Little Bargains

The recent strikes at the University of California demonstrated the need to radically democratize the labor movement.

Michael Paul Berlin
February 24, 2023

A banner hangs at the gate of the University of California, Berkeley in November 2022.

Michael Ho Wai Lee / SOPA Images / Sipa USA

The largest student worker strike in United States history began on November 14th, 2022, at the University of California, when 48,000 postdoctoral scholars, researchers, and graduate students voted to approve demands that had the potential to remake public higher education. Most centrally, these initial demands would have raised wages in accordance with the cost of living, eliminating the rent burden that impacts 92% of graduate students at the UC, leaving many of them in poverty. But a decision made by union leadership on November 30th guaranteed that the strike would fall far short of its goal. That day, a narrow majority of members of the workers’ bargaining teams—representing two locals of the United Auto Workers (UAW), Local 2865 and the Student Researchers Union—voted to drop their fight for a living wage, reducing the salary they proposed on behalf of UC workers from $54,000 to $43,000, in addition to other concessions.

These cuts were opposed by many rank-and-file student workers and researchers. A petition circulated ahead of the vote demanding that no unilateral concessions to the UC be made attracted 2,000 signatures in a matter of hours. When the bargaining team for Local 2865, the larger of the two locals on strike, opened official debate on the question, 500 students flooded the Zoom room where the vote was to be held to voice their anger at their union representatives. Some sought to defend demands that would have offered protections to marginalized groups within the UC, such as plans to end stipulations that result in international students having fewer years to finish their PhDs, and to significantly expand benefits for the families of student workers; some were also incensed by the earlier abandonment of other demands, such as a proposal to uphold the rights of disabled students by codifying specific accommodations.

For many workers who signed the strike pledge, taking on the UC also meant fighting the university in its role as California’s largest landlord, directly addressing the UC’s contribution to a statewide housing affordability crisis. Had the contract fully reflected the demands of the union’s activist base, it would also have addressed the university’s role as a purveyor of police violence, which endangers people outside the UC community—including unhoused people at the intersection of the two crises, who are among the most vulnerable to the aggressive tactics of the UC Police Department. Activists also hoped for a contract that would have reinvested the nearly $150 million that the UC spends on policing into the wages of workers whose labor sustains the university. When the cost of living (COLA) demand was cut, the bargaining teams signaled that the strike would focus on a narrow set of economic issues that most affect graduate students, rather than on structural issues that unite workers inside and outside the university.

Less than a month after these concessions, the strike failed as a political movement. The contract that resulted from the November negotiations was rushed through in the busy period between Hanukkah and Christmas, leaving union membership at the UC deeply divided, with a third of student workers voting against the outcome. The wins touted by union leadership are real but insufficient: a raise of at least 7.5% within 90 days of ratification (followed by continued incremental raises that will bring full-time wages up to a floor of $34,000 for the academic year by fall of 2024); a slight increase in childcare subsidies and parental leave; and the institution of a grievance process for student researchers, who have gained the ability to file complaints about harassment and bullying. The new contract leaves the vast majority of graduate students rent burdened. It also divides workers by paying graduate students at the “prestige” campuses of UC Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Francisco more than their peers who live in equally expensive rental markets such as Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz. (Workers at Santa Cruz separately won a housing stipend in 2020.) In a poison pill aimed at future organizing, the new contract codifies retaliation against students who wish to strike in solidarity with other workers.

As a former UC student worker who spent nearly a decade at the university’s Irvine campus, I witnessed the political culture within the UAW that turned the recent strike into a non-event. My own involvement with UC labor organizing began during the 2013–4 round of contract negotiations, which won wage increases along with social justice victories on gender neutral bathrooms and protections for undocumented students. I was disillusioned, however, by the 2018 contract, which was forced through in a divisive vote over summer break and conceded to wage demands that, when measured against inflation, amounted to a pay cut. I also experienced a more personal disenchantment with UAW when my local did not pursue a grievance over retaliation taken against me for speaking out about disability-based discrimination and bullying in my department. I was drawn back into wider union politics by the wildcat actions of 2019–20—strikes that occurred outside the protection of labor law and without the authorization of union leadership—during which UC workers fought against the 2018 concessions.

