Igniting a union

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The most contentious and pivotal election ever for the union of academic student employees at the University of California concluded May 8 in a landslide victory for reformers who will now have the chance to deliver on their promise of a more militant and democratic union. In many ways, it was a microcosm for the larger struggle over how to respond to proposals for deep cuts and tuition hikes in the public university systems.

Local 2865 of the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), represents 12,000 teaching assistants, tutors, readers, and researchers, making it the largest UAW union on the West Coast. Higher education workers make up 40,000 of the 390,000 active UAW members, just over 10 percent.

The caucus of reformers, organized under the banner Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU), won all 10 executive board positions and 45 out 80 seats at the Joint Council, taking control from incumbent leaders from United for Economic and Social Justice (USEJ), which has presided over the union for most of its 11-year history.

Voter turnout spiked tenfold over the last triennial election with 3,400 ballots cast this election cycle. Union organizers said the hike reflects intensive campaigning by both sides and a political atmosphere that is threatening both higher education in California and public employees across the country.

“This was the first real contested election our union ever had,” said Mandy Cohen, a comparative literature graduate student at UC Berkeley and the AWDU recording secretary-elect. “There was a huge increase in participation, and it was very contentious. Our leadership never had to fight for their position.”

The intensive campaigning translated into an unusually bitter battle for votes with ensuing accusations of foul play. The allegations include intimidation, personal attacks on the character of candidates, and ballot tampering. But the height of controversy and drama came once all the ballots were cast, when the USEJ-dominated elections committee suspended the vote count midway and AWDU members responded with an office sit-in of the union’s headquarters.

Each side tells a different tale for these 1,500 disputed ballots from UC Berkeley and UCLA, the two largest campuses.

From USEJ’s perspective, the sheer number of challenged ballots and the heated environment in the counting room overwhelmed elections officials, who decided to refer the matter to the Joint Council, the governing body of the local.

“AWDU had 20-plus people in the [vote-counting] room. They were continuing the intimidation and aggression. The elections committee decided that it was too much to handle,” said Daraka Larimore-Hall, outgoing president of the local. He said that USEJ elections committee members have been so harangued since the incident that they are not granting requests for media interviews.

AWDU members, who consider UC Berkeley their stronghold, think the vote-counting freeze was the first step on the road to invalidating ballots from a campus with many AWDU supporters.

“Even though we knew they were really threatened by us, the very idea that we would try to disenfranchise 800 voters from the biggest campus — and that’s how they would try to win the election — was really shocking,” Cohen said.

She defended the AWDU decision to videotape the remaining ballots via webcam and take over union offices in protest. “We weren’t taking a partisan position; we just said we wanted the votes counted. I felt like we were clearly in the right. We just wanted to defend the election — and that position was so strong.”

Counting resumed when both sides finally settled on a third-party mediator, delivering 55 percent of the vote to AWDU.

However, on May 16, USEJ released a statement documenting a slew of alleged misconduct throughout the election and calling for a rerun. “It is critical that our members have confidence that the election process is fair and democratic,” reads the statement. “It seems that several categories of problems, with many more individual examples, occurred that are serious enough to justify setting this election aside.”

Whatever happens, reformers at least will have some opportunity to translate their political platform into action. They say they will focus on two areas: increasing the participation and power of the rank and file, and a more aggressive stance toward the university administration and the budget cuts.

“There is real institutional power in this union that should be better mobilized in those fights [for public education],” said president-elect Cheryl Deutsch. “We are hoping to bring into that debate a more mobilized membership … so that we can be a stronger coalition [with others in California].”

She added that the election was already a huge victory in the long-term plan to increase involvement. A history of member indifference and vacancies in the governing board hopefully will give way to a revival in the higher education labor movement, she said.

But Larimore-Hall expressed strong disagreement with the sentiment that the election was a victory for the labor movement. He said he heard AWDU people tell workers that USEJ represents “centrist sell-outs” and “out of touch union bureaucrats,” tactics he criticized. “Going around and telling people their union leaders are corrupt union bosses … in a culture that is steeped in anti-union rhetoric is an easy thing to sell people on,” he said.

Deutsch said she couldn’t take responsibility for the actions of a few amid hundreds of supporters and activists, but that AWDU as a whole did not engage in personal attacks. She said she is proud that her winning slate came from rank-and-file workers, not from traditional union leadership and staff.

It wasn’t the first time the two factions confronted each other. The origin of the tensions can be traced to the recent wave of budgets cuts at the university, and to the ensuing protests. In the summer of 2009, the UC Board of Regents announced a 33 percent tuition hike; the resulting discontent sparked a student movement with its own fair share of ups and downs. Among the protestors were many graduate students who would go on to become AWDU leaders.

Cohen recalls that in fall 2009, there was a “huge explosion of organizing and activism on our campus trying to organize resistance to the cuts — but not within our union.”

Cohen said that she and other graduate students approached the union to encourage action, but that union bureaucracy stifled their efforts. “It was too top-down and difficult to participate. We realized the local wasn’t structured in a way that could be powerful.”

Larimore-Hall said UAW already was “one of the unions that [the university administration] fears most.” He said that AWDU’s position overlooks the union’s accomplishments on the public education front, citing a petition to Sacramento legislators that USEJ organizers got thousands of members to sign.

Early this spring, the issue of labor properly and sufficiently flexing its muscles came center stage as the UAW and the university negotiated a contract. With no concessions to management and gains such as a 2 percent wage increase and more childcare subsidies, Larimore-Hall said the contract is a resounding success.

But Deutsch says that the contract is a perfect example of her disillusionment with traditional union organizing and the previous leadership. Union members ultimately voted to ratify it despite AWDU criticism that the union didn’t seek enough input from members or push for a better deal. AWDU gained traction and established a significant public presence for the first time with this opposition.

“It’s not that I think it’s the worst contract we could have gotten,” she said, explaining that her problem is with the process, not necessarily with the results. If more members had been consulted and included, she would have been content. She mentioned the dire need for affordable housing at the Irvine campus as an example of member concerns that were not prioritized.

Peter Chester, chief contract negotiator for the university, said that in the “current budgetary circumstances,” UAW did “very well” and expressed concern that the slate, which opposed the contract, did so well among academic workers.

But the victory by reformers probably signals a new militancy in the union, which is expected to resist proposals to privatize campus services and push for a stronger voice in the tough decisions facing the university system. Cohen said that making the case for taxing the rich to pay for public education is the wider goal and the reason she ran for a position at the union.

“It’s eye-opening to be a student and benefit from education here at the UC, but also to identify as a public employee,” she said. “When I got to the UC, I was so proud. And then this struggle came to my doorstep, and I didn’t have a choice in this moment.”