Tentative Agreements Fall Short for UC Academic Workers; How Can More Be Won?

3163

Amzi Jeffs is a former Head Steward for UAW 4121 representing student workers at University of Washington (personal capacity).

Tens of thousands of academic workers have been on strike for over a month across University of California campuses, the largest ever labor action by U.S. academic workers, and the largest strike seen in the U.S. since before the pandemic. Last week, the bargaining teams for graduate student instructors and student researchers voted by narrow margins (11-8 and 13-7 respectively) to put forward weak tentative agreements to the wider membership for ratification. The majority of the union leadership and staff are touting the agreements as “historic” and “transformative,” but the reality is that they fall far short of the union’s initial demands and the members’ needs, especially in key areas like wages. With grade submission deadlines approaching, workers will vote this week on whether to end their strike and accept the UC’s offer, or send the bargaining teams back to the table and continue the fight.

We agree with the rank and file members who are fighting for a NO vote on these contracts, but in order to win a stronger contract more will need to be done than simply sending the bargaining team back into the negotiating room. As union members are correctly recognizing, more can be fought for and won, and strategy meetings open to all members should be organized to vote on next steps and an escalation plan. We must take a closer look at the trajectory of the strike and the strategy needed to successfully challenge a multibillion-dollar public institution like the UC system.

Tentative Agreements Crafted To Split The Union

The tentative agreements fall far short of the union’s initial demands, which included immediate raises to a minimum $54,000 per year salary to lift workers out of crushing rent burden, cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) for wages, eliminating fees, access protections for disabled workers, community safety measures, and more. While the pro-“yes” side points to the contract’s promised wage increases, other workers fear that departments could respond to the wage increase by decreasing their non-wage top-up payments, which would cancel out much of the effect of the wage raise. 

The University of California, like every boss faced with a serious union struggle, has carefully calculated the smallest improvements that they can make that they expect the union’s membership will ratify. As such, the agreements are designed to create or widen splits in opinion among the workers, following a divide-and-conquer strategy that began when UC secured a TA for a third striking UC academic worker union (UAW 5810, representing postdocs) at the start of December, leading to a ratified postdoc contract on December 9 that removed over 10,000 workers from the strike. 

UC’s offer even adds a higher wage for workers at several of the larger and more prestigious campuses (in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Berkeley). The UC administration and the union’s bargaining team majority have offered some justifications for this based on higher cost of living at these campuses (even though some campuses that won’t receive the greater wage, like Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara, have costs of living that are just as high or even higher) but these tiered wages are clearly crafted to sway sections of the membership towards a “yes” vote while minimizing the cost incurred by the UC administration. This creates what is essentially a “two-tier” system at UC, something that employers in many industries have implemented as a tool to divide workers and weaken unions. Eliminating two-tier is emerging as a key issue in many unions, including in the Teamsters as UPS workers head into negotiations next year. 

The tentative agreements were reached during a mediation process headed by Darrell Steinberg, the Democrat mayor of Sacramento. Steinberg was reportedly suggested by California Governor Gavin Newsom himself, who is an ex officio member of the UC Board of Regents – essentially the bosses of the UC administration. It should be no surprise that this not-so-neutral mediator helped craft a weak contract. Unfortunately, the majority of the bargaining team entered the mediation process voluntarily at UC’s suggestion, apparently hoping that the intervention of Democratic Party officials could pressure the UC administration into making a fair offer. The Democrats have proved time and again – most recently by crushing the rail strike – that they will always take the side of the boss when push comes to shove in a union struggle, and the UC strike is no exception. 

Overcoming the UC’s attempt to split the membership requires democratic discussion and debate. As some members have pointed out, the leadership should have organized mass meetings to debate the proposed TAs and take membership feedback into consideration before the bargaining team took their vote to approve the TAs. It is positive that the union has continued to strike during the ratification process, and that members have a full week to read and discuss the agreements, which are both over 100 pages long and extremely technical. Thorough analysis and discussions are key for the rank and file members to cast their votes confidently, and for the union as a whole to have ownership over the outcome of the vote and the contract battle. 

Bargaining Team Majority Plays Into UC’s Hands

Unfortunately, however, the majority of the union leadership and staff have undemocratically put their finger on the scale in favor of a “yes” vote, using the union’s social media and official email and phone lists to exclusively share statements advocating for ratification, while cracking down on any similar use of members’ contact information by No vote organizers. Scandalously, the union’s leadership has justified this by saying that because the Bargaining Team voted to accept the tentative agreements, a “yes” vote is the official position of the union, and so its resources can only be used in favor of ratification. This approach completely undercuts the type of discussion needed for members to make an informed decision on this contract, and leaves many members — especially those whose testimony about their hardships was used to energize the campaign in its early stages—feeling uncertain, frustrated, and betrayed. The majority of the union leadership is clearly anxious to settle the contract, but in pushing for a “yes” vote and suppressing those advocating a “no” vote, they are weakening the union and playing into the UC administration’s hands. 

