Circular Firing Squad

Amid tough times for labor, intra-union strife besets graduate students in California.
May 5, 2011

A bitterly contested election for the leadership of the union representing graduate students in the University of California system has been unfolding over the past week. The struggle, in a state hospitable to unions, has centered most immediately on specific allegations of voting fraud, intimidation, and improper ballot counting. But the conflict also raises broader philosophical questions among union members about how they should fight funding cuts to public higher education in an increasingly hostile political climate.

The battle for 80 graduate student union leadership positions on nine of the 10 UC campuses pits two sides against each other: the incumbent party, United for Social and Economic Justice, and a movement of self-identified reformers, Academic Workers for a Democratic Union. USEJ is fielding more than 70 candidates and has cited its track record in negotiating past contracts. AWDU has put 60 candidates up for election and touts its more decentralized structure -- and what it portrays as a more aggressive stance toward management (a claim the other side rejects).

The union of graduate students and other academic workers at UC was recognized in 2000 through the help of the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW). It now numbers some 12,000 members, making Local 2865 perhaps the largest UAW chapter on the West Coast, according to several graduate students. Nationwide, the UAW represents more than 45,000 teaching assistants, research assistants, academic administrators, full-time and adjunct faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and clerical, technical and professional employees, which means higher education workers make up about 12 percent of UAW's active membership.

The fight over the direction of Local 2865 has had its share of drama, and both sides agree that this race has grown more acrimonious than any previous one. Since voting began last Tuesday, each side has alleged that the other has engaged in chicanery of some sort: intimidation; attempts to certify votes without all of them being counted; spurious ad hominem attacks and scorched-earth politics. Fallout has included a suspension of vote-counting and accompanying office sit-ins (with a webcam trained on the ballots); claims of ballot tampering; denials of claims of ballot tampering; and pleas for calm and civility.

Several labor professors have weighed in, calling on both sides to resume counting ballots because not doing so, in the current climate, "contributes to the public perception that unions are corrupt and outmoded forms of representation for working people." Some in the USEJ saw the participation of faculty, some of whom are their advisers and supervisors, as wholly inappropriate.

Finally, on Tuesday, both sides agreed to appoint a disinterested third party to count votes and mediate any disputes.

The conflict has roots in the wave of recent cutbacks that have hit higher education in California. Last year, those cutbacks prompted many students throughout the state to participate in protests; among them were graduate students at Berkeley who eventually became leaders of AWDU.

To hear AWDU's members tell it, the union was not visible enough in fighting those cuts -- to the extent that some said they didn't even realize there was a union for graduate students on their campus. Once they attended union meetings, they began to feel that the union was too wedded to bureaucracy and prone to issuing commands from the top rather than soliciting ideas from the rank and file.

"It took one or two of those meetings for those of us who were organizing to realize that the union structure was prohibitive for the kind of organizing we wanted to do," said Mandy Cohen, a third-year doctoral student in comparative literature at Berkeley who is running as AWDU's candidate for recording secretary at the state level.

The fight became more pitched as the union was attempting to ratify a new contract. AWDU waged a campaign -- which eventually failed -- against adopting the contract, on the grounds that it didn't secure enough gains in wages and benefits. That line of attack has continued, as some AWDU candidates have said that the union didn't mobilize enough of its members and hasn't pushed hard enough at the negotiating table.

Such criticisms are "ridiculous," said Daraka Larimore-Hall, who is current president of the union and running for re-election to the position as a member of the USEJ. A seventh-year doctoral candidate in sociology at Santa Barbara, Larimore-Hall pointed to such wins as wage increases, paid family leave, child care reimbursements and fully employer-paid health care -- all of which represented gains earned without having to make concessions. "I don’t know what objective standard could be used to say we’re accommodating to management," he said.

While health benefits and child care reimbursements for students might strike some (particularly adjuncts) as enviable, many of the graduate students in the union balance their own full-time course work with part-time jobs. Many of them serve as teaching assistants for introductory courses, while others teach classes of their own design, in which they devise the curriculums, teach all the sections, write the tests and do the grading (and, some say, they tend to work more than the 20 hours per week stipulated in their contract).

Some members of AWDU concede that it may not have been realistic to expect more than the 2 percent raise that members eventually ratified (an entry-level teaching assistant earns nearly $34,000 on an annualized basis, but most work half-time and don't get paid vacation or time off, as most other employees do). What the challengers objected to was their sense that the union wasn't sufficiently energized or taking enough direction from its members.

"If the union really had been organized and all we could get was 2 percent, I wouldn’t have voted no and campaigned against the contract," said Cheryl Deutsch, a second-year doctoral student in anthropology at Irvine who is AWDU's candidate for president. "For the union not to have engaged at all is really weak."

Larimore-Hall said that the union did fight the cuts. He said the majority of members had sent letters to the legislature and governor demanding new revenue for the system and challenging the argument that austerity was the only path. "Protests are great, but there are almost daily demonstrations on UC campuses," he said, referring to what he saw as the preferred strategy of AWDU. "What scares the employer is a majority of a bargaining unit taking collective action."

While the differing responses to state budget cuts may have highlighted the distinctions between the two sides, so did the wider context of union losses in Ohio and Wisconsin -- where several unionized teaching assistants were credited with leading the occupation of the State Capitol in protest. "If our unions don’t become fighting unions, our rights will be stripped away like they’ve been in Ohio and Wisconsin," said Cohen of AWDU. "We’re in a new phase of crisis for workers. The unions are going to have to stand up and fight in ways that they haven’t been."

How they choose to stand up and fight -- through a decentralized or a centralized approach -- is, in many ways, at the philosophical heart of the conflict at UC, said Adam Hefty, a seventh-year doctoral student in the history of consciousness at Santa Cruz, who said he is nonpartisan in his official capacity as an elections committee member, but added that he is "somewhat aligned" with AWDU.

"Part of what the struggle here is over is about organizing styles," said Hefty. "Does the labor movement get its power to fight back against these attacks through greater centralization? Or does it get its power through democracy and more creative up-swelling of ideas from the bottom up?"

To Larimore-Hall, a decentralized approach is bound to render the union's power more diffuse. "We mobilize majorities of our membership and speak with one voice to the employer and the legislature," he said. While AWDU faulted his slate's approach as being bureaucratic and managerially directed, he said that AWDU's was more grounded in the kind of informal student activism where "the people who happen to be in the room make all the decisions."

"We think that’s a real recipe for weakness against one of the largest employers in the United States with a long track record of dividing and fighting unions," he said.

And Larimore-Hall worried that the harm had already been done. "I think, no matter what happens, a big, dynamic local that’s been at the forefront of making good things happen will emerge a lot weaker and a lot more divided," he said.


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