|Written by Nick, Gustavo, Natalia & Blanca|
Introduction – The Context for Contract Negotiations
2013 is already shaping up to be an important year for people fighting for free, quality public education in the United States. Using the fiction of the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’, the Obama administration, fresh from its victory last November, is preparing for a new round of austerity, with public education firmly in the firing line. Even if an 11th hour backroom deal holds us back from the ‘brink’, we know that austerity remains the weapon of choice for the ruling class in this country and globally for resolving the protracted economic crisis that began five years ago. This means that, regardless of the outcome of the Washington pantomime show, public education will continue to face budget cuts, layoffs and all-out attacks on teachers’ unions.
In California, Governor Jerry Brown is in a prime position to drive home a new round of austerity in the state. The co-optation of the Millionaires’ Tax initiative, the repression of the Occupy movement, and the fig-leaf of ‘shared sacrifice’ provided by Prop 30 gives him and his cronies the political space to attack public services and public sector unions. Such attacks may come from unfamiliar directions, such as the ACCJC’s campaign to shut down City College of San Francisco (CCSF), which, if successful, is likely to be the model for destroying California’s community college system. Regardless of the form of such attacks, the results will be the same; service cutbacks, increased unemployment, lower wages and benefits, and weaker unions. As always, the poorest and most needy individuals will be left to pay the highest price for this artificial crisis.
This is the broader political context for UAW Local 2865’s fight for a new contract with the University of California. Since the victory of the reform caucus Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU) two years ago, Local 2865 has taken a much more active role in the fight for public education. The inept and spineless former leadership preferred to pander to Democratic politicians, and try to reach ‘partnerships’ with the boss, rather than fight for real gains for its members and for all public sector workers. As a new contract campaign looms, AWDU must prove that it does things very differently, not only because the wages and conditions of Local 2865 members depend on a strong campaign, but also because the fight for public education in California and beyond will be advanced by real victories against the boss at a major public institution like the UC.
Contrary to the claims of management and their supporters in politics and the corporate media, unions are not simply “greedy”, “selfish” institutions, only fighting for their own members, even against the interests of other workers. We know that unions defend the interests of working people as a whole, and the wages and benefits of non-union workers are set by the standards of the unionized. Therefore, an advance for us is an advance for all. In addition, our union fights to defend and expand the quality of instruction and the public status of the university, and our bargaining demands reflect that fact. We know that the working conditions of educators and the learning conditions of students are one and the same, and our contract fight is above all part of the fight for public education.
Our Demands – Advancing the Struggle for Public Education
AWDU has already scored a major success by organizing Local 2865’s first ever bargaining convention. In the past, a generic ‘bargaining survey’ was used to poll members months before bargaining began, with a range of priorities determined by the union leadership. Instead of this, AWDU organized an open, democratic meeting where members could meet and discuss bargaining demands. The outcome of the convention was a list of demands that all members will get to vote on in early March. These demands include reductions in class sizes, pay that matches the real cost of living, housing and transportation allowances and real childcare benefits.
Success in fighting for these demands would have repercussions far beyond the UC, and would set a precedent for educators and public sector workers everywhere. Reductions in class sizes alone would be a huge gain in a state where class sizes and educator workloads make effective teaching all but impossible. But (and partly for this exact reason) the UC is not going to give in to such legitimate demands without a hard fight, and to win that fight we need to mount a campaign that mobilizes the entire membership and puts them in the driving seat.
We know that the UC is going to label us “unreasonable”, “irresponsible” and even “greedy” for demanding affordable wages and smaller class sizes. They will tell us that we are asking the impossible, and that there is simply no money to pay for such ‘extravagances’. They will add that it is not up to us, the union, to decide how instruction is managed. They will mobilize their public relations teams to launch a smear campaign against us in the media and use lies and distortions to paint us as ‘crazy radicals’ with no sense of proportion and responsibility. How do we know this? Because this is exactly what they have done in every other bargaining campaign our Local has ever engaged in, even when all our previous demands were little more than concessions or, at best, efforts to maintain the status quo. We can imagine how they will respond when we try to fight for real gains and real victories for workers in the UC and beyond. We need to be ready for management’s counter-offensive and to do that, rank-and-file mobilization, democratic control of bargaining and solidarity within our ranks and with other workers and students are the best tools we have.
