How the Largest Union Fight of 2021 Was Won

How the Largest Union Fight of 2021 Was Won

How the Largest Union Fight of 2021 Was Won

The road to recognition was arduous for student researchers at the University of California.


Last week, after decades of organizing, 17,000 student researchers across the University of California (UC) won recognition of our union, Student Researchers United–United Auto Workers (SRU-UAW). Spanning 10 campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, we’re now the largest academic student employee union in US history, following one of the biggest new organizing drives in any sector in this century. But it wasn’t easy. For months after we petitioned for union recognition with supermajority support, UC administration refused to respect our democratic choice to unionize, despite overwhelming public and legislative pressure. Finally, 10,890 of our coworkers voted by 97.5 percent to strike unless UC dropped its trumped-up legal objections to our union—and we won.

We’re not alone, either; workers everywhere are organizing. In victory, we join our UAW siblings at John Deere in showing what happens when we build and wield power on the shop floor. From the Starbucks workers who just voted for a union, to the thousands of workers on strike at employers like Kellogg’s and Columbia University, to the tens of thousands of UC postdocs, teaching assistants (TAs), and academic researchers bargaining contracts this year, this lesson is more timely than ever. We will meet UC at the bargaining table this spring in a powerful position, having learned firsthand the power of massive, coordinated action.

And massive, coordinated action is exactly what it will take to win the improvements befitting our essential role in UC’s core research mission. We conduct vital research on everything from cancer to climate change to Covid vaccines, all the while bringing in billions of dollars in annual research funding. Despite this, more than 50 percent of our low wages are routinely eaten up by rent alone. Other long-standing workplace issues, like health and safety protections in dangerous labs, were thrown into stark relief by the pandemic. After the initial shutdowns, student researchers (SRs) were among the first UC workers to return, operating critical equipment in labs pivoting to Covid research. When we started talking last year about our need for a greater say in workplace safety, we didn’t realize that we’d soon be voting whether to walk off the job for our union rights.

Academic workers at UC have been fighting for our rights for a quarter-century. In the 1980s and ’90s, when TAs and SRs at UC organized for a union together, UC argued that all of us were students first, not workers, and took this question to the courts. An unjust legal ruling recognized TAs as employees, but not SRs. It took another two decades of struggle to change state law and gain the right to a union of our own.

This year, faced with union authorization cards from a supermajority of SRs, UC resorted to the same playbook. In August, it refused to recognize and bargain with SRU-UAW, once again claiming that thousands of our coworkers funded by certain fellowships and grants are “students, not workers,” with no expectation of “service” to the university, and no right to organize. No matter that all SRs, regardless of funding source, work side by side in the same labs, under the same supervisors.

All summer, SRs debated how to move forward: wait for the legal process to play out? Or pressure UC to drop its objections directly? We figured we could win at a Public Employment Relations Board hearing—eventually. But labor boards move slowly, and UC has unlimited resources to burn on union-busting law firms and endless appeals, making a mockery of the right to speedy negotiation of a first contract, which is enshrined in US labor law. Plus, with tens of thousands of our UC union siblings bargaining contracts over the coming year, we knew that our collective power would be greater with SRU recognized. So we took the fight to the boss, and began preparing to strike if necessary.

In September and October we held rallies on every campus, with over 1,500 SRs attending, and collected more than 5,500 SR signers on a resolution demanding recognition. In the process, hundreds of SR worker-organizers talked one-on-one with colleagues, helping them see that UC’s bad behavior might give us no choice but to strike. The boss held firm, but with each action we grew our network of workplace leaders across the state. And finally, we were ready to set aside 10 days in November for our biggest collective decision since signing cards last year: authorizing a strike to win our union.

On every campus, November 10 through 19 was a whirlwind of daybreak strategy meetings, late-night phone banks, and thousands of conversations with our colleagues about the stakes of striking. But this frenzy of coordinated activity, and the 10,622 yes votes, flowed from months of patient, disciplined preparation.

Mass workplace action is never easy, and SRs faced some unique obstacles: We’re segmented into small, disconnected labs; our research is often on a long time scale, so a week on strike can set a project back by much longer; and we’re told over and over that our labor has value only to us, not to UC (remember, “students, not workers”). Sometimes we even hear that “STEM can’t be organized.” But it wasn’t hopeless—it was just hard work. And we did it by developing genuine shop floor leaders across every campus, department, cohort, and lab, who built deep workplace relationships and organizing skills throughout the year-long campaign. When the strike vote was called, they were ready for the tough conversations about rights, retaliation, and lost research.

One leader’s faculty supervisor was tempestuous and vindictive, but the leader moved his lab mates through their fear of retribution by framing the supervisor’s meltdowns as the very reason they needed to organize. Another, an international researcher, asked each coworker individually to vote for the strike. Our international colleagues face unique precarity that can only be improved by a union; and when this leader asked his lab mates to stand in solidarity with him, they did.

There is nothing like a hard-won victory to show workers our power. For 10 days, we set our research aside and struggled for something simple and profound: the right to negotiate as equals with one of the largest and most powerful university systems in the country. We’re now poised to sit down at the bargaining table this spring alongside 30,000 other UC academic workers organized with the UAW. Without us, the University of California simply cannot function. And we know how to win.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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