Saturday, September 15, 2018

Organizing Malpractice: The UAW 2865 ratification vote of 2018

When a professional commits acts that are unethical or illegal, or when their negligence causes harm we call it malpractice. We are familiar with the term malpractice in the medical profession, maybe the legal profession as well. But would malpractice make sense in the context of organizing, and if so what would it look like?

Unfortunately for me, I have just the example: the UAW 2865 ratification vote of 2018. I say "unfortunately for me" because this is my union (for those who are brand new to this blog). I believe that the professional staff organizers and the clique in power are guilty of organizing malpractice because of the following intentional practices, all of which run counter to the purpose of what organizers are supposed to be about:
  1. pushing a concessionary contract 
  2. lots of shady/unethical actions to push this ratification, some of which may have violated bylaws or the UAW constitution
  3. turning backs on other workers
  4. disorganizing and demobilizing workers
Let's examine these in order. First off, we have pushing a concessionary contract. My comrade Shannon Ikebe and another member from Berkeley, whom I haven't met, Tara Phillips, wrote this excellent detailed and pithy op-ed to the Daily Cal, which I will quote from:

"Some of the worst features of this contract include stagnant wages, no housing relief, and punishing concessions on international student fees. The 3 percent nominal wage increase barely keeps up with projected inflation rates, does not constitute a living wage, which is estimated to be $34,269 for one adult in Alameda County, and does not compete with GSI pay at peer institutions. Although the majority of workers listed their priority as securing affordable housing, there were no gains on this front. Instead, management recently increased rent in graduate housing at University Village, Albany. Despite some gains in sexual harassment protections — which management agreed to in the wake of the #MeToo movement and eight Title IX cases that were found to have been mishandled at UC Berkeley alone — that does not negate the regressive character of the entire contract.

Another key demand was remission of the exorbitant fee imposed only on international students, which amounts to about $15,000 a year for graduate students and about $29,000 for undergraduates. We developed an active campaign to fight this unfair treatment of our fellow international workers, many of whom testified in bargaining sessions to its detrimental effects. Not only did the contract fail to win on this demand, but it repealed the small international fee remission we had. Under this new contract, if you are a U.S. citizen, you may benefit from a $300 fee waiver for now (though there is no protection against future fee increases); if you are an international student, you will lose $108 from the $408 international fee waiver that you used to have. This fee sends a toxic message in the Donald Trump era, when immigrants are under vicious attack in our community and nationwide."

Ikebe and Phillips make the case for why the contract is concessionary, or as they call it regressive. I would like to briefly make a case for another way to think about this contract as concessionary, one that adopts a different frame of analysis than Ikebe and Philips's frame that looks at this single contract in isolation and just examines the areas of it which see rollbacks in pay and protections, I think this contract should be examined more longitudinally, not just cross sectionally like Ikebe and Philips. I am not proposing another frame of analysis because I think theirs is deficient or wrong, on the contrary I think their analysis is sharp and I myself have used it when talking to people about the contract, rather I would like to expand the ways in which we think about contracts, and I think these two analyses should be joined together. It is an additional frame or analysis, not an opposing or substitute frame of analysis.

A more longitudinal approach tries to view this particular outcome (in this case a loss) in the larger context of the struggle between UC management and Academic Student Employees (ASE's) over time. To force a class war analogy here, sorry, if this was a war we would see this outcome of this contract as a lost battle, simply for the outcome, however we need to look at the overall balance of forces and momentum on each side going into this one battle to really put it into context. In some cases a loss can be viewed a victory in this view (and a victory can be seen as a loss) - we often see this this in electoral politics when the Left runs a candidate who raises the visibility of radical politics, popularizes Left ideas, and builds an underlying organization. Even when this candidate loses, which they often expect, they see the gains that came out of it as a win in the long term. Or when someone was supposed to win in overwhelming numbers just barely walks away with victory it can still be seen as a defeat for the victor, because they were expected to do so much better, and the surprising performance of the underdog will be seen as a kind of victory itself. (Like if scrawny little me who can't fight for shit somehow lasted 3 rounds with Mike Tyson that would be huge, despite my loss, because who really thinks I'd last even 10 seconds let alone 3 rounds?)

So was this concessionary contract a win in the long term?

Those who pushed it would certainly say so, of course they wouldn't call it concessionary either, so that's no surprise.

