This posting might only have a limited audience, but I want to make a few remarks about the upcoming contract campaign. The limitations of the last contract negotiations, and the vote on the contract were the central events that brought us together as an opposition caucus. The former leadership of the union showed no substantial interest in bringing the rank and file into the bargaining process, either through sustained agitation on the campus level or through participation or observation at the bargaining table. Additionally, the rank and file was given very little information about the process of bargaining. Updates were infrequent and uninformative. The contract that we accepted in the end was substantially the same as the contract that we as the rank and file were told was absolutely unacceptable a week earlier. When the vote on the contract occurred, a remarkable amount of anomalies occurred, and the former leadership voted down any investigation into the process of the election.
My purpose in bringing up that history has less to do with a desire to open old wounds than to remind us why we got into this process in the first place. The next contract comes up in a year, and I want us to approach the process in a substantially different manner than before. We're going to come across complications and are going to need to improvise, but the present is the time to begin to think of a different approach to the process. The point of this post isn't so much an attempt to draw up a cohesive plan, but to throw out some ideas of how we can shift our approach to the process. Our initial concerns with the process focused on the participation of members and their access to information, but I also want to begin to think about ways that we can incorporate the goals of the public education movement into the bargaining process as well. To put it differently, our ability to win a good contract is dependent on the general health of public education in the state. There certainly has been some real conversations on the reform list, and I'm going to try to incorporate some of that work into my comments as well.
The question of access is a significant one. We've kept out the rank and file from the bargaining process of the most part. The former leadership used to defend this practice as necessary to the process, as something that allowed for the free exchange of ideas, but, in practice, this has translated into the ability to make concessions without the input of the rank and file. It also translates into the inability for the rank and file to play an active role in bargaining. They're only ability to act occurs with the instructions of the leadership, which follows the dominate model of the UAW. When I previously brought up these issues, I was told that we were a grass roots organization, and members should show some initiative if they want to act on the campus level, but how could the rank and file act without any meaningful knowledge about the contract process? How could they act without resources or meaningful ways to communicate with one another? Within that context, the need for information is crucial, along with more avenues of communication. Katy Fox Hodess is absolutely correct to note the need for both open access to bargaining for rank and file members, and for greater communication about the process itself. But Jason Ball is also correct in his assessment that we need a greater level of education to go along with that access, a process that needs to take multiple forms from emails to meetings to one on one conversations. These two views need to be seen as complementary, as two aspects of the same process.
To turn to the question of the defense of public education, our caucus has done a lot of work over the past year in the movement for the defense of public education. We've challenged the administration of our university system to the point where they have been unable to discuss fee hikes, let alone pass fee hikes. We've contributed to the fights not only at our own universities, but the struggles at the CSU system as well. Furthermore, the reform caucus has done a lot of good work in forming alliance with other progressive forces such as ACCE and some of the other public employee unions around the ReFund California movement, and have made ourselves a significant voice in those conversations. (Not significant enough to be included in conversations around the millionaire's tax compromise, though.) However, I haven't seen us incorporate these issues into our everyday organizing, which has operated in isolation from a lot of this work. The contract could be a place to bring this important work into the conversation. We could bring quality of education issues into our demands, focusing on issues of classroom size, access to resources, etc. along with the normal membership issues. I don't think that this approach is alien to the concerns of our members, who are continually discussing these issues within the context of their everyday lives in ways that more typical union issues such as arbitration or grievances, aren't. Some folks have within the caucus have brought up the idea of a corporate campaign, which would both involve inside rank and file actions along with getting allied support as outside support around pressure points such as the regents. I strongly support this.
One of the initial ways we might be able to communicate this idea to the rank and file is through the survey that we are currently developing. Surveys are a very typical way for unions to bring rank and file members into the process of bargaining. The truth is that the primary purpose of surveys isn't really gathering information. Most experienced organizers will tell you that they can already guess the answers they receive long before the evidence comes in. So why do this? Surveys allow for a couple things to happen. 1. It brings up the possible issues that might be brought up during the contract campaign, and 2. Let's folks recognize the multiplicity of interest that exist in the workplace, even ours. As Charlie Eaton puts it, the survey allows us to begin creating a narrative around the contract process, to create spaces for participation, and to agitate for more informed rank and file involvement and psychic investment in the contract process. Within that context, I think that its crucial to move away from the traditional approach of the survey, which focuses on the rank and file as an interest group, and begin to bring in issues of social justice, which are in the day to day conversations of our members, issues such as access to education, quality of education, classroom sizes, etc. We need to frame this battle in terms that transform our fight from a group of special interest concerns to one that defends the rights and access to one of the most important institutions in the state. Our caucus understands this at a meta level, but they seem to miss out on the ways that the survey can be used to move in this direction, slipping into a set of representative questions that operate within the servicing model of unionism, rather than a participatory model. This is something where I think we can even get some of the more thoughtful elements of the former leadership on board, particularly Rob Ackerman from Santa Barbara, who seems to understand the pedagogical and agitational aspects of the survey form, amongst others.
As a final note, the contract campaign also would strongly benefit from a strong organizing theme. Jason Ball has suggested, "Enough is enough" but I also could see us adopting a theme such as "A Contract for a Public University." (I'm a big fan of the rhetoric of the public university, but I can understand why some think that this rhetoric has been overused.) This thematic unity could be used to link together a broad set of tactics and strategies together into a united fight. It could also be used to inspire actions, rather than to inhibit them. This is however bringing us into a set of topics, tactics and strategies, that I would like to leave for a later conversation. I'll leave things as they are for now....