Thursday, December 22, 2011

tentative notes on the state of the union

       I haven't written as much as I would have liked to do in the past couple of months.  I've been distracted by my work for the union, and the effort to produce a movement to defend public education at both the local level, as well as the state level.  Within that context, I thought it might be worth briefly discussing what's been going on within the Irvine branch of the local.  Most of my postings about the local have been polemical in nature, focusing on the conflicts with the former leadership or conflicts with the former leadership, but this posting is going to be a little more open ended.  To put it simply, our reform group, AWDU has been in charge of the local for the past quarter.  At this point, it might be worth asking what we have accomplished at this point.  I'm not going to get into the larger debates about the state, although some of the concerns around the Irvine campus may tie into larger concerns around the campus.

          To start off with some of the positive aspects of the past few months, the Irvine branch has managed to produce a fairly large activist base.  We currently have a listserve with about thirty activists on it, and, for the first time in years, we actually have all of our Joint Council positions filled.  Additionally, we have a number of steward positions filled by activists.  This has translated into monthly membership meetings with large numbers, the attempt to organize a number of committees to focus on campus issues, and a number of cultural events.  The former leadership at our campus always insisted that the Irvine campus was intrinsically conservative, and the rank and file preferred to let a small group of people make the decisions for the union, but I think the recent shifts point to the fact that this may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We still have a lot of work on this front, particularly within the natural sciences, but the shift in the local has been considerable.

      The local branch of the union has also been involved in the attempt to recreate the coalition to defend public education that more or less fell apart after the large demonstrations in March.  In this regard, there has been some meaningful success.  Despite the fact that the Irvine campus hasn't seen the drama and militancy that has been seen on the Davis, Irvine, and Santa Cruz campuses, the campus has managed to produce a significant coalition space, and has also managed to organize protests, and contribute to the protest against the California State University trustees in Long Beach, as well the UCLA regents meeting.  The direction of this coalition and its sustainability is still very much in the air.  A number of the issues that destroyed the 2009-2010 coalition, particularly around the issue of race and perhaps more specifically, the colonial legacy of the term 'occupation' and the attempt by one participant to argue for a focus on economics, rather than race, revealed themselves in the last general meeting. (a lot more needs to be said here, particularly around the need for us to meaningfully commit to anti-racist politics, but I feel neither the ability to take this on now.)  Within that context, the concept of 'occupation' is still viewed with a deep suspicion on the part of many of the undergraduate organizers, particularly the activists of color.  Furthermore, the movement has not linked itself to the broad student body despite a successful demonstration of about 300-500 people.  We managed to accomplish quite a bit in the past months, but we're going to need to launch a massive educational event, and perhaps more significantly, create forms of militancy that don't mirror the protests of the northern campuses.  (We also need to learn how to run better meetings, and call people on their nonsense, as well.)

       As a brief side note, the guilty verdict for the Irvine 11 has played a considerable chilling effect on much of the campus.  That verdict led to the choice on the part of the Irvine 19 to take plea deals, as well as making prosecution a much more real threat for on campus activism.

     Moving away from the question of coalition activism to day to day rank and file activism, we can see another substantial problem.  As I previously noted, the local unit has done a very good job of recruiting a powerful activist base, one that exists primarily in the social sciences and the humanities, but having representation throughout the disciplines.  The next step, making the union a presence in the workplace of the rank and file, has not yet occurred.  The AWDU group was able to successfully out organize the lone USEJ representative through a combination of resentments around the last contract, and more significantly, the variety of informal social networks.  That set of networks continued to produce an activist base for the campus, but efforts to move beyond this situation have been less successful, particularly in bringing in new membership, and more significantly, translating the right to collective bargaining into on the ground worker's power.  I don't want to say that this problem hasn't been implicitly recognized by the group, but the effort to create subcommittees hasn't translated into practical action, and the proposed organizing committee and departmental meetings have yet to occur.  We were right to reject the representational structure that the former leadership operated under, a structure that operated on an instrumental logic, but we haven't as of yet come up with alternative structures.  This seems to be the central question, along with the need to produce a new student movement in Irvine.

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