Saturday, April 16, 2011

On the last Joint Council Meeting for the union

     I have been putting off this post for a while.  I wanted to wait for my irritation about the machinations of the admin caucus at the last Joint Council meeting to cool a bit before I wrote about that situation and the upcoming elections.  There are folks who are at their most entertaining and informative when they rant, but I don't think that I am one of them.  Additionally, I am currently running for the Campus Unit Chair for the Irvine branch of the local, and that has kept me a bit occupied as well.  I thought I would give a brief description of the events of the Joint Council meeting, and then use that material to diagnose some of the basic problems with the local.  As shocking as this may sound, I will then move from there into an argument for supporting the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union, the caucus that I am a part of, who is currently running a sixty person slate in the current elections.
      The Joint Council meeting started around 2pm on Saturday, April 9th.  As part of the Irvine delegation, we had already been in Berkeley since noon the previous day for the meeting of the reform caucus.  That meeting turned out to be quite productive, resolving a number of outstanding issues, and producing a strong slate of candidates to run in the upcoming election.  That morning a number of us had met to discuss a number of proposals that we wanted to introduce to the Joint Council.  Most of these proposals concerned the formal structures of the elections.  After the suspicious nature of the previous vote on the contract, we wanted to introduce a number of measures to make sure that the same problems didn't occur in the next elections.  We wanted election observers, daily counts of the vote, and a uniform set of ballot boxes that were not easily opened or seen into.  The collective set of proposals was designed to lower the chances of ballot stuffing to occur, which would be quite easy to do with the current haphazard and unorganized nature of our elections procedures.  However, these were not the only focus of our proposals.  We also wanted to discuss access to resources for organizing.  The current leadership has done its best to block any connection between the Irvine elected leadership and the rank and file.  It took weeks for us to get a key to the office, and we still have no access to the membership database, nor have we been trained in its use.  Additionally, we wanted to make the workload survey written by rank and file members and appropriated by the leadership into a far more interactive structure, allowing participants to not only input date, but to get a sense of the workload situation in their department, rather than simply receiving data months later.
     The first vote of the meeting set the tone of what was to come.  One of our members put up a proposal to add an additional agenda point to the fairly sparse official meeting to cover proposals on the upcoming elections.  After a short discussion, it was voted down by a small majority.  At that point, two things were fairly clear, there were very few to no neutral voices in the room, and that we were in the minority.  From there, the meeting moved into a number of empty rituals, briefly presenting the union's budget, and the previous minutes.  However, it was important that we brought our issues to the table, and we began with the workload survey issue.  We managed to begin that process with a fairly substantial mistake on our part by leaving a reference to our caucus, Academic Workers for a Democratic Union in the written version of the proposal.  That language was never officially entered into the proposal, but its existence on paper was repeatedly used to challenge the validity of the proposal.  That situation eventually led to the proposal being declared out of order by the president of the union.  After a lengthy and complex debate, a compromise proposal was introduced that would allow the leadership to have greater control over the apparatus of the survey, and after the challenge to the president's declaration was voted down by the administration caucus, the compromise was voted in with a fairly large majority.
     To tell the truth, if the results of the compromise are put into effect, the compromise will succeed in making the survey better, although the leadership has often sat on these sorts of decisions, letting them die.  Time, and our demand for a better and more interactive survey apparatus will only tell on this question.  But I wanted to take a little time to talk about the nature of the debate itself before moving on.  The primary concern of the administration caucus folks was security; who would have access to this information, who could enter information, etc.  It's notable that most of the security issues that were brought up could also apply to the old survey, which was already posted.  This critique was largely formed by the fear that the administration would intercept information, and the fear that angry members would skew the information of the survey.  Implicitly, these issues could be combated through control over the information.  Additionally, a number of interesting issues came up with the relationship between the survey and organizing.  These positions were in opposition to one another, but united against the survey.  The first position placed the survey in opposition to person to person organizing, arguing for the latter, and the second wanted a survey that would create a specific action for the members to take.  Our position was sort of the unthought of the other positions, seeing the survey as a tool that could be used for face to face organizing, as well as a form of cognitive mapping for both rank and file members and organizers to see where workplace violations were occurring, making workload issues a collective issue, one that could be linked to the issues of the budget cuts, and fought as a political issue.  At the same time, despite the occasional awkwardness and miscommunication, this was a genuinely democratic debate, one that lead to a potentially useful solution if followed through on.
     From there, the situation got more problematic.  After a contentious debate over whether we should have a five or fifteen minute break, the meeting got under way.  An Irvine member immediately made a proposal to fight for access to our database, along with training to use it.  The proposal was seconded, and we were set to debate the issue.  But that discussion was immediately foreclosed by a call by a member of the administration caucus to adjourn the meeting.  Without discussion or debate, the majority of the meeting voted to adjourn, leaving a proposal on the table, along with several other substantial proposals that we wanted to make, undiscussed.  In effect, the majority of the Joint Council voted to forestall any substantial democratic discussion of the decision making process of the union, deferring to the leadership.  Many of them seemed genuinely angry that we wanted to spend any time on these debates at all.  For me, this anger and confusion is symptomatic of genuine structural problems with our union.  Over the past few years, joint council meetings have gone from two days to one day, the most recent, lasting only two and a half hours.  That shift has occurred through the active connivance of the current leadership, but it has also produced a strong faction of the elected leadership of the union who think that the union should be run on the basis of a passive assent to the decisions made by a small group of professionals at the top.  (It's notable that 3 out of 4 of the top part of the administration caucus (or as they call themselves: the Social and Economic Justice Caucus) are no longer graduate students.)  That issue is a far more substantial problem than the occasionally controlling and paternalistic approach to managing the meeting shown by the president, Daraka Larimore-Hall.
       I recognize that there is some danger in offering such a detailed description of the messy process of decision making, but I wanted to offer an attempt at an honest description of what is going on.  (I also want to make it clear that this 'honesty' comes through the lens of a committed reform activist)  However, the problem that we as the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union are trying to respond isn't the issue of 'messiness', but instead the issue of the lack of participatory democracy in the union.  The hostility to the continued discussion in the Joint Council meeting is a learned response, I want to argue.  It arises out of a society in which very few decisions are made collectively and democratically.  Our goal within the AWDU is to start challenging that set of social assumptions within the union to make it stronger through the active assent and decision making processes of the rank and file, rather than through passive acceptance.  We want to have a union in which 'Everybody does a little bit', rather than 'a few people do a lot of things' (to quote my friend and former colleague, Kevin Wortman, former activist and recording secretary of the union... incidentally, not a member of our caucus)  One practical way of doing that is to make the Joint Council a meaningful decision making body, but it also means empowering the local branches of the union to make decisions about how to respond to their own working conditions.  For more details on our platform, please check our website.

Again, I am open to debate from all parties on these issues, but any anonymous responses will be deleted.  Democratic debate is a right that entails responsibility.  If you want to make claims about the direction of our union, you should be willing to put your name to those claims.

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