The reason each of the groups is trying to fill these offices goes beyond the simple administration of the union, and providing representation for rank and file workers. In addition to this important function, there is a battle for the direction of the union. The administration caucus wants to continue following the current direction of the union, seeing the last contract fight as another in a long line of extraordinary successes. The reform caucus, on the other hand, sees the processes that got us to that contract as a set of symptoms that show the flawed nature of the current structure. Those problems take the most immediate form of irregularities in how the vote was held, but take more substantial forms when we begin to look at the nature of the negotiation process itself. I've written more about this here, but the critique largely rests on the lack of information given to the rank and file, and the lack of ways for the rank and file to participate in the fight for a better contract. The administration caucus accepted the premise that the negotiation process should operate between the people at the bargaining table, with a largely passive rank and file.
That approach is not limited to the situation during the elections. To illustrate this, I thought I would bring up the impact of the top down structures on the Irvine campus, where I reside. To begin, all forms of communication with our rank and file must pass through the central Berkeley office. Local elected officials cannot directly contact their own membership. In addition to that, the paid staff for our branch are completely out of touch with our local officials, instead reporting to the central office for instructions and to coordinate activities. We, as local activists, literally have no idea what campaigns or projects these individuals are involved in. Our work could be replicating our even contradicting that work. Finally, the leadership local literally moved the office of the local without informing our officers, aside from our truant and uninvolved unit head, Josh. The office, which is supposed allow for us to organize and coordinate our resources is inaccessible to us as activists and local elected officials. Because of this, we are unable to produce a coherent strategy of how to recruit membership, cultivate and train new organizers, and create an active and responsive structure on the ground at our university. We are told we are a grass roots and membership run organization, but elected on the ground officials are not allowed to have the responsibility to make that into a reality.
The truth is that our union, like other unions, is best described as a democratic centralist organization, power and resources move upwards to the central leadership. At its best, this structure can be extremely productive. The central leadership can be in a position to coordinate campaigns, allow for the smooth communication between extremely geographically distant workplaces, and to redistribute resources to the most urgent struggles. Additionally, the small campus organizations have access to legal aid and political structures that would be inaccessible to our tiny organizations. However, as Richard Seymour points out, for this to work, those in leadership positions in the central organization have an extraordinary responsibility put upon them. They have to use their power to allow for local organizing to flourish, rather than to act as a sort of school monitor on their communications and organizational relations. Having groups such as the reform caucus becomes a way of making that leadership responsible, because if any leadership group abandons that responsibility, it means that they can lose their positions to another group offering a more compelling vision of the union's future.
But, in addition to that, the current structure has abandoned the dialectical relationship between the leadership and the rank and file, which is at the heart of a functional democratic centralist organization. To use a term from Leninist jargon (not my favorite language in the world), the current structure of the union can be best understood to be 'ultra centralist', repressing the creative political possibilities contained in the grass roots. In addition to challenges to leadership, we need to allow for the local offices and their leadership to have more responsibility, to allow them ways to communicate directly with their rank and file, and to allow them more opportunities for horizontal communication with each other. The union is unmistakably a representative as well as a constitutive body, and that structure needs a far more federal, rather than centralized structure. That more federal structure would additionally respond to the fragmented and often decentralized nature of our workplace, allowing for more fluid and nuanced workers responses to the demands by our bosses. One does not need to read Empire to recognize that the plant structure of the mass worker is over, even in the auto industry.
Not surprisingly, I am an active participant in this process, supporting the reform oriented, Academic Workers for a Democratic Union. Within that context, I am running for one of the chief (correction: head) steward positions, along with a slate of three other people. In addition, there is a slate for the statewide offices endorsed by the reform caucus. I personally endorse these slates, and I encourage that union folks get out to vote for them. As I get permission from the folks involved, I will put up information on those campaigns, but for now, I thought I would end this posting with my own candidate statement.
"The presence of the union on our campus has been relatively low until recently. The reasons for this have been a combination of a lack of activists in steward and organizing positions and a disconnect between our branch and leadership of the local. I am running for the position of head steward to contribute to changing both situations, creating a more active union presence on the Irvine campus and working towards making the larger structures of the union relevant and responsible to the on the ground struggles of the campuses. I have been an active member of the union for six years, contributing to signing up new members, political campaigns, as well as holding the position of steward for a year. Along with that work, I have been involved in community and university organizing for over a decade. Most recently, I was involved in the organizing around the budget cuts, contributing to teach-ins, meetings, and the September 24th and March 7th demonstrations. In addition to that experience, I have been a union organizer for other unions, notably AFSCME and UFCW.
I want to draw on that experience to make the union more relevant to the lives of our rank and file members. Too often there is a disconnect between the rights that are available to us in the language of the contract and our members’ understanding of their rights. We need to work to communicate those rights, but more significantly, we need to use that process to encourage our membership to think of themselves as and to act as a participatory, membership run union, rather than simply being represented by a professional staff. Our union has also been notably absent from the day to day struggles against the university administration’s efforts to privatize the University of California system, and has fallen short in our responsibility to show solidarity with our fellow students and workers. To work towards that end, we need substantial democratic reforms in our union, and I was involved in organizing to challenge the lack of involvement on the part of the rank and file in the bargaining process, and the lack of transparency in the progress of that process.Additionally, I am involved in the larger, long term effort to reform the union. That reform effort is committed to renewing the union’s commitment to rank and file democracy, and to taking seriously our role in the struggle for a genuinely public university. We have the capacity to transform our working conditions and, perhaps the university, as well, if we take this on collectively."