On Dec. 23, 2022, members of the Academic Student Employees (UAW 2865) and Student Researchers United, both organized under the United Auto Workers, voted 11,386 to 7,097 (ASE) and 10,057 to 4,640 (SRU) to ratify tentative agreements reached with the University of California. The ratification vote ended the largest higher education academic worker strike in US history, where 48,000 workers walked off the job for six weeks.
I work within the Academic Student Employee (ASE) unit, instructing twice weekly sections of 30 undergraduates each. My teaching assistant contract is 20 hours of paid work per week, but as a graduate student I do many more hours of weekly unpaid research work that benefits the university. Because funding is department-specific, humanities ASEs like me receive lower pay for the same work. While the pay scale is structured as an experience-based step system, many STEM departments can afford to “top-up” their ASEs above other departments. In our previous contract, my gross monthly income was $2,582, but because my department doesn’t receive summer employment, my yearly wages average out to $1,937 monthly.
Over the summer and fall, UC-UAW staff energized members with their initial demands to the University of California (UC), which included a $54K base salary for all units plus a yearly COLA (cost-of-living adjustment) percentage increase tied to the price of housing in California. The $54K number ($4,500 monthly) was derived from the minimum salary workers at all 10 UC campuses needed to afford their rent.
Before the strike, many of my fellow graduate workers were paying over 30% of their salary towards rent. My monthly rent is $1,300, so I was paying 67% of my monthly paycheck towards rent. Under our previous contract, 92% of academic workers were similarly rent burdened. As a landlord to 106,000 students, UC holds a $6.4 billion real estate portfolio. Many graduate student workers at the UC pay over 50% of our income directly to our employer in the form of rent. Because the UC is functionally a landlord that also facilitates education, the yearly COLA raises would incentivize the UC to keep their rents low.
Also included in the original proposal were robust Access Needs and Public Safety articles, which made medical documentation for disabled workers obsolete and gave classroom instructors the right to require masking, a Community Safety article that defunded and demilitarized the UC Police Department, as well as articles that waived international student supplemental tuition (NRST), dependent healthcare premiums, and childcare fees.
Unfortunately, on Nov. 21, a week after the strike began, our ASE bargaining team removed the COLA stipulation and, on Nov. 30, they slashed almost all of the initial contract demands. The wage proposals were changed to $43K base pay with 7% yearly raises and the Access Needs articles were entirely gutted. Rank-and-file workers were told by UAW staff that COLA raises were too radical of a demand, that our numbers on the picket line were decreasing dramatically, and that we needed to show the UC that we were willing to move at the bargaining table. This felt like a premature action: in reality, thousands of ASEs were organizing to withhold grades and our strike hadn’t yet approached the late-December grading deadline.
Dissenting rank-and-file caucuses countered that the picket wasn’t the strike, and that the UAW was misinforming its members of our power as striking workers. We knew that our leverage came from our ability to withhold our labor (canceling classes, not submitting grades, not responding to emails from students) rather than our physical presence on the picket line. The 20-hour picket requirement was inaccessible to many disabled and parent workers, which reinforced the union’s dismissal of our access needs. We also maintained that COLA was standard for most UAW jobs beginning at the 1950 Treaty of Detroit, when UAW and General Motors came to a landmark agreement that gave workers unprecedented benefits (increased wages, pensions, vacation pay, COLA) in exchange for a long contract that promised fewer disruptions. My father, a former UAW General Motors factory steward, remembers fighting to keep COLA in the contract during the mid-’80s, when UAW considered folding to GM’s proposed austerity measures. COLA was eventually removed from GM workers’ paychecks during the 2008 recession, but is being reinstated in many UAW contracts, like those won in 2021 by 10,000 John Deere employees.
