Saturday, March 1, 2014

Why AWDU's model is winning contract negotiations

If you have not yet read my previous post about the struggle in the UAW 2865 between two models of unionism please check out "Why Paycheck First is an Anti-paycheck strategy".

Background of Intra-Union Politics

In the spring of 2011 a reform caucus going by Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU) took over the union, after seeing the union have no involvement in the UC student movement and building occupations of 2009 and 2010, and after a huge "No" vote was organized (that just barely lost) on a contract that many felt was a sell-out to university management. 

The former leadership, which has been pejoratively called the "admin caucus" because of their conciliatory attitude toward administration, during the election where AWDU formed to challenge them they called themselves USEJ (United for Social and Economic Justice), and since then they have relinquished all claims to their (very direct) ties to the old administration (including some of them being in the old leadership and others working very closely with the old leadership members who are now involved in Democratic Party politics to this day on their campus, and they claim "You keep calling us USEJ, we aren't USEJ!" and "we aren't a caucus, we are opposed to the caucus system" (despite the fact that they constantly vote in blocs). They also recently tried to form an anonymous front group called Paycheck First, complete with a laughable blog full of deliberate distortions that was basically only read by members of AWDU in their spare time looking for a laugh. For the sake of ease I will just refer to them as USEJ just because its easier when I reference them below. 

Since taking power AWDU has done much to make the union more democratic and is more active in social justice work. Campuses now have their own budgets so that they don't have to ask permission of the local President every time time they want a ream of paper for example (there will certainly be a post about this in the future, and at that time I will make sure to link to it here). Campus leaderships can now email their membership directly instead of submitting everything for approval to the President. Paid staff now make average TA salaries, not $50-80k. The examples go on and on, but the focus of this article is how AWDU has improved the bargaining process for new contracts.

 AWDU has improved and democratized the bargaining process

Previously, bargaining sessions were closed door, bargaining team only, events that members could only hear about second-hand. Under AWDU every single bargaining session has been open bargaining, meaning open to all UAW members, and allies and members of the campus community. As such members have been able to not just come and witness the bargaining process, but more importantly PARTICIPATE in the process. 

Previously bargaining began at the start of summer, when the vast majority of members aren't working and new agreements were reached typically before fall quarter started or during fall quarter. The previous contract was almost never allowed to expire. 

Any historian of labor will tell you that negotiating a contract when your members aren't working, and not having the ability to strike, is a guaranteed way of getting a terrible contract. This is why our pay hasn't kept up with inflation over the last 10 years.

This has to do directly with the view that one has of the negotiation process itself, and the bargaining room in particular. AWDU realizes that negotiations have to be backed up with real on-the-ground member power, and that that will only come about by having a strong participatory process. People will only fight for something when they feel ownership of it, not when they think someone else will get it for them. 

AWDU kicked off the contract campaign at the start of classes in the Fall. We invited members to come speak in the bargaining room about issues important to them. In this way, the bargaining room was not seen as a place where two small groups of advocates meet and try to come to a friendly agreement (read: the union conciliates and then pitches it as a victory to the members who were not involved and therefore have no way of judging what was possible and therefore if this was a win or a loss), this is why business unionism has lead to the decline of union membership in this country over the last 6 decades or so. The AWDU bargaining room was a place of mobilization. It was another arena in which we could use to mobilize members and through their participation get them more agitated and invested. We understood that we weren't going to come up with a clever argument to get a contract, that we were going to have to pressure management to give it to us, and that means building the mobilized member base. 

This means that bargaining team members had to see themselves primarily as organizers, and that we needed to invest our time organizing on the ground, NOT spend it all in the bargaining room by ourselves with management, as the USEJ bargaining team members suggested. One USEJ member, from UCSB actually proposed that we meet 4 days a week every week in September! Aside from being problematic because it meant that we would be guaranteed to be working more than double the hours we were paid for, but also that members with children (such as myself and both the members from UCSC) would just NOT be able to participate. The biggest problem is that it would have forced us to literally spend 200% of our time in the bargaining room, and no time organizing.

Instead AWDU opted to bargain at most two days every other week of Fall quarter/semester so that we could spend most of our time getting people plugged into the contract campaign. Not only did we mobilize membership, but we also built coalitions with other UC workers, undergrads, faculty, and community members. Faculty and department chairs across the UC signed letters in support of our bargaining demands. On my campus, UC Davis, we got the Davis Faculty Association to write a letter in support of our demands for competitive compensation and increased support for childcare.

