Monday, April 28, 2014

What Do You Call A Caucus That Refuses To Call Itself A Caucus? A Critique

       In the final months of my involvement in the union, I saw the revival of an interesting phenomenon, the former leadership who formed the USEJ (United For Social and Economic Justice) caucus during the last triennial election denying that they were members of that caucus, or that they were even members of a caucus at all.  It is a strange claim to make.  After all, that group continues to vote in a lock step fashion that puts the reform AWDU (Academic Workers for a Democratic Union) caucus to shame, and their secret caucus list serve was accidentally leaked to the full union joint council list serve.*  It was pretty apparent that the group was still operating as a caucus, and that it was made up primarily of the remaining members of USEJ.  (Ironically, the group has existed in previous formations before USEJ as Adam Hefty noted, but USEJ was the first time that they opened acknowledged that they were in fact a separate and independent caucus.)  It was only a matter of a week or two that they finally acknowledged their existence for the triennial elections,** renaming themselves SWITCh, and erasing their past history.   Which brings us to the question, what are the implications of this refusal to acknowledge caucus behavior?

      I'd like to start off by saying that there is nothing wrong with being engaged in, or forming a caucus, in an of itself.  After all, forming a caucus is basic aspect of self-organization.  Caucuses allow for people to form groups to affect the direction of an organization or institution.  Often this involves a lot of communication, frequently in private, about the ways that they can affect the direction of the organization, what is possible and what is not possible, and how the group wants to orient itself within those possibilities.  Sociologist and labor studies scholar Judith Stepan-Norris, along with other labors studies scholars in fact have noted that the existence of multiple competing caucuses contributes to the health of unions, because the caucuses have to be more responsible to the needs of the membership.  After all, if a caucus doesn't fulfill those needs, the membership can simply vote in another caucus.  Historically, the decline of the labor movement can be linked to the expulsion of the communists from the AFL-CIO, which left the conservative leadership without competition.  In many ways, we formed the AWDU caucus four years ago to return to this democratic tradition of unionism.

      However, that system is dependent on an open and fair process.  The right to self-organize also needs to be linked with the responsibility for your collective actions within that caucus.  We can see this in play with the AWDU ticket, who has connected itself to a three year legacy, that has its flaws and contradictions despite some impressive successes.  But the former leadership is trying to short circuit this process with their rebranding campaign.  As I already noted, until recently, the former leadership group denied that they were even a caucus, and their current website refuses to acknowledge that a large percentage of their eboard candidates were involved in the last triennial under the USEJ banner.  A number of them had bargained on previous contracts, and had created the shell of a union that existed before the AWDU take over.  Two of them ran while not even being students in the previous triennial election.  Whatever you think about these facts, they seem fairly significant within the context of an electoral campaign, and the rebranding campaign is a pretty egregious effort to subvert that basic aspect of democratic governance.  At a basic level, you need to take responsibility for your own actions if you are a responsible member of a caucus, otherwise you are taking the democratic right to choose a political direction for the union from the membership.

       The problem goes further than that, when you start bringing in the context of the debates where the denials were initially made.  In each of the cases, the person denying the existence of the caucus would follow up with the statement that they were 'simply interested in the good of the union.'   The implications of the statement were fairly obvious, implying that the individuals who were involved in the AWDU caucus were not.  At a basic level, this sort of analysis is fundamentally flawed.  Workers' organizations are simply too complex to declare that one is 'simply interested in the good of the union.'  Unions have been defined by internal as well as external antagonism, debating over who should be a part of such organizations, how they should organize new workers, as well as what should be the goals of such organizations.  We've seen conservative unions and revolutionary unions, deeply democratic unions and cults of personality.  To claim you are 'simply interested in the good of the union' is an attempt to erase this rich history, and to place your conception of the means and ends of the union movement as the exclusive means and ends to that movement.  For more context on this tradition within the UAW as a whole, I recommend reading this essay by Barry Eidlin.

      It's difficult to avoid the authoritarian implications within the claim to 'simply act in the good of the union', however I'd like to spell that aspect of the claim out with a bit more clarity.  We can look at the relationship between election claims and on the ground behavior to do that.  In previous elections, many of the candidates linked to the former leadership group, such as Coral Wheeler and Moshe Lichman, have produced propaganda that claimed that they were opposed to caucuses per se, and wanted to abolish the caucus system.  It's a claim that generally indicates a position of moderation within U.S. politics, a desire to compromise and bring people together.  However, the behavior of those members has not contained those practices.  Instead, we have seen a lack of any interest to compromise on any issues, whether at the Joint Council or within the bargaining table.  Members of the former leadership caucus have even gone as far as to claim that AWDU activists don't support the demand for the rights for undocumented graduate students, giving management the impression we are divided on the issue, when this is an issue that both caucuses strongly support.  In effect, rather than creating a strong unity on this issue to win it at the bargaining table, which is still a strong possibility at this point, they have muddled the issue for partisan purposes.  We effectively find a situation in which the attempt to end caucuses is really the effort to end the reform caucus and return to the one party situation we previously saw.