I would argue it was an absolute loss on our side from this framework of analysis. Here's why: back in 2010 UAW 2865 settled a concessionary contract after just two months of negotiations, during the summer! The 2%/year raise wouldn't keep up with inflation, effectively making it a pay cut. ASE's organized a "No" vote against contract ratification, which despite its loss turned into a reform movement that would sweep union elections months later in 2011 under the AWDU (Academic Workers for a Democratic Union) caucus. AWDU got to negotiate a contract in 2013-14, the first time in our local's history that a radical reform caucus led the negotiations. I was a Davis representative on that bargaining team for most of the timeline of negotiations. The bargaining team still had a few members of the more centrist and conciliatory caucus USEJ (later re-branded as SWITCh), but AWDU had a clear majority the entire time. We built on-the-ground power and instead of focusing on talking with management in the bargaining room we focused on building a contract campaign, where on-the-ground power was built to pressure management, win public support, and engage with allies also struggling with UC admin.

UC admin's bargaining team was quite freaked out by the radical departure in bargaining room tactics and norms. They spent the first 3 days of negotiations freaked out by the fact that our team wanted to work in a more collective and horizontal fashion, so we had no lead negotiator. There were many memorable and humorous anecdotes that came from that, but more importantly it showed that even just changing up something small like that could really put them on the defensive and show their rigidity - a sign that they hadn't yet figured out how to "deal with" negotiations in this matter (translation: had had no fancy expensive training in how to undermine this kind of negotiations).

Furthermore we brought in open bargaining, packing the room with angry members who were there to give testimonials. Since we knew we wouldn't just "win" a good contract with a clever argument, but rather we had to fight for one and win it through pressure and disruption, we used the bargaining room as an organizing space. Bring members in, let management see how angry they were, let members get even more angry at the awful and offensive things management would say so that they could go back and tell their colleagues and friends about it, and give members a chance to be involved in what we wanted to ultimately be their contract campaign (not the bargaining team's negotiations). We also limited "side bars" - in fact I don't recall any while I was on the team. Side bars are secret conversations between one or two reps and managements lead negotiator. The conversation isn't on the record, and if you have a top-down union where the bargaining team is controlled by one person or a couple people, this is where the shadiest deals usually go down.

Lastly, we went on strike. Twice. For the first time in nearly ten years! AWDU union leaders told members that they were the center of this fight, and that we could only get what we wanted from management by fighting for it, all together. We planned a third strike, during finals week of Spring quarter, but the threat of a third strike was enough to move management on some key issues, and the strike was averted.

The point of that long explication of the previous round of bargaining was to show the stark contrast between 2010 and 2013-14. Management saw the union had become a threat instead of a collaborator. We needed to prove to them that we were actually organized and ready to fight, because dealing with us in the past they knew our union would cave easily without a fight. So we had an inertial force to overcome. However we also had surprise on our side. But our threats were nothing if they weren't backed up by action, because they had not seen our union be militant since its earliest days when ASEs fought for union recognition.

This temporal-relational aspect is very important strategically.

An analogy: if your boss always asks you to do something you don't like, and you have always just gone along with it, you develop a reputation as being the pushover or the one who can always be asked to do anything. You get dumped on all the time, because that is your reputation. If you always put up a mild fight but always cave, its just as bad, as the boss would never take your watered down protest seriously. But if all of a sudden one day you really stand up for yourself and walkout, you have totally changed how that boss perceives you, and how now they will approach you differently, they will have different expectations.

So the building of a credible strike threat and the concession that could be won were going against the inertial force of the previous conciliatory approach of the union, and it means that we really had to fight, a strike threat wouldn't have been enough.

The situation was quite different this time around though. In 2017-18 the UAW 2865 bargaining team was coming off of the momentum of the previous round of negotiations. UC management knew our union was willing and capable to strike. Coming into negotiations this time UC management had different expectations, and may have made more generous offers without the same amount of struggle on our end, because if they wanted to avoid a strike they knew it would take more and that our threats weren't empty.

So settling on a concessionary contract in the summer was more than just a concession in the moment, it was also a major deflation of the reputation we had developed. By not even holding a strike vote, let alone settling in the summer and aggressively pushing for ratification, our leadership signaled to management that the old radicals were out, that the new team may have been loud and in their face, but that ultimately it was all a show, that they would not put up a fight. the next bargaining team is going to have to break that expectation and will have the same inertial force to overcome as we did in 2013-14.

Next we have the issue of lots of shady/unethical actions to push this ratification, some of which may have violated bylaws or the UAW constitution, some of which Ikebe and Phillips touch upon in their article as well. There are so many things to discuss, but I can tell this is already going to be a long piece, so I will try to keep this section as short as possible.