But it was by far the bargaining room itself that has shown the starkest contrast of our approaches. Just look at the number of people that we got to come to the bargaining room on AWDU campuses vs USEJ campuses. At Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and L.A. not only did tons of rank and file members come to the room but we also had rallies and marches crash the bargaining room and really pack the room. There was a session at Berkeley where there were so many people in the room that management had to move the bargaining table back so much that their backs were literally up against the wall! In Santa Cruz there was a rally of about 100 people outside the bargaining room and management stalled for over an hour hoping that people would go away, but they didn't! Management claimed that they were having "difficulty printing", but we could see them from their window just sitting around. This culminated in the rally singing "Come to My Window" by Melissa Ethridge.

At Davis, we had 120 people come to bargaining over the two day session (we had a sign-in sheet so we know exactly how many). Compare these numbers of UCB, UCSC, UCLA, to the USEJ campuses of UCSB and UCR. Riverside had only 11 people come to bargaining. Santa Barbara had around 20 or so, but only because some of us, myself included, made a huge deal bugging the UCSB leadership to make sure that people were coming. The UCSB made a bunch of excuses until I finally threatened that, "Well I could always walk through departments and talk to people and try to get them to join us, while you are all here bargaining." Then the leadership suddenly decided to make some calls, and a short while later people started to show up. (I think the idea that an AWDU bargaining team member might roam free on their campus talking to their membership scared the crap out of them.) 

How participation will win a better contract

AWDU allowed the previous contract to expire enabling us to go on sympathy strike with AFSCME 3299, the UC service and patient care workers. AFSCME has a good base of support among undergrads, particularly with undergrads who care about social justice. They see the UC giving everyone raises except the food service workers and janitors who are predominantly peopel of color, women, immigrants, and people without higher educational degrees, and they see the systematic racism, sexism, classism, and nativism that they so strongly oppose. When UAW 2865 was the only other union to go on strike in sympathy we showed that we don't just talk the talk, but we walk the walk. Lots of undergrads support their TAs and especially our demands that affect them, such as smaller classes, but it is this activist base who are interested in the connections between labor and social justice that we won over as allies in the long run. If USEJ had had the majority on the bargaining team they would never had allowed the contract to expire and we would have been another union standing by talking about solidarity but doing nothing, and we wouldn't have proven our politics and won strong allies.

Undergrads are going to be a major element of winning this contract. Sure faculty will write us letters of support and the university cares more about their opinion then a bunch of undergrad activists, but its not letters, no matter how strongly worded, that will win a better contract. As the AFSCME struggle proved, labor will only win when it fights. Undergrad on-the-ground organizers and supporters are invaluable compared to faculty letters. When AFSCME struck undergrads at UCSC physically blocked the only entrance to campus and admin had no choice but to shut the campus down for the day! The goal of any strike is to shut down the operations of the workplace, and it only took a small group of undergrad activists to make sure that the strike was 100% effective in doing so! Having more bodies on the picket line and at rallies also made the strike seem bigger and more powerful, especially in news coverage. Lastly undergrad supporters will ultimately help counter the narrative that management will inevitably try to put out, that we are out of touch and greedy and that most undergrads either don't care or are upset at the "loss of education" that happened over the time of the strike.

It is also much easier to get members to actually strike when they have been involved in the process the entire time, instead of "activated" as if they are mere pawns, as some business unions do when needed. Members were involved at an on the ground level picking our demands and approving them, they came to bargaining, they have been involved in committees to support the demands and plan actions, and they even gave input as when to strike and how. Going through all this will bring them out because they know it is their struggle, its not like they have been left out of the process the whole time and now suddenly the union is coming to ask them for a favor, they don't feel like negotiations is just something "the union" (in a third party way) does for them, but is something that belong to them and they want to see it through to the end.

Management has seen how many have come out to bargaining to show support, how many participated in the marches and rallies, how many have signed the petitions, etc. They know that we aren't bluffing when we say we will fight for our demands, and they saw us go on strike in support of AFSCME, they know that if they don't move and we call impasse that they will be facing a mobilized and angry base of grads students who have done the hard work in winning faculty and community support and have won over serious dedicated undergrad activists who can engage in direct actions to cause even more disruption than picketing alone. Sometimes just that threat alone is enough to win, as we finally saw in the case of AFSCME.

That is why AWDUs model is winning, and will win a much better contract.

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