Throughout the UC strike, my father’s stories of organizing with the UAW in the 1970s and ’80s came flooding back to me. Unfortunately, the business unionism that my father experienced 40 years ago is still alive and well. When members of the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU) caucus were shouted down for chanting “no COLA, no contract” on the picket line, I remember my dad’s story of being shouted down at a national UAW conference for suggesting a moment of silence for GM workers who died on the job. A few weeks into the strike, when bargaining team members from UCSD and UCSF harassed and assaulted rank-and-file organizers at their campuses, I remembered my father’s stories of being beaten by UAW leadership in the General Motors factory where he worked. The good, bad, and ugly sides of many workplace struggles from 1980s General Motors plants endure today, even among the ivory towers of the UC.
When immunocompromised rank-and-file members asked how they could work safely without the protections offered by the original Public Safety article, they were told to file a grievance. The bargaining team’s response reminded me of one of my father’s long campaigns at UAW to require lead testing at the GM plants, where thousands of workers on the assembly line handled lead regularly. While the UAW’s international publication Solidarity touted the union’s leadership in workplace safety, UAW representatives forbid regular lead testing at the auto plants. The UAW flavor of business unionism is rooted in a long history of corruption, red-baiting and physical violence, but wherever there’s an authoritarian union, there’s a rich tradition of rank-and-file resistance.
In a statement from December 2022, Heather Ringo, a Local 2865 member from UC Davis, said, “Admin caucus will say, ‘Oh, but we can grieve it!’ There is no guarantee on grievance outcome. That time and energy goes into defending your humanity rather than your teaching and research. As someone who has grieved disability issues, guess how long it takes? We opened a grievance in Fall 2021. Disabled workers did most of the work of the grievance, unpaid. It was settled behind our backs by UAW staff Tom Hintze in summer 2022 and we won nothing through it. Zero improvements for disabled workers.”
The slashing of core demands came to be known by some as the “Wednesday Night Massacre,” and it exposed a troubling split within the 19-person bargaining team that remained for the strike’s duration. When deciding how to modify UAW proposals, the same 10 reps (BT10) voted for concessions and the same 9 (BT9) voted against concessions. These representatives had been nominated and elected at monthly membership meetings, which were often not actually publicized to membership. Our 2865 executive board has decided on two representatives per campus, with the exception of UCSF, which is primarily a medical school. Compared to larger campuses like UCSD, whose bargaining team officials represent over 1,000 ASEs each, the USF bargaining representative only has 100 ASE constituents.
Rank-and-file members have raised concerns that many members of the BT10 are influenced by the UC-UAW executive board, which from 1946-2023 was controlled by the Administration Caucus of UAW, a reactionary caucus that had its roots in former UAW President Walter Reuther’s 24-year reign from 1946-1970. Shortly after his inauguration, Reuther began consolidating power by eliminating communists and leftists from UAW. Reuther was initially a socialist organizer, but after assuming the UAW presidency he felt it more politically expedient to silence dissent throughout the union. The Admin Caucus persisted until last month, from recently unseated UAW President Ray Curry, who had a history of corruption, down to UAW regional directors and executive boards of Locals like 2865.
At 2865, the actions of our executive board are informed by the politics of Mike Miller, UAW Region 6 director. Miller helped unionize UC student workers in the 1990s, when he was a teaching assistant at UCLA. Miller, like many higher level representatives in the business union mold, enjoys close relationships with his corporate counterparts. Nadine Fishel, director of Labor Relations at University of California and UC’s chief bargainer, and Miller have reportedly made casual comments about their long friendship. Fishel was formerly a unionist when she worked at the Engineers & Architects Association, a union representing 5,000 public sector workers in Los Angeles.
The 2865 executive board is currently controlled by members who supported the concessionary contract that we worked under from 2018-2022. This contract was pushed through in August 2018, when most members were off campus, leading to the wildcat strikes of 2019-2020. Wildcatters struck at all 10 campuses, with the Santa Cruz campus having the largest contingent. Union staffers were hostile to the wildcat strikers as they risked their jobs and safety to demand affordable housing. For the 2022 contract cycle, the UAW temporarily adopted many of the demands that were central to the wildcat strike, including COLA and Cops Off Campus.
