Yousef also said that he’s seen a strong push within parts of the union — who are now part of statewide leadership — to focus solely on economic issues, including wages, immediate benefits, healthcare and childcare.

He didn’t disagree that they were important, especially given that COLA itself was an economic issue. But to Yousef, that laser focus was harmful. 

“What we see historically is that issues of race, gender, sexuality and immigration status get pushed aside to the detriment of folks who are the most vulnerable in the union,” Yousef said. “Some people have said that when we focus on broader social issues, it detracts from a COLA, but the counter to that is that when we’re not just looking at one dimension of COLA, you start to see that there are sexualized, gendered, racialized costs of being in grad school.” 

Yousef also noted that the wildcat strikes diverged from “mainstream” tactics of organizing, such as signing petitions and calling legislators, calling them “minority actions.” 

He echoed Arseo’s sentiment that a vocal minority would create a snowball effect and said it stemmed from union leadership’s lack of faith in the vote even passing.

“We never had a chance to figure out what a remote, statewide strike would even look like because conversations got derailed, and this kind of pessimism hampered our ability to ideate and be creative,” Yousef said. “You have to keep in mind, though, that the union doesn’t get a majority opinion on anything.” 

That includes the contract UAW 2865 currently has with UC, ratified in 2018. About 4,500 union members across UC voted 58.6% to ratify the contract.

The contract fell short of UAW Local 2865’s initial demands, which included access to affordable and well-maintained housing — arguably the driving force that sparked fights for a COLA — despite providing paid leave for workers to attend immigration-related appointments and establishing a committee to address sexual harassment issues. 

For many union members, however, the contract’s ratification birthed their frustration toward union leadership. At some campuses, dissent was particularly strong. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, UC Santa Cruz UAW Local 2865 unit chair Veronica Hamilton said 83% of UC Santa Cruz workers voted against ratifying the contract.

Yousef said he remembered around 55% of UC San Diego workers voting against ratifying the contract, which resulted in two appeals filed by rank-and-file members alleging that the vote was undemocratic and held in bad faith, but neither resulted in the contract’s revision. 

Emily Breuninger, eighth-year sociology doctoral student at UC Davis, was part of the bargaining team that voted to settle the contract in 2018. Though she thought that it was the right decision at the time, she now thinks otherwise. 

Breuninger, unlike Arseo, was surprised that the bargaining team didn’t call a strike vote and was upset about how the decision was announced — she said it was sent out at the very bottom of a UAW Local 2865 email.

“That’s something out of the admin playbook — that’s how Gary May informs us what’s going on with fall classes,” she said. “It’s just such a gross tactic […] I feel betrayed by the fact that those who are supposed to be democratically representing us blocked basic democracy. It wasn’t voting to call a strike. It was voting to let us vote.”

The dissenting bargaining team members addressed similar allegations and said that they had seen representative democracy dismissed in favor of a “distorted” democracy characterizing the wildcat strikes.

“A strike conducted by about 200 workers [started] to monopolize the entire focus of a union that represents 19,000,” they wrote. “We’ve heard testimonies from rank-and-file members who’ve been bullied and harassed both in-person and online for questioning and/or not immediately supporting their tactics. How is this democracy?”

Still, Brueninger said she thought the bargaining team’s decision broke the agreement of what a union should be. 

“A union is about workers supporting other workers, about workers supporting workers’ backs,” she said. “Whether it’s a weak strike or not, the fact that we have each others’ backs and can show that is important. […] I think we do need supermajorities, but we also need bravery and the ability to distinguish between the times when they’re needed. I don’t think that a supermajority was holding them back.” 

Moving forward, the dissenting bargaining team members called for the union to be part of a broad coalition focused on defunding and disarming police, passing ACA 5 to allow race and ethnicity to be considered in California public university admissions, redistributing billionaires’ wealth and demanding full public institution funding.
Brueninger said the vote would’ve held a symbolic role in both general terms of worker solidarity and toward the identities of the strikers, who she noted were largely students from marginalized communities. 

“I don’t want to see any more statements coming out of the union about police brutality, immigration, the international students,” she said. “I don’t want to hear any of it because you all had your chance and it was a very low bar, and you didn’t even let us vote.”

After its June 3 Twitter thread about the Strike Authorization Vote decision, the UAW Local 2865 Twitter feed has been filled with calls to organize around defunding and disarming the UC Police Department. 

But it’s faced criticism for disenfranchising Black demands. Yousef said that he saw  many people of color choosing not to engage with the union because they didn’t feel their concerns were heard.
Blu Buchanan, a Black former head steward for the union, called out UAW Local 2865 for its anti-Blackness in a Twitter thread responding to the union’s latest solidarity statement.

“I […] crafted the first police disarmament contract language with a working group of UAW 2865 comrades, only to see it be tossed aside as something that wouldn’t ‘appeal to the majority of our [white] members’,” Buchanan said. “I’d also like folks who are new to the UAW leadership to know that you may not have enacted this historical anti-Blackness, but you’ve got to deal with the continued effect it has on the present.”

The UAW Local 2865 Twitter account never responded to Buchanan.

Conversations about abolishing police — and what that looks like — are increasingly juxtaposed with defunding and demilitarizing police. At UC San Diego, Yousef said that there had always been an abolitionist tint to COLA organizing: student leaders wanted to look at abolishing police, prisons and the university. 

But he, like Buchanan, said that the union had a history of anti-Blackness. Instead of using the union as a vehicle to hold Black Lives Matter events, he and other union leadership at UC San Diego are connecting people to local Black-led organizations.

Arseo acknowledged that he wasn’t always cognizant of the intrinsic connection implied in the common chant by striking UC student-workers — “Cops off campus, COLA in our bank accounts” — but said that articulating the connection between those demands and fighting for both was more important than ever.

“As another rank-and-file member put it, Black, Indigenous and other people of color suffer additional costs of living beyond wages and toil of system-wide exploitation,” Arseo said. “One of these costs is concerns about our safety around police in all forms.”

Yousef, Arseo and Brueninger all believe the COLA movement has a future. They, however, have different visions for what disgruntled student-workers should do. 

Conversations about continuing the struggle and finding creative ways to engage in movements are happening at UC San Diego, but Yousef said that student-workers there are still recovering from the vote as a whole. 

For some union members, that recovery looks like dropping their union membership to demonstrate their anger toward union leaders. Brueninger said that she thought it was the worst way to achieve their goals.

“If we don’t like the way the union is functioning, we need to stand up and run for leadership,” she said. “We don’t just drop out and weaken it further so when the folks who are ready to do the hard work of rebuilding the union are rebuilding it, they aren’t in a weaker position than they could’ve been.” 

Arseo, however, sees the union’s elected leaders as impeding social movements’ progress. To him, if rank-and-file workers could unite their demands of a COLA, smaller administrative paychecks and demilitarizing and defunding the police, they could create a movement that neither administrators or UAW Local 2865’s elected leaders could stop.

“Are COLA organizers going to take control of the union?” Arseo asked. “The answer to that is that the union has always been ours; we’re just reclaiming it.” 

Written by: Janelle Marie Salanga — campus@theaggie.org 



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