First is the incredibly biased voting process itself. The language sent out was massively biased towards the yes side. I spent a day this summer session with my students just going over biased surveys - because I wanted to do my part as a teacher of sociology to help them see flawed and biased surveys since surveys are the most commonly encountered instrument of measuring the social world. I showed the email that the vote came with and the wording of the election form to my students and asked their opinion. I didn't say anything either way as to my opinion in the matter I just said, "My union sent this out, since we have examined surveys, I want your thoughts on this." They told me how it was very biased and obviously wanted people to vote yes. They didn't know the details, such as the way in which the 3% raise was being misleadingly framed as a larger raise, and they don't know about contract negotiations, so they didn't know to point out the bias in the way the email uncritically called management's offer its "last best and final", because there is often bluffing around "last best and final" offers, but what they did see was the space that was given to the Yes side, the language used that was very promotional, and the scary language guiding you away from voting no. In the actual ratification vote itself, one had to click an external link to even get any information about the No vote's perspective, the email only contained pro Yes information.

Second there is the issue of the elections committee. One of the bargaining team's co-leads wrote and sent out the email, bypassing the elections committee, the executive board, or any other body in the union. The elections committee had overseen these kinds of votes in the past, they vetted language for fairness and they oversaw the process as to remove bias. However Garrett wrote and sent out the email to all members by himself, going around the elections committee. This caused uproar on the elections committee and all but one members resigned, most in protest some due to capacity issues. So an elections committee with only one member, leaving eight campuses without representatives, was the only body to basically rubber stamp this process, and after the fact that Garrett had already unilaterally wrote and disseminated the language of the vote.

If that isn't bad enough, UC Merced didn't even have a bargaining team rep for any of these votes! When the bargaining team voted whether or not to have a straw poll Merced members had zero representation in that vote. When the straw poll came back 52% for and 48% against holding a ratification vote (clearly not a mandate for a ratification vote), and the bargaining team then voted on whether or not to hold a ratification vote Merced had no representatives in that vote. The bargaining team's own community agreements read that a majority would be "10 bargaining team members voting in favor" and "each campus gets two votes" Furthermore, specifically about voting to ratify the agreement read, "Voting on presenting a final contract to members for ratification: every campus have their two elected BT members vote using an online form & recorded with a majority being 50%+1 votes (10 votes). The bargaining team shall strive to achieve consensus whenever possible."

(screenshot of the BT agreement sent to me by a BT member)

So, by their own agreements, the Bargaining Team violated the following:
  1. Ratification Vote
    • Merced did not have 2 elected reps 
    • Majority was not 10 therefore not a majority
  2. Ratification Vote
    • Merced did not have 2 repts
    • Majority was not 10 (8 voted for, 7 against, 1 abstained) therefore not a majority
    • Consensus was not strived for. (52% of members and a 8-7 split on the BT was not striving for consensus.)

Next we have the issue of paid staff organizers heavily pushing the Yes in the ratification vote. Staff members are supposed to be neutral in elections. However, without any discussion or clarification the e-board member who is the staff manager instructed paid staff to push for a yes vote. I'm not making this up, the clique that runs the union admits it and doesn't think its a problem. In response to lots of people getting really upset by this they did release an email that says that they are sorry that they didn't comminicate the issue better. But there's nothing in the email that is an actual apology for using paid staff time to organize against rank and file members who want a better contract.

Here is the full text of the email:

A key part reads, "...we should have clearly explained to the JC as well as all staff members that the ratification vote is not an election and therefore the rules around prohibiting the use of union resources to campaign for elections do not apply. We understand that the permissibility of using union resources was especially confusing since an eboard member had sent an email during the straw poll that union resources were not permitted to be used for the straw poll. This agreement about the straw poll stemmed from the internal agreement from the Bargaining Team and only applied to the straw poll. Looking back, we should have explained the parameters of the vote far in advance. This would have given everyone a clear expectation of what is permissible and given the JC an opportunity to vote on implementing additional policies around internal votes if they so desired. This is still under JC discussion and has been recently taken up by the JC in the form of a resolution."

In other words, they feel bad that we didn't know that they would be using paid staff to push the yes vote, but since they found a loop hole making it not a violation (in their opinion) it wasn't wrong that they did it, only that they weren't more clear about it at the time.

As Ikebe and Phillips say, "It’s hard to believe that such a disastrous contract would have been accepted by workers in a fair and democratic process."

At the bottom of the above email you'll notice a reference to Amara, this refers to the UC Davis elected alternate to the bargaining team who was removed from the BT email list by another BT member from UC Santa Barbara unilaterally with no process. Amara immediately filed a complaint, and the person responsible, Meg, resigned. Meg then went on the offensive saying she isn't sorry and has no regrets in an email to the Joint Council, but then publicly on facebook failed to mention this context of her resignation and instead cited "bullying" and "anti-parent" remarks by other BT members. It is also unclear as to what kind of steps the e-board has made in response to this complaint, as Kavitha sent an email out a few weeks ago saying that they have responded to Amara, but Amara says they haven't responded to her at all.