Muhammad Yousuf, a 2865 member and former 2019-2020 officer and wildcat striker at UCSD, spoke about the Local’s trajectory. “Owing to ideological opposition and legal/infrastructural limitations, the Union could not contain [the 2019 COLA] movement or adequately represent its interests. Thus, the alternative was appropriation: an almost counterinsurgent claim to the same ideals or values of the COLA movement without any substantive engagement with the community of ‘radicals’ who’d formed the basis of that movement.”
“This is what Blu Buchanan, a fellow former officer in 2865, calls the hollowing out of social justice unionism,” Yousuf continued. “So, while the events of the last five years are unique, spanning the Uprisings of 2020 and their aftermath, and the multiple effects of the pandemic on our lives and livelihoods, the trends within academic labor organizing in the UC are not. The glaring failure of the so-called ‘largest academic worker strike in history’ has left many of us feeling bitter, disempowered, and betrayed, but for those of us who’ve been here a while, the disappointment is hardly surprising.”
After four weeks of our strike and repeated Admin Caucus threats of an impasse, the bargaining team voted 10 to 9 to enter into voluntary mediation, choosing Sacramento mayor Darrell Steinberg as the mediator. Members were assured that Steinberg was a friend to labor, although he is part of the Democratic party machine and was recommended to UC and UAW by California governor Gavin Newsom. Newsom is responsible for appointing the Board of Regents who govern the University of California. Steinberg promised that mediation would be open to all members, as bargaining had been up until this point. He also promised to host a webinar to answer member concerns about the mediation process. Steinberg ultimately reneged on these assurances, and eventually threatened to walk away if UAW did not agree to the UC’s proposed offer, presented to the union on Dec. 16. The bargaining teams voted, this time 11 to 8, to approve a tentative agreement.
This tentative agreement, which was ultimately ratified by membership, set our (yearly averaged) base wage at $2,083 per month starting April 2023, with raises up to (depending on experience level) $2,427-$2,575 in October 2023 and $2,832-$3,006 starting October 2024. Workers at UCLA, UCSF, and UC Berkeley will make slightly higher wages, but we were not given an explanation for this discrepancy. The gutted Access Needs and Public Safety articles were ratified, as were articles giving miniscule subsidies for dependent healthcare premiums, NRST, and childcare. UAW bargaining teams never presented the Cops Off Campus article to the UC.
The Elections Committee, who organized the ratification process, broke 2865 bylaws by holding closed meetings to determine specifics of the vote. The vote was set for a five-day period during a school vacation, when most union members were not on campus, and many were busy traveling for the upcoming winter holidays. The Admin Caucus used official union emails and resources to campaign for a “Yes” vote, which broke a Local 2865 resolution established in 2018 after the Mussman appeal, which challenged the legitimacy of the August 2018 contract ratification vote.
Additionally, as ASEs, our contract for Fall quarter ended on Dec. 13, and our Winter quarter contract wasn’t set to begin until Jan. 4. While we were still technically on strike, no one in our unit was actually withholding paid labor during this winter vacation period. It was unclear to many members why the Elections Committee didn’t wait until more workers had returned to campus, or at least until after the holiday break, to hold the ratification vote.
Maddie Williams, a 2865 elected bargaining team representative who consistently voted against concessions, said, “In my opinion, the 10-9 split—which became an 11-8 split later—was reflective of a difference in priorities when it came to specific articles (wages, housing, access needs, childcare, dependent healthcare, etc.) and theories of power in regard to sustainability of the strike. While I am proud of the organizing done by grad workers across the UC system, I remain disappointed in the decision to ratify a contract that I believe could have been stronger had we utilized other aspects of our collective strength, namely grade withholding, to continue to put pressure on the UC. The struggle to survive on our salaries under the newly ratified contract remains, and to overshadow this with hollow celebration feels like a disservice to the amount of labor put into the strike by thousands of workers who will see little material change over the next two and a half years.”