This maneuvering by the bargaining team majority points towards compromise between the workers and the boss instead of having confidence in union members to fight against the UC administration. Despite raising ambitious concrete demands and conducting a historic strike, the majority of the union leadership and staff have made serious strategic mistakes. They made premature concessions during bargaining, most notably dropping the demand for COLA, and then lowering wage demands by over $10,000 per year. They attempted to justify the retreat on COLA by claiming that the peak power of the strike had already been reached, even though the key leverage point of the end of the term, when workers had the opportunity to withhold grades, had not yet arrived. That the Bargaining Team majority made such a large concession on wages so early in the strike calls into question whether they ever genuinely intended to fight for the $54,000 wage demand.

In later weeks of the strike the leadership majority focused on “escalating” the strike primarily through high-profile actions with relatively small groups of union members participating, instead of broadening the strike to shut down the whole UC system and actively include undergraduates, staff, and faculty. Now they have attempted to paper over legitimate disagreements in the union and are presenting the tentative agreements in unrealistically sunny terms. All of this fails to meet the mood of the workers who voted by a massive margin to go on strike, and who are still looking for a way to fight for a contract that fully addresses their needs. 

Opposition From The Rank And File & Bargaining Team Minority

Despite the union’s stranglehold on official email and phone lists, members have taken up a serious campaign to win over their coworkers to a “no” vote and fight for a stronger contract, including by handing out flyers in person and using social media and other communication channels. The result has been the formation of one of the strongest and most vocal rank-and-file union efforts in recent memory. 

The bargaining team members who voted against the tentative agreement have held regular meetings to put forward their case against the tentative agreements and discuss strategy, and they have also released a statement explaining their position. This is positive, and could have been taken further by using their statement to explicitly initiate a vigorous campaign for a “no” vote. The “no” campaign has been energetically taken up by a section of rank and file workers – including many who helped organize the 2019 UC wildcat strike – and concrete on-the-record support from the bargaining team minority could provide a real boost to these efforts. 

The fight for a “no” vote faces the double task of convincing the broader membership that the tentative agreements are insufficient, and also that more can be won. Some workers understandably feel daunted by the task of continuing and escalating the strike, but this could absolutely be achieved if the strike’s energy is renewed on the basis of holding the line in bargaining for strong demands. The UC administration would viciously oppose this, and overcoming their resistance would require a politicized appeal to UC students, staff faculty, and the broader labor movement and public to join the struggle. The high profile of the strike and the solidarity it has already roused show that such an appeal has a basis to succeed. 

Is A Long-Haul Strike The Way Forward?

The most common strategy advocated by those who oppose the tentative agreements is a “long-haul strike” in which union members would withhold Fall quarter grades, and commit to continuing their strike into the Winter quarter. This strategy correctly recognizes the leverage that workers have in withholding grades, but as we wrote earlier this month, the length of the strike is not the primary measure of its power. A successful strike will require broad participation, and ultimately point towards a full shutdown of the UC system.

If a long-haul strike is undertaken with narrow participation, it runs the risk of isolating the strikers, leaving them open to retaliation and demobilizing the struggle.

COLA And More Can Be Won With A Fighting Approach!

It is absolutely possible for UC workers to win COLA and more. The UC administration has more than enough funding to pay its workers a living wage, but making this a reality will require an even more serious fight. If these tentative agreements are voted down, the union will need to take up a strategy that goes beyond the current methods of the strike, and takes a politicized approach to fighting against the UC administration. In the immediate term, this will mean withholding Fall grades, and organizing daily meetings for union members to democratically decide on next steps for escalating the struggle into the winter.

 The approach to picketing will also need to be sharpened, with picketers energetically convincing passersby to support the strike by refusing the cross, joining the pickets, and donating to the campaign. The union will also need to deepen its coordination with others on campus and the broader labor movement, building towards a complete statewide shutdown of the UC system and creating a full blown crisis of reputation for the UC administration. The union members fighting for a “no” vote and a strengthened strike will also need to confront UAW’s entrenched business-unionist bureaucracy, and fight to renew the union’s leadership on a class struggle basis.     

This campaign is rich with lessons that need to be drawn out. It has shown that workers are willing and ready to fight for strong demands if they are given a lead to do so. It has confirmed that the boss never bargains in “good faith,” and will never reciprocate when the union concedes on key demands. It has shown that defeating a boss like the UC administration requires a strike that is broad, protracted, and sharply politicized, and that, as Striketober last year indicated, workers increasingly see through weak leaderships and are ready to take matters into their own hands.

Socialist Alternative leaders Kshama Sawant and Ryan Timlin have each donated $1000 to the union’s hardship fund, and Socialist Alternative will continue to stand with the workers who are fighting for a contract that fully meets the needs of every union member.
This contract battle has major significance not just for UC workers, but for the labor movement as a whole. UC workers’ contract will set standards for workers across the country – in fact, CalTech has already announced significant raises for graduate student workers in response to the UC negotiations. Such a large strike will be a continuing point of reference for workers who are currently starting to organize and move into struggle.