The decade of labor struggle that I observed at the UC played out along fault lines that have long divided the labor movement in the United States. On one side of this split is a tendency often referred to as “business unionism,” which labor historian Kim Moody defines as “a unionism that sees members primarily as consumers and limits itself to negotiating the price of labor.” Proponents of this organizing principle embrace internal hierarchy, loyalty to the Democratic Party, and an acceptance of the existing boundaries of labor law as the rudiments of a strategy for winning at the bargaining table; critics see these axioms as rooted in a nostalgia for the social and economic security afforded to white Americans in the aftermath of the New Deal, when gendered and racialized forms of labor like farm and domestic work were excluded from labor protections. One consequence of this type of unionism is the empowerment of a small group of elected workers and legal advisors to negotiate with management, without the participation of the rank-and-file as a whole. The result is a labor movement less prepared to organize around issues like discrimination and police violence that most affect workers of color and other marginalized groups.

Where labor has failed to build a larger political movement—as it has recently at the UC—it is largely because staff and paid organizers have sought to manage, rather than further, the demands coming from rank-and-file workers.

Opposing this form of unionism is a long countertradition that builds on the demands of the most marginalized workers and aims to organize in solidarity with wider social movements. In the mid-20th century, radical factions arose in unions—including the UAW—that had failed to organize with Black workers against housing discrimination, unequal access to jobs, police violence, and foreign wars. By arguing that it was necessary to fight against both bosses and conservative union leadership, these workers illuminated the ways that unionism in the United States had come to affirm America’s racial caste system. Such formations have often used unauthorized strikes and other tactics that go beyond existing labor law. Today, a new surge of unionism—powered by wildcat strikes among teachers, nurses, Starbucks workers, and graduate students—has shown signs of advancing worker power and workplace democracy by taking on the systemic injustices that sustain the economy of the United States. Where labor has failed to build a larger political movement—as it has recently at the UC—it is largely because staff and paid organizers have sought to manage, rather than further, the demands coming from rank-and-file workers.

Writing against this diminished horizon, labor historian Gabriel Winant has argued that building a broad-based labor coalition requires that professional workers—a category that includes both graduate students and union staff—interrogate the “little bargains struck every day with the authority structure whose positions we are asked to fill and whose agenda we are asked to carry out in return for status and material comforts.” It is in this light that the profound failure of the recent strike comes more clearly into focus. By centering the needs of graduate students who are from the United States, able-bodied, and childless, whose lives are less threatened by the police, and whose access to intergenerational wealth enables them to perform full-time academic work in some of the US’s most expensive housing markets on, in many cases, as little as $34,000 a year, the UAW at the UC has severely limited the scope of the coalition it seeks to build. More broadly, this disappointing outcome points to a crossroads for an ascendent labor movement, which must decide whether to challenge the fundamental assumptions of politics in the United States. The UAW chose not to, but other organizing efforts have forged a different path.

The UAW was not always so ready to sacrifice the material needs of its workers. On the contrary, it was born out of a series of “sit-down” strikes in 1936–7 in which workers illegally seized General Motors plants in Detroit and other Michigan cities. This strike, led in part by women from the wider community, gave rise to the Flint Women’s Emergency Brigade, which directly confronted the police to defend the rights of strikers. As evidenced by their embrace of extralegal tactics, the workers who first formed the union viewed their relationship to management as a power struggle that played out over an open field rather than within the fixed boundaries of a contract.

Despite its militant beginnings, the UAW—like other unions across the country—had entered a detente with management by the close of the 20th century. In the late 1990s, Robin D.G. Kelley, a historian at UCLA, reflected on the tendency of unions in the United States to foreclose radical forms of organizing. He observed that “the presumption of trade unions that they are ‘organizing the unorganized’—as is often said in reference to unskilled workers of color—ignores the fact that these workers often come from highly organized communities,” strengthened by mutual aid networks and traditions of non-workplace-based struggles over issues like tenants’ rights. By shutting out the demands of these communities, Kelley argued, unions like the UAW have too often forfeited the dynamism of the social movements that emerge from these communities—movements whose energies they should seek to draw on instead.

The origins of the UAW in the UC system clearly demonstrate the limits of the kind of top-down organizing that Kelley critiqued. In 1998, the year that the UAW struck for recognition at the UC, the field office overseeing the statewide campaign tried to suppress the work of activists at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB), who had played a crucial role in building one of the most pro-union campuses in the UC system. In an incident later dubbed the “Halloween massacre,” UAW employees Mary Ann Massenburg and Mike Miller—the latter of whom is now a regional director of the UAW—arrived early to a meeting at the home of student leaders to take documents detailing organizing tactics (like phone trees and other methods for engaging potential union members) that had been used without approval from leadership; Massenburg and Miller then used these documents to claim that the organizing that had taken place at UCSB had undermined the national strategy of the UAW.