The UAW & Management – A Sordid History
Unfortunately, UC management is not the only problem we have to face. The leadership of the UAW has a long, shameful history of bargaining concessionary contracts and then forcing them upon outraged rank-and-file members. The union leadership has even resorted to by passing elected bargaining representatives and negotiating directly with management in situations where rank-and-file pressure has threatened to upset the bureaucracy’s cozy relationship with the boss. In 2010, this is precisely what happened to UAW workers at an auto plant in Indianapolis, and shortly before becoming UAW President, Bob King was booed by workers in Dearborn, Michigan when he tried to sell them a concessionary deal. Being sold-out by their own ‘leaders’, is, unfortunately, part of the historical experience of UAW members.
In our Local, the bureaucracy has, until now, always been firmly in control of negotiations. The Representatives of the UAW International Union who work with our Local (or, more accurately, try to keep us in line) have always served as our ‘chief’ bargainers and have usually been the only people management was willing to have serious negotiations with. When the bargaining team met with management in full session, a brief bit of legal ‘theater’ allowed management to fulfill its legal responsibility to ‘bargain in good faith’ by presenting formal proposals once in a while. The real negotiations took place in closed sidebar sessions attended by our respective ‘chief’ bargainers. These sessions sometimes lasted for hours (as compared with the full sessions that often lasted only a few minutes) and it was here that ‘pragmatism’ and ‘reasonableness’ won the day and torpedoed any demands that represented real gains for workers. At the end of each bargaining session, the Local’s leadership would email members to let them know everything was going well and “progress was being made”.
Naturally this situation gave the Representatives from the UAW International enormous power, a situation which the former leadership of our Local went along with because it fit with their cherished model of ‘business unionism’. This model involves a bureaucratic elite coming to an amicable agreement with the boss without getting members involved in any real way, and without taking action that might harm the union’s standing with the boss. During our last round of bargaining in 2010, it also fit with the former leadership’s desire to avoid upsetting Democrats in the state legislature, who feared that a protracted labor dispute at the UC might interfere with the state election campaign. The interests of the boss, Democratic politicians, and the union bureaucracy all counted for far more in the old leadership’s eyes than those of the rank-and-file members. If AWDU is going to turn this model on its head, we need to radically rethink how bargaining is conducted.
Bargaining to Win
A key part of AWDU’s campaign strategy needs to be the idea of ‘open bargaining’. In basic terms, this means allowing members to actively participate in all levels of negotiations and to have immediate access to information about what is happening at the bargaining table. The old model of ‘closed bargaining’ stacked the odds in management’s favor by restricting the concept of negotiations to an amicable chat between qualified professionals, conducted within the safe confines of legality and ‘past practice’. Management’s own qualified professionals are six-figure-salary earning scumbags whose entire career is built around screwing over workers in any and every way possible. They use their supposedly superior legal training and knowledge of labor law to tie us in knots and intimidate us into staying passive and dropping demands that aren’t ‘mandatory topics of bargaining’. Clearly, any attempt to engage with management on this level is doomed to failure, and an ‘amicable chat’ with such people is not going to produce a result favorable to workers’ interests.
Therefore, we need to shake things up at the bargaining table and make bargaining work for us. Having a room full of angry rank-and-filers on our side engaging directly with management is a great way to do that, as is keeping the membership fully informed about what is happening and the shameful tactics management is using to stall and silence us. Of course we need to have the basic details of labor legislation at our disposal, and this is the one and only potential use for Representatives from the UAW International. But, we need to be clear that any member who attends a strategy pre-session before we meet with management, has the right to address the boss directly, without having to go through a supposedly qualified intermediary. And, as part and parcel of open bargaining, we need to be clear that there is no role for the Representatives from the UAW International, except as passive advisors, and that to participate at all they must accept the notion of open bargaining and they must abide by the decisions of the membership of our Local at all times, without exception.
But, this is only a beginning. Shaking things up at the bargaining table and fighting for members to have direct access to the process of negotiations, will help keep management under pressure and give members a sense of ownership over the campaign. However, as radicals and socialists, we know that a good contract cannot be won at the bargaining table. At the end of the day, that’s management territory and we have to take the fight to where we are strongest – our workplaces.
