When the national union election results were posted late Friday, the Members United slate had won five of the seven national executive seats it contested outright—shocking most members and observers alike. The slate’s candidate for president, Shawn Fain, as well as Region 9 Director, Daniel Vicente, will both be in a runoff for these top positions (and, based on the numbers, it looks good for both to eventually win). As the UC strike enters its fourth week on the picket lines, we should feel a new surge of strength, as this reform slate campaigned on many of the key issues underlying the strike at the University of California. In what follows, I’ll draw on my decades of union organizing and negotiating, aided by insights from distinguished UC historian Nelson Lichtenstein (who wrote the classic book on the founding president of the UAW, Walter Reuther) with whom I did a webinar about the strike early last week, plus my own experience of three weeks of picketing and hundreds of conversations on and off the lines, and my conversation with Fain over this past weekend.
While this might seem an unlikely comparison, the massive University of California system is as important to the country’s political economy as General Motors was at the UAW’s industrial peak. The UC system today has roughly the same number of employees as GM did in 1947. The UC is also deeply embedded in Silicon Valley, and many of the innovations flowing out of the UC—from health care to climate science and more—are at the heart of California’s economy, which, if it were a country, would be the sixth-largest in the world by GDP. The presence of the state’s politicians on the national scene—like Governor Gavin Newsom, who appoints the Board of Regents that governs the UC system and who has been hinting at a run for US president for years—puts this strike at the heart of a broad network of economic and political power. And the ugly truth is that, despite the fanfare and self-promotion put out by the UC’s own top administrators, the university doesn’t treat its graduate worker researchers, postdocs, or academic researchers any differently from how assembly line workers at General Motors were treated before they unionized in the 1930s.
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Fain takes this parallel seriously, noting, “When you have universities that are charging top dollar and people are mortgaging their lives before they ever get a start in life—due to the skyrocketing cost of living in California—the employees of the University of California shouldn’t have to live in poverty.” The UC has a nearly $50 billion dollar budget. The demands of the 48,000 researchers and teaching assistants, who carry most of the workload for their professors and principal research investigators, would cost the university less than 3 percent of that—chump change for such a crucial public institution. According to “Mansions for Chancellors, Rent Burden for Workers”—a report published by workers on strike—92 percent of graduate student workers and 61 percent of postdocs currently spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. A majority spend over 50 percent of their pay on rent, forcing them to pile on further debt and add to a mounting national crisis, with workers living in substandard, dangerous housing, or in their cars.
University decision-makers must recognize that these conditions can’t continue. And yet, even faced with the shutdown of the university’s operations for nearly a month, they haven’t come to their senses. Instead, the UC’s historically arrogant labor relations staff continues to stonewall, a complacent governor drags his feet, and an aloof Board of Regents looks the other way, abrogating its responsibility to press for a fair settlement immediately. Workers will just have to make the disruption of the strike as tangible to these decision-makers as the workers’ inability to lead a decent life is to them.
Still, some of the lack of movement toward a settlement comes from unforced errors by local union leadership and union staff. Two warrant attention now, as they currently impede our path to victory. The first involves what my negotiations mentors used to call the “architecture of power,” and the second centers on key strategic decisions about pressure targets before and during this fight.
The architecture of power is the set of legal and practical relations between organizations that structure the contest between labor and management over the terms of the contract. The UC strike involves four separate units—academic student employees, graduate student instructors, postdoctoral scholars, and academic researchers—who are members of three separate locals (thanks to the structure of labor law, unions can be bizarrely byzantine!). From the start, the separate groups of workers should have been negotiating together as one big union. The union leadership has maintained all along that the bosses at the UC wouldn’t allow one big negotiations table for all four units, and thus inevitable tensions have arisen among and between the different groups—allowing management to pick off workers with high amounts of leverage. In a move that my mentors would have fired me for, the leadership reached a tentative agreement with 12,000 workers in my own unit first, on Monday, November 28, and then moved forward with a ratification schedule that doesn’t leave us time to adequately read, debate, or discuss the 197-page proposal.
Even if our agreement were perfect, ratifying it now puts us in the position of having to cross picket lines we were just walking with the 36,000 graduate student employees in our sibling units. As it is, the proposal commits 12,000 of us to a five-year agreement in a time of outrageous, unforeseen inflation. After signing the historic “Treaty of Detroit” in 1950, Walter Reuther himself swore never to agree to a five-year deal again—it’s simply too long to lock in terms in a rapidly changing economy. Finally, to return to the split negotiations tables, the five-year agreement is at odds with employer’s so-called “final offer” made to the remaining 38,000 workers at 1 am Saturday, which sets an expiration date of two-and-a-half years.
As Fain argues: “Our strength is in our solidarity. Let’s take the big three [auto contracts] for example. Why do the contracts expire September 14th every four years? So we bargain together and we have consistency in our agreements. That’s the whole point of it. You [at UC] had nearly 50,000 workers walk out all over the state, which was amazing, seeing everyone standing up there together on the picket lines! Reaching an agreement with one unit of 12,000 defeats the whole concept of strength in numbers and standing in solidarity. It’s not a good policy for us as a union.”
The second issue involves a central question of power and strategy. The leadership of the union started with a hands-off approach, playing nice with UC decision-makers in the lead-up to and during the strike, only escalating confrontation last week. On day three of the strike, a full two-day Board of Regents meeting took place on the UC San Francisco campus—and we did nothing to disrupt it, missing an enormous opportunity to make the lives of these well-off regents uncomfortable enough to force them to direct the university to agree to a fair settlement. In my life as a negotiator, I’ve learned it’s unavoidably necessary to push hard and early on the people who can make it happen—regardless of whom they try to subcontract their responsibility to. In 2016, in contract negotiations between 1,000 nurses and their intransigent employer, the Albert Einstein Medical Center, we voted to send a 10-day notice to picket during the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia. Local and national party elites were furious, telling us it would send the wrong message to have the mostly women nurses protesting as the first woman was being nominated for president. Our response? Great, you have the power to make our need to picket evaporate overnight: Make the damn hospital agree to give the nurses what they need. Despite endless threatening phone calls, our focused action on the people who could make the liberal do-gooder hospital president move worked. We could have been exerting the same kind of pressure at UC from the beginning—and we should definitely make up for lost time if we’re really looking to make the disruption of the strike felt by the people who can concede what we really need.
To settle this contract, we need to massively ratchet up the pressure immediately on all the relevant decision-makers. Their detached behavior isn’t any different from Apple pretending it don’t have anything to do with slave-labor conditions in its mega plants in China, just because it subcontracts. Liberals left to their own devices will play this kind of no-blame game, like Joe Biden tying the rail workers to the tracks with a forced contract, or Gavin Newsom ghosting our fight, or like the pseudo-progressive members of the Board of Regents enjoying the comfort of their daily lives as graduate workers struggle to afford child care, housing, and many basic bills while generating world-class research—and thus billions in grants to the UCs.
Last week, rank-and-file members finally began to push to reverse this dynamic, escalating direct actions making the decision-makers feel the heat we’ve been feeling. As you read this, actions are breaking out across the state, from Sacramento to San Diego. We need to move our picket lines to the places decision-makers work and play, bringing this fight home—and fast. No one wants a long strike: not the undergraduates, not any of us. The only thing standing in the way of going back to what we all love to do is the employer. California can’t afford an anemic UC, and workers taking control of this fight and of their national union can shift the balance of power back to workers, educating decision-makers in the working conditions and public services we all deserve.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Mike Booth would be in a runoff; Booth won his position.