These events created the model for relations between the UAW and activists at the UC. During the formative years of the union, which won recognition from the university in 1999, the UC and the UAW worked together to silence Frank B. Wilderson III—then a graduate student at Berkeley, now a leading theorist in Black studies at UC Irvine—when he objected, as the only Black member of the bargaining team, to their cutting “grievance and arbitration on matters related to discrimination on race, gender, sexuality, ability, age, and/or national origin” from their first contract. Ahead of final contract negotiations, Wilderson received a letter from the UAW removing him from the negotiating committee for UC Berkeley and disinviting him from the upcoming bargaining session. When Wilderson showed up to the negotiations anyway, the UAW responded by having him handcuffed and forcibly escorted from the building.

It was not until the period surrounding the Occupy movement that radical student workers at the UC gained a strong footing within the UAW. Rising to power in the wake of the 2008 recession, the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU), an opposition caucus that contested for power in a number of locals, gained control at the UC by attacking the austerity measures that continue to suffocate academia. Under AWDU leadership, the UAW reached a bargaining agreement that united wage gains with concrete wins on social justice issues. The caucus also led Local 2865 to become the first union local in the US to endorse the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights in 2014. Arising from the killing of Michael Brown in the same year, another radical student group, the Black Interest Coordinating Committee, fought unsuccessfully to terminate police unions from the AFL-CIO. However, all of these radical formations were shut down by backlash from the UAW’s national leadership and its allies within the local. The national body overturned the majority vote on BDS in 2015, and its local allies regained control of Local 2865 in 2018.

Though the AWDU ultimately collapsed at the UC, it left behind activists who sought to keep the sweeping ambition of the Occupy movement alive within the UAW. This surviving oppositional infrastructure guided the UC wildcat strikes of 2019–20. Originated by graduate students at UCSC, this movement advanced a demand for a “cost of living adjustment” that would have tied graduate pay to the market rate of rent in the cities where students work. (For instance, a graduate student in an expensive rental market like Santa Barbara would make more than a student in a more affordable market like Merced.) Exceeding these economic demands, the movement’s core slogan—“cops off campus, COLA in our bank accounts”—offered a vision of a university reconceived to sustain the lives of its students and workers, with implications far beyond the UC. Despite a lack of support from UAW, brutal tactics by the UCPD, and the outbreak of the pandemic, this movement managed to win a housing subsidy for graduate students at UC Santa Cruz while articulating a model of academic unionism rooted in structural transformation.

By contrast, the actions of 2022 presented a static image of what a strike could be and whose demands it should champion. Within both striking locals, the bargaining team that would eventually gut the COLA demand was almost singularly focused on the picket line, demanding union members picket at least 20 hours per week—an impossible task for some workers with childcare commitments or disabilities—in order to receive strike pay. On the line itself, strike captains policed the tenor of protest by trying to censor signs and shout down chants that did not comply with the legal framework of the strike, such as those that called for abolishing the UCPD. In one instance, at UC San Francisco, a bargaining team member resigned after student workers on the picket line accused them of trying to rip a sign from a worker’s hand. In other cases, strike captains verbally intimidated union members who publicly challenged the bargaining team’s concessions on the picket line.

Despite these efforts to police the strike, there were nevertheless moments of vibrancy from the rank-and-file and their undergraduate student allies. At UCSB and UC Davis, students took over dining halls armed with the slogan “smiles not swipes,” feeding students, staff, and university neighbors for free. Nonviolent in nature, these occupations made the university, if only briefly, a site of collective plenty rather than one of imposed scarcity. Along the picket at UCLA, the performer Jahmi Roc, a musicology graduate student and Black single mother, led the line in a rendition of “Solidarity Forever,” during which student workers shared their stories of homelessness and hunger. Online and on the line, a group calling itself abolishtheuc distributed pamphlets calling for an end to policing at the university. Together, these tactics point to a mode of organization that bases its legitimacy not on the existing limits of unionism, but on its ability to meet the needs of all its members.