The best way the UAW international can and should support the struggle of the 12, 000 members represented by the UAW 2865 local is by granting additional funds so the local can hire as many of our best rank-and-file activists as possible for the duration of the bargaining period to increase the level of organization, consciousness and confidence of the local membership. All UAW locals pay half of their dues to the UAW International with the assumption that the International will use these funds to organize new workplaces and fight in the existing locals to preserve and increase wages, rights and benefits- i.e. by organizing at the local level to empower the membership to be ready to strike if necessary.
Waging A Real Fight – Why Preparing a Strike is Essential
The demands that the bargaining convention agreed on are reasonable and legitimate. But if we follow the usual pattern of bargaining they will all fall by the wayside. There is simply no question of management acceding to any of these demands without intense pressure on our part. One concrete example of this is our past struggles for a living wage. This demand has been raised at every previous round of contract negotiations, yet every single time we have succeeded in ‘winning’, at best, below inflation increases. In real terms therefore, our wages have been falling for over a decade. And we have never even tried to seriously raise such an incendiary demand as smaller class sizes!
What have we learned from experience? First, based on previous experience, it is highly unlikely, that management will even agree to talk about class sizes at the bargaining table. Again, winning this entirely reasonable demand would represent a victory not just for us, but for educators everywhere, and UC management is well aware of that. Second, the only public education union that has managed to stop some of the attacks and have some partial wins has been the CTU (Chicago Teachers Union), which went on strike for more than a week on September last year, and got hundred of teachers rehired. We know that the CTU contract is not perfect, yet it is the only contract that has managed to stop the regressive path of concessions in which education unions are engaging since 2008 and the beginning of the austerity offensive. CTU did not start with accepting cuts, the membership started with the mentality of fighting for their demands, and they got way more out of the contract struggle than the rest of K-12 unions.
If we are serious about winning these demands, there is, ultimately, only one real weapon at our disposal: a strike. This is not a weapon we use lightly or easily, and we need to be clear that most members (even some within the reform caucus) are not yet in favor of a strike or ready to prepare the groups for one. We argue through that we must begin preparing for a strike now.
It will require many months of patient effort on the part of union reformers and radicals to win a majority of members to the idea that we have to strike if we are going to win the demands we have agreed on. To the extent that the old leadership ever really entertained the idea of a real, mass strike, they considered it as a threat to use in verbal negotiations with the boss. As such, any token attempts to organize a strike were last minute, hasty measures that couldn’t hope to make good on their idle threats of labor action. To organize a real, effective strike, we have to begin the process of winning members to the idea of a strike now, not in six months time when the bargaining team decides a strike might be a good idea.
Preparing for a strike means putting in place the kind of grass-roots infrastructure that can engage and mobilize members in an effective & democratic way. We need to organize department meetings and start talking to members about the contract campaign and the possibility of strike action. We need to begin building strike committees on every campus with representatives from as many departments and units as possible (we can call them ‘action’ committees if need be). We need to start thinking about the resources we will need if the strike is to be sustained. We need to start organizing solidarity campaigns with other campus workers and with the student population; support from students and other workers will be essential for sustaining a strike. We need to make sure that our steward networks are as broad, responsive and democratic as possible so that the maximum possible number of members can be updated quickly and easily about the state of bargaining and input can be solicited at short notice about tactics and demands. As yet, only some of our campus units have all these kinds of structures in place, and many have none of them.
We can build for a successful strike; there are countless examples from history of workers who pulled off mass actions in far less favorable circumstances. But it will be hard and will require dedication, sustained effort and a common agreement on the strategy and goals. This can be an opportunity to rebuild the left of our union around the goal of mounting the kind of campaign capable of winning the demands the membership have voted on. AWDU’s decline as a statewide body in recent months could be halted and reversed through an infusion of new, militant activists and a common commitment to fighting for a contract we can all be proud of. Above all, we need to be clear that this isn’t just a fight for our own sakes, only to improve our own pay and working conditions; it’s also a fight for public education and for public workers everywhere. A real victory against the boss, in conditions of austerity, can help lay the groundwork for a broader fight-back against the 1% and their attempts to make us pay for their crisis. That is the real meaning and potential of our fight with the UC this summer.