Speaking of shadily removing access for people in elected position, during the vote at least two e-board members had their access to emailing the statewide membership revoked and it is still unsure as to who did that. Connor Gorman and our local president Emily Yen both found that their access to emailing the membership statewide had been revoked, and it is still unclear as to who did that and under what authority. It is important to note that Connor is very vocal in his opposition to the clique in power and Emily is not part of the clique and was on the vote No side.

That's all I will address here, but lot of other people have raised many other concerns about the shady actions of the clique in power, and I hope a comprehensive list and explanation is compiled at some point for the sake of historical record.

Moving to the third point, we have turning backs on other workers.I wrote about this extensively in a previous blog post "A referendum on solidarity?". Its not long so I recommend just reading the full text when you can.  But the main point is this - the Yes side wanted to settle now, and they recognized in their pro yes ballot language that other UC unions are struggling in their contract negotiations with the UC, and so they framed it in a aren't we lucky to have gotten this 3% wage when other workers can't even get this good of an offer after going on strike? Let's not lose this offer by not settling right now. I called this out as selfish and a total abandonment of solidarity. When we see other campus workers struggling to get a decent raise, the first reaction should be to join them in their fight, not turn our backs and say, "well at least I got mine".

Finally we have the point which looks at the big picture here and asks what the overall effect of these actions are, which I see as disorganizing and demobilizing workers.

Yes this contract was a disappointment.

Yes the dominant group on the bargaining team and the executive board did some hella shady stuff.

Yes our union officially turned its backs on other struggling UC workers.

But none of those are the biggest take-away for me. For me it is seeing a group of elected union officers and paid professional staff organizers who spent all of their time and energy into disorganizing and demobilizing ASEs in the UC system.

Rank and file members were ready to fight - 48% in the straw poll voted not only against a ratification vote but they said they were prepared to strike and to organize their coworkers for a strike. But because they wanted to settle and because they genuinely didn't believe that the rank and file had the power to make change themselves they poured their time and energy and our union's official money and resources into a blitzkrieg campaign to misinform, scare, and intimidate members into submission to the UCs latest offer.

Instead of building worker power they did all that they could to squash it!

This to me is the big picture, it is why I call their actions organizing malpractice.

Because of this betrayal of the members by the group in power many elected officers have resigned their position, many members have publicly rescinded their membership, and the entire union is in a state of disarray. Lots of good organizers are saying that this betrayal and the toxic culture of the union (stemming from its top-down nature and the desire of those in power to never be criticized) is why they will not be organizing with the union anymore, they will find other spaces on campus (or off) to organize. Some folks say that they will continue to work on campaigns like housing for example, but will never try to sign someone up for union membership.

Another major blunder that the union pulled during all this was 3rd partying itself.

When bosses try to preventively bust unions they tell workers that they don't need some third party involved with its own (greedy) interests (as they always emphasize union dues). Union organizers are always trained to explain to workers that a union isn't a third party, it is the collective action of the workers themselves.

However during this process the union leadership has made it clear that the bargaining team's 8-for yes vote means that that vote was now the official union position and as such it was totally fine to use paid staff and other resources to push this position. There was the "official union position" and then the membership vote. And the two were separate things.

And that is how you make yourself into a third party.

The membership wasn't the union, but rather the clique in charge that bypassed the elections committee despite violating the BT agreements was the union.

So then, you may be asking, what should have been done instead? Its easy to backseat drive/monday morning quarterback, and hindsight is 2020, but do I have any constructive suggestions for alternatives that could have been perused instead of the disorganizing and demobilizing members?

I wouldn't have written that rhetorical question if I didn't, so here it is:

When UC management gave it's alleged "last best and final" offer, the leadership should have instead of a straw poll (which wasn't really a straw poll since they campaigned, they didn't want to take a temperature check of the membership they wanted to shield their capitulation and betrayal with the illusion of democracy and approval)  called for a strike authorization vote. They could have said, "wow look at this, this is what the UC says is the best it can give us, but we know that we deserve better and if we fight we could win much more."

A strike authorization vote would have served the same function - of seeing where the membership stands on UC's offer, but it would have done so in a way that was more aggressive and had momentum moving forward, instead of regressive and concessionary.

Then when a majority of members voted yes they could have rejected the offer and UC would now be in the position of responding not just to a rejection of their bluff for a "last best and final", but they would be on the now escalated grounds of having a rejection in the context of a majority approval for a strike.

Then we go into the fall with an expired contract and go on strike with other UC unions and shut the shit down in the biggest strike in UC history.

That is responsible organizing. That is organizing for worker power. Not the negligent/malicious moves that we saw that just disorganized and demobilized a militant base of ASEs.

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