The tactics of the rank-and-file at the UC point to a mode of organization that bases its legitimacy not on the existing limits of unionism, but on its ability to meet the needs of all its members.

Not confined to the walls of the university, such a movement could build solidarity between workers who might not have organized together in the past. In the context of academic labor, organizing across sectors might mean encouraging university lecturers represented by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to strike over the demands of service workers represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) with support from nurses represented by the California Nurses Association. Such solidarity strikes are barred by the no-strike clauses that have proliferated since the 1970s and are upheld by unions—including the UAW at the UC—constrained by the punishing legal frameworks they have agreed to. But if enough members of the rank-and-file went on a wildcat strike together, they could shut down the university regardless of whether they are allowed to do so. By connecting graduate labor to other types of work that are essential to maintaining the university, in other words, this form of organizing has the potential to force an institution like the UC to make a much wider set of concessions.

Decades of struggle to remake unions from within have produced a moment at which these transformations seem possible. This potential is clear in the UAW itself, where opposition caucuses are spreading through locals across the country, and the introduction of one-member, one-vote elections enabled Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD)—a national opposition caucus—to wage a successful electoral challenge to the Administration Caucus, which had wielded exclusive power within the union for 70 years. As the run-off election for UAW president reaches its closing stage, UAWD continues to push the union to become more responsive to the demands of the incredibly diverse range of workers it represents.

To understand the dramatic consequences of this shift, one need only look to last year’s strike at Columbia University, where Columbia’s own AWDU caucus offered a model for strengthening unionism by building consensus among student workers. As at the UC, contract negotiations had been guided by the more conservative elements of the UAW local, which relied “on the pretext of a ‘silent majority’” to justify concessions to Columbia management, as two members of the Columbia AWDU recalled in their account of the strike. All too familiar to rank-and-file organizers at the UC, this logic asserts that asking too much of the university would alienate “moderate” workers who oppose fundamentally changing the conditions of higher education. Through the course of negotiations, Columbia’s AWDU helped to break this concessionary cycle by leading a “no” vote campaign that rejected a contract proposal that fell short of workers’ goals.

One of the Columbia workers’ primary aims was to expand union enfranchisement by forcing the university to recognize so-called “casual research assistants,” a group that includes undergraduate and masters students who work for the university on an hourly basis, without benefits. In bargaining, Columbia students were confronted with a decision between accepting the exclusion of these part-time workers in exchange for a union security clause that might have strengthened the UAW’s ability to collect dues, or fighting for a more expansive bargaining unit while forgoing the more favorable shop structure. Prioritizing the union’s access to resources in the form of dues would have been in keeping with the logic of business unionism—but graduate students at Columbia were nearly unanimous in voting to broaden their coalition through the inclusion of part-time workers instead. As Columbia workers have argued, this recognition was vital because it took aim at the hierarchization of academic work that the UC contract perpetuates, while taking a political stand against precarious and contingent labor. By advancing a contract that included the demands of all academic workers, AWDU at Columbia achieved higher wages while winning full recognition of their union and all of the workers in it, thus building a united front against management. Workers at the UC could have done the same by refusing to compromise on the needs of their union’s most vulnerable members. This would have led to greater degrees of worker participation and democracy. Instead, they have, at least for the time being, maintained a unionism that forecloses the broad-based and militant labor coalition needed to meet the demands of this century.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that, in a November Zoom call, UC student workers sought to defend the inclusion of specific accommodations for disabled students in their collective bargaining agreement; in fact, these protections had already been dropped from bargaining. A previous version also described the 2013–14 contract negotiations as winning widespread student support; these negotiations precipitated student strikes across multiple UC campuses, but only around 1,000 students participated in the ratification vote. A previous version also said that the 2019–20 wildcat strikes won a housing subsidy for UC graduate students; this subsidy only applied to students at UC Santa Cruz.

Clarification: An earlier version of this article noted that the final contracts agreed upon by the two UAW unions at the UC will raise the wages of full-time student workers to a base salary of $34,000 per academic year; though the increases included in the contract will raise wages to this floor by October 2024, the contracts also include a more immediate raise of at least 7.5%.

Michael Berlin is a disabled writer, scholar, and educator, living in Charlottesville, VA. He received his doctorate in comparative literature from UC Irvine, where he served on the Strike Committee of the Student Researcher Union and was a Departmental Steward for UAW 2865.