My bitterness in the aftermath of the UC strike is deeply entwined with the hopeful possibilities I see in our higher education labor struggle. It felt like we were so close to achieving some of our truly transformative demands. If we had held out for a COLA tied to rental prices, for example, we wouldn’t have to fight for a living wage every contract. We also would have set a precedent for maintenance, construction, and janitorial workers at our campuses. The University of California is a school that doubles as a real estate conglomerate, a hospital chain, and a biotech startup with its own police force. There were moments during the strike when I caught glimpses of a future in which labor from across sectors was unified in its demand for living wages, safe workplaces, and humane benefits. Teamsters at UPS refusing to cross our picket lines to deliver expensive perishable chemicals for science labs; striking academic workers in cooperation with local unions shutting down a 360K square foot construction site at UC Berkeley; precarious UC adjunct lecturers canceling their classes despite their contract’s prohibition on sympathy strikes. As I prepare to graduate this June, I feel hopeful seeing fellow workers continue the organizing momentum we built during the strike. When we have higher rank-and-file participation, union bureaucracy will necessarily be forced to confront their procedural inequities and fight for a contract that prioritizes the livelihoods of our lowest paid workers.
Last month, Shawn Fain, a UAWD (Unite All Workers for Democracy) reform caucus member, defeated Admin Caucus incumbent Ray Curry by 645 votes (0.6%) for UAW International President. The February 2023 runoff election was the first direct one-member one-vote election process in the UAW since the delegate process was eliminated in 2021. Fain is the first non-Admin Caucus president since 1946, after which Reuther defeated communist leader RJ Thomas. While Fain’s victory could have major implications for the UC-UAW reform movement, I remain ambivalent about the UAWD platform. UAWD communications does call out “racism, sexism, and all forms of bigotry,” but they do not discuss police or weapons manufacturing unions, let alone what unionized workers owe to their unhoused neighbors. As campaigns like Cop-Free AFSCME have noted, labor movements have not always permitted police and military workers in their unions, as they “are too often controlled by forces inimical to the labor movement.” Indeed, not only is policing predicated on the protection of our bosses and their capital, but cops are tasked with violent detainment of striking workers, especially when the workers are black. During the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike that brought Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis days before his assassination, Memphis police murdered Larry Payne, a Black teenager who supported the striking workers. Similarly, defense contractors enforce US capital interests overseas by building weapons that kill workers.
Shawn Fain will be an improvement on Curry, who has actively recruited defense sector workers into UAW. But condemning interpersonal discrimination does nothing to assuage the fears that UAWD is similarly embedded within the Democratic party, which (from its moderate to progressive wing) has consistently sabotaged rank-and-file struggles. We need to build unions that explicitly acknowledge and confront a police state that disciplines unruly workers in the service of capital.
UCSD’s campus occupies stolen Kumeyaay land that was formerly Camp Matthews military base. A page on the university website still advises students what to do if they find unexploded munitions. Our campus remains embedded within the military-industrial complex, and many UCSD professors hold simultaneous military or weapons manufacturer posts as well. Many STEM students receive DARPA and DOD funding from these industries for their research and eventually enter into civilian contracting jobs.
One of our most impactful actions during the strike was our occupation of a Contextual Robotics Conference where presenters included billionaire Linden Blue, CEO of General Atomics, which produces the Predator drones that have killed and injured tens of thousands of civilians in the Middle East and East Africa. The conference was across the hall from a laboratory that features a robotic dog, a prototype for the LAPD police dogs. We stood in the building lobby making noise until they had to shut down their proceedings. In the US, organized labor has too often marginalized the perspectives of abolitionist voices. For me, the occupation of the robotics conference was a moment when our union successfully connected our labor struggle to abolitionist, decolonial, and housing justice movements.
True solidarity is fighting for a workplace that’s safer for all workers. On our campus, unhoused workers, Black workers, undocumented workers, and neuroatypical workers—both in UAW 2865 and other unions—cannot be safe as long as there are police patrolling classrooms, offices, and labs. And international solidarity with workers in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia depends on our expulsion of military contractors from our unions. During the strike, we were told that Cops off Campus was an important demand, but one that would have to wait if we wanted to be strategic. Abolition can’t wait if we want to protect our colleagues.