Letters / On “Little Bargains”

Reading Michael Berlin’s article on the University of California graduate workers’ strike, I noticed that it did not explain how workers could have won a better contract. Berlin criticizes the concessions made by the bargaining teams for UAW 2865 and the Student Researchers Union, writing that they made the strike a failure, while acknowledging that the new tentative agreement made real progress on wages, parental support, and workplace protections. Striking is difficult and risky, so if Berlin wants to assert that the bargaining teams left possible wins on the table, he also needs to explain why he believes that they could have gotten a better deal—which would mean showing that a majority of workers were prepared to keep striking, possibly for much longer.

To win a strike, graduate workers have to shut down their campus. Otherwise, a “strike” becomes a protest—something universities are much more able to withstand. The strength of a graduate strike, in other words, isn’t measured by how militant the bargaining team is, or by how radical the union leadership’s politics are, but by whether a majority of workers are actually striking. How many graduate workers really stopped working during the UC strike, and how many scabbed? How many grads picketed all day, every day of the strike? Did they stop undergrads, faculty, and scabs from entering buildings, as a picket should? Did striking grads refuse to go to class as students, not only as TAs? As a staff organizer with a graduate workers’ union, I can attest that this is the kind of information needed to assess whether the bargaining team was in a position to demand more.

Unfortunately, Berlin’s article is focused on making theoretical claims about the labor movement and “business unionism” that don’t tell us much about the UC strike itself. Graduate labor unions sometimes struggle with abstract radicalism, which results in minority action that sidelines non-activist coworkers and fails to intimidate university administrators. If the left is going to revive radicalism in the labor movement—as we must—we have to acknowledge simple questions of how workers build real power. Was the UC strike powerful enough to coerce the university system into offering a better deal? I’d like to think it was, but I don’t know, and Berlin’s article didn’t enlighten me.

Joel Reinstein
Providence, RI

As two leaders in United Auto Workers (UAW) 2865, which represents more than 36,000 student workers at the University of California (UC), we were disappointed to read Michael Berlin’s article, which dismisses the largest strike in the history of higher education as a “political non-event.” In reality, more than 33,000 graduate workers cast ballots in the December vote to ratify the agreements—a striking display of democracy. About 68% of graduate student researchers and about 61% of teaching assistants and other student workers voted to approve the agreements. We can attest that the strike was a truly collective action that will materially improve the lives of virtually every academic worker at the UC.

Berlin claims that the strike “failed” because the December tentative agreements fell short of some of the rank and file’s most ambitious goals. In arguing this point, he trivializes the significant raises, benefits, and workplace protections enshrined in the contracts—and disregards the fact that many UC workers will see raises of more than 50%, with some of the UC’s lowest-paid graduate student researchers seeing wage increases of up to 80% by fall 2024. The contracts also strengthen protections against sexual harassment and assault on the job, guarantee parental leave for part-time workers (and treat all parental relationships equally), and assure new rights for international and immigrant students—including paid time off for immigration or visa hearings. We’re most proud of the fact that the union must be notified if the university ever becomes aware of an immigration investigation concerning a student worker. Berlin claims that the most precarious members of our bargaining unit were left behind. The contracts say otherwise.

In his effort to argue that the contracts ceded too much ground, Berlin repeatedly misuses the word “concession,” a well-defined legal term that refers to a union’s decision to give up something won in a previous contract at the bargaining table. Under this accepted definition, the UC teams did not “concede” a single line item to management: Not one of the four UC-UAW contracts cedes a previously held right, protection, or raise. Berlin’s assertion that general members of the locals had no input in negotiations is similarly inaccurate: Tens of thousands of members participated in demands surveys; bargaining team members came daily to the picket lines to talk with workers; and the bargaining sessions themselves were open to all members.

Our strike elicited broad support from well beyond UC campuses—a detail seemingly outside of the scope of Berlin’s analysis. The UC-UAW strike fund, for instance, raised more than $400,000 in small donations from workers, unions, parents, and observers across the country. Carpenters, delivery drivers, and construction workers refused to cross the UC picket lines. One striker told The San Francisco Chronicle that the action was the biggest example of class solidarity she had ever seen. What stands out to us is the lasting power of the strike. Months later, UAW members are continuing to build on the cross-sector relationships that we established in the fall, mounting a campaign in the California state legislature for a bill that would allow all public sector workers to honor their consciences and respect picket lines.

We are deeply proud of the struggle that thousands of our coworkers joined, and grateful for the many continuing conversations about the movement’s successes and mistakes, but Berlin’s article is not an honest portrayal of last fall’s bid for a better UC. With solidarity and optimism, we fight on together.

Beatrice Waterhouse
San Diego, CA

Zach Goldberg
San Diego, CA

The letter writers are graduate workers at UC San Diego. Zach Goldberg is a rank-and-file member of UAW 2865 and a former bargaining team alternate. Beatrice Waterhouse is the Sergeant-at-Arms for UAW 2865.