This was initially written as a collective editorial to go in our not so good local school paper. Since it was ignored, I will publish it here, which may get more attention from grad students anyways....
On April 26th-28th, the United Auto Workers 2865, the union for graders, tutors and teaching assistants, will be having its triennial election. This means that all positions within the union, from top to bottom, are up for election, and for the first time in the history of the union, nearly all of those offices are contested. Aside from a few exceptions, the election is between two slates, the incumbent United for Social and Economic Justice Slate and the challenging Academic Workers for a Democratic Union Slate. As the candidates of the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union slate, we’re excited that the rank and file membership has the opportunity to choose between two very different visions of the union in this upcoming election.
Most of us had gotten involved in the union during the debate over the recently ratified contract. We were concerned that the process of negotiating the contract was being undertaken in a manner that left out the concerns and participation of the rank and file membership. Additionally, the information that was provided by the leadership on the negotiation process was often lacking in clarity and detail. The leadership seemed to have forgotten that good contracts are not won by a small group of clever individuals at the bargaining table, but by the collective effort of the entire union. For us, a strong contract could only be negotiated with the collaboration and active participation of the rank and file of the union. We had spent the previous year fighting the university’s administration in the fight against the tuition increases and the budget cuts, and we were distressed to see some of the same forms of obfuscation and deception on the part of our leadership used by the administration.
Additionally, there was very little active union participation on the part of the Irvine branch in the past two years. As the Irvine campuses saw an unprecedented level of activity on its campus, and some of the largest protests in its recent history around the budget cuts, the union played little to no role in the organization of these events. It largely stayed out of the large coalition of students, workers, and professors that formed over that year. At the more immediate level of the economic life of graduate students, the majority of the bargaining team chose to ignore the issue of graduate housing, which is a major concern on this campus. Despite the fact that only 10% of graduate students have affordable housing, the issue was not considered worthwhile in the bargaining process. That issue, along with the lack of substantial economic gains caused us to oppose the contract, and the majority of our campus voted against the contract.
A group of us then decided to run for the elected positions of the union to finally have a meaningful union presence on campus, and have held elected office for the past two months. Within that time, we have worked to organize department meetings, helped organize a public social event for the union, and played a major role in coordinating the March rally against the budget cuts. We are working to make our local union play a larger role in the defense of public education in the state, coordinating with student groups and other unions on our campus. We are currently in the process of organizing campaigns to deal with the issue of the workload of our members on campus, and see this as a campaign to both defend our position as workers and students, and to defend the quality of education on the campus. We are also beginning a campaign to demand more affordable housing for students on this campus.
As we had mentioned before, the current election gives the graduate students the choice between two very different visions of the union. The current leadership has moved increasingly in the direction of running the union in a top down fashion. It’s notable that three out of four of their top candidates are no longer graduate students themselves. Ten out of twelve of the paid staff members are running on the United for Social and Economic Justice slate, including the candidate for the Irvine Unit Chair, Coral Wheeler. This vision of the union emphasizes a decision making process taken on by a small number of paid ‘experts’ with a largely passive membership. Our slate wants to reverse that trend within the union to move to a far more member run organization, allowing more decision-making power on the individual campuses and a process of decision making that is membership led. We feel that participatory democracy is not only a more ethical approach to running the union, but that this process will also produce a stronger union. It is only when the rank and file feels that they can participate in the decisions of the union that they will become active members. We encourage you to vote for the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union, April 26th-28th. For more information, see awdu.org.