      To make this point a bit more concrete, it makes sense to return to a rather contentious debate that occurred last summer during a the quarterly Joint Council Meeting.  That meeting had a surprise presentation by Coral Wheeler and Jason Struna about the implications about not focusing the bargaining process the summer.  The presentation argued two things, that we had succeeded more than other unions, and that taking a long time to bargain would have catastrophic results.  At least, that's what I got through the shoddy analogies to unions who had single digit membership numbers and scare tactics.  We saw the same threat of catastrophe on the former leadership's proxy blog, Paycheck First, who also promised catastrophe if we took the route we eventually took for bargaining, and the similar dire predictions being made regularly on the email list of the Joint Council.  At this point, it's pretty obvious that we're not facing catastrophe.  Instead, we're looking at a potential contract that contains no take backs, has unprecedented language in support of all-gender bathrooms and lactation facilities, and continues to fight for a voice on class sizes, rights for undocumented students, and a competitive wage increase.  The university is currently offering a pay increase, that while inadequate, is substantially larger than most of our previous contracts.

       Rather than admit their error, the former leadership have simply moved the goal posts, and are now insisting we could have achieved the same things.  Obviously, there's no way of knowing what would have happened in such a counter-history, but it's hard to imagine that we would have gotten so far on the issue of all gender bathrooms without the participation of hundreds of activists at and outside the bargaining table.  It's also hard to imagine that we would have the university genuinely discussing a competitive wage gap, and even make a pretense of discussing class size and the rights of undocumented students without such input.  It basically is an effort to erase the importance of rank and file activism from the contract process.  But more substantially, it's a moment where the individuals who made those claims have taken no responsibility for them, either to acknowledge their falsity, or the potential damage that they could have had on the bargaining process.  It subverts the possibility of having an honest debate over the contract campaign, or critically evaluating the goals and processes of the bargaining team, all of which are important to a successful contract campaign.  Instead, we are offered a debate in which one side continually makes outrageous claims and simultaneously denies its previous claims as they are debunked.

     More than anything else, this relentless campaign against the reform process has shown the strength and perseverance of the reform effort, which has dramatically shifted the conversation in the UC system from a system that offered only fee increases and shrinking class selection, to a system where we haven't seen a fee increase for two years, along with other reforms.  It would be a lie to say that this process has been drama and error free, but it's difficult not to be impressed.  We ended the perpetual cycle of fee hikes.  We accomplished that through demonstrations where our members were pepper sprayed and arrested, petition drives, and even lobbying efforts.  We've also seen a level of activity that has not been previously seen in our formerly moribund union, with most of elected position being filled. We've seen a bargaining process that successfully brought out student-workers in solidarity with AFSCME, and a successful strike in response to university intimidation.  Above all, we've seen a level of member participation in the bargaining that is unprecedented in union history thanks to the introduction of open bargaining, and the recognition that our ability to win a great contract cannot be simply won by nine clever individuals at the bargaining table. All of that has occurred in a setting where we have received  at best no support from a third of the union who still aligns themselves with the former leadership, and often opposition.  It makes you wonder where we could be if they had even offered a small amount of critical support on some of the issues.  (One added note: We reached none of these achievements alone.  It has involved a lot of cooperation with other unions, graduate and undergraduate groups, and other groups.)

    I hope everyone goes out to support their statewide and local AWDU chapters, rather switching back to the deeply authoritarian structure of business unionism we saw from our local in the past.  In Irvine, you should support Michelle Glowa for President, Mar Velez for Northern Vice-President, Ren-yo Hwang for Southern Vice-President, Erik Green for Financial Secretary, Leslie Quintanella for Recording Secretary, Henry Maar, Susan Richardson, and Beezer de Martelly for Trustees, and Katy Fox-Hodess.  At the Irvine level you should support Ana Baginski for Campus Unit Chair, Jordan Brocious for Recording Secretary, and Jordan Brocious and Jessica Conte for Irvine Unit Delegates (who will go to the International Union conference, where a potential dues hike will be decided on.)

*The Joint Council is the governing body of the union.  It is made up of the Head Stewards, Campus Unit Chairs, and Recording Secretaries of each branch of the union, along with the statewide executive board.  They meet quarterly to make decisions about the union, although they now also vote online for issues after AWDU took over.

**The triennial elections bring all union positions up for election.  We're about to have another triennial election April 29th and April 30th.

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