We're approaching another union election in a few days. Unlike the election that occurred last year, only a few positions are up for grabs, positions that were resigned by their previous occupants. There are a couple contested head steward elections, but the only contested statewide contest is the election for Southern Vice President. That election is between the AWDU (Academic Workers for a Democratic Union) candidate, Erin Conley, a rank and file member from UCLA, and the USEJ (United for Social and Economic Justice) candidate, Robert Ackermann, a head steward from Santa Barbara. I don't think anyone is going to be surprised that I am endorsing Erin Conley, but that endorsement seems to be useful space to further explore some of my critiques of USEJ that I put together here, along with some reason why I think that Erin Conley is a strong candidate. My basic argument is that the election is fundamentally between two types of organizing style, one that is engaged in the contemporary struggles for public education with Erin, and one that represents a very old and dated notion of union representation with Ackermann.
Before I make that argument, I want to make something very clear, my critique of Ackermann isn't a personal one. I've had a number of formal and informal interactions with Ackermann, going back to the vote count last year, and for the most part, those interactions have been pleasant. Unlike most of the Santa Barbara contingent, he doesn't make every interaction with him as emotionally and intellectually painful as possible. In a lot of ways, he represents what probably is the best side of a fairly unimpressive group of people. However, this fact allows us to bring the significant political differences between the two candidates to the forefront. The problem with USEJ (United for Social and Equal Justice) is not, ultimately, a personality issue, one of pleasantness or unpleasantness, but of two very different models for thinking about the union.
When we look at Rob Ackermann's candidate statement, we find a number of claims about the work that he has done for the union. The first set of claims focus on involvement in the bread and butter campaigns of the union, contract enforcement, and the campaign to organize Graduate Student Researchers (for those who don't know, for some strange reason, the California legislature decided to allow for teaching assistants to form a union as workers, while researchers were classified as apprentices, and therefore, are not workers, and cannot organize a union. The union has been trying to change that law, allowing for GSR organizing.) The issues referenced here are significant, but we find a number of problems in the approach of the Santa Barbara campus in approaching these issues. That campus is still operating within the old service union perspective of the UAW, a top down model built on the centralization of decision-making and communication. Barry Eidlin offers a fairly good description of the goals of this earlier organizing model in his analysis of the UAW international,
"The goal is to reproduce the existing leadership as much as possible while minimizing the possibility for independent initiatives that might lead the union astray (since they don’t emanate from the leadership, which alone has the true interests of the union at heart). In terms of information, this is why we see the reluctance to make basic information about the union available in writing, whether that be executive board minutes, financial reports, etc. It also is why the union leadership is very reluctant to pursue any kind of communications strategy beyond what they call “one--‐to--‐one organizing,” where a trusted key leader, usually a paid staffer, interacts one--‐on--‐one with a specific member. To the extent that they disseminate information, they want it to be in one direction: from them to the membership, preferably in a carefully scripted form. Thus the almost exclusive preference for phone banking and department walks over leafleting, e--‐mail campaigns, or even department--‐level meetings not organized by the top leadership."
The continued investment of the Santa Barbara leadership has been clear through both the language that they use to describe organizing, and in their practices as well. While in the Joint Council meeting, Ackermann described union work as a 'job', in which we 'provide services.' The Santa Barbara leadership, including Ackermann, continued to speak in this manner throughout the meeting, most notably in their description of their approaches to grievances, which entirely left out any thoughts on how to create horizontal structures of solidarity through this work. Instead, the entire model was built on transforming the elected leadership into a mediator between worker and management. These issues have also been fairly apparent in the behavior of the local leadership, as well, making every effort to isolate the campus from any inter-campus influence, informally keeping rank and file members out of membership meetings, and focusing on the isolating organizational forms discussed above, particularly one on one organizing. We also a dismally small amount of rank and file participation at the last meeting, despite the fact it was supposed to be a statewide membership meeting. Rather than seeing an 'organizing campaign' at Santa Barbara, we've seen a lot of cards signed. I'm not dismissing that, but a card is only a small step in creating a strong member based union. In effect, we can see that Ackermann within the Santa Barbara context represents returning to the organizing models that were rejected by the union rank and file last year, a model that we should not return to.
The second part of Ackermann's claims become increasingly problematic. He makes reference to the protests around the UC system, in defense of public education and in response to the increased inequality of the state and the nation. In particular, he references the protest that occurred in UC Riverside, claiming that it 'inspired' him. The problem is that neither Ackermann nor the Santa Barbara leadership has been seriously involved in the has not been seriously involved in the organizing work of the protests in Riverside and other schools. That work has been done by AWDU activists, with the AWDU candidate, Erin Conley, playing a central role in the organizing of the ReFund protests in Southern California. Rather than standing in the background with the Santa Barbara leadership, Conley was in the front ranks of the fight at the regents meeting. She helped create the conditions for the success of the Riverside action through her organizing and she put herself on the line when folks were challenging the regents expulsion of students and workers from the meeting. The work she has done has built bridges across the campuses, and has contributed to making a stronger public education movement in the region.
At the same time, Erin Conley has been committed to the day to day organizing work of the union, organizing training sessions for rank and file and officer alike. Rather than accepting the top down model of the UAW International, a model that has increasingly failed both at the local and international levels, we can see possibilities of another approach to creating workplace solidarity and power. Ackermann is absolutely correct in bringing up the issues of defending the contract and organizing members, but the model he working from isn't working. We need to use contract defense and membership organizing to produce membership empowerment, and forms of collectivity that use those documents to genuinely defend public education for all. The old ways, based on the wisdom of a centralized leadership and the quiescence of the rank and file, cannot produce those results. Erin Conley, on the other hand, has shown through her leadership at the local level in her work in the union and Occupy UCLA, as well as through her work at the state level, that she can play an effective role in creating the kinds of collective power that can reinvent this union. My hope is that folks will get out and vote for her. You can find links for polling information here, along with links for the two candidate statements.
I will also state that if folks want to have conversations on these issues, they need to put their name to their comments. Otherwise, I'm erasing them.