Making the case for class struggle unionism to combat austerity
Written by Blanca, Claire, Gustavo, Natalia, & Nick
In May 2011, the reform caucus Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU) swept to victory in the triennial leadership elections for UAW Local 2865, which represents 12,000 teaching assistants, readers, and tutors at theUniversityofCalifornia. The victory was celebrated by many students and workers at the UC as an important step towards building an organized movement against austerity and for union democracy. The repercussions were felt far beyond the UC however, and many radicals and reformists in theUSlabor movement watched the election closely and celebrated AWDU’s victory as a step forward in the wider reform struggle.
Now, more than a year after the election, activists in the reform movement have the duty to make an assessment of what has been accomplished and what has not, as well as make an honest appraisal of the mistakes that have been made. It is also crucial to assess what lies ahead of us and to develop a program for action for our upcoming contract campaign and against the new round of austerity.
1) The background to AWDU’s victory
A brief outline of our understanding of how AWDU developed, and why it won the elections, will help to provide background to the discussion of what AWDU has achieved in office, and what it should do next.
A growing movement from below against the cuts…
AWDU was formed out of the education movement against the austerity measures imposed by the UC administration in 2008-9. At that time, unlike other UC unions, UAW Local 2865 was largely absent from the struggle. As tuition was being hiked, waves of furloughs and layoffs imposed, and services and departments cut, many student-workers were asking, ‘where is our union’? Despite efforts to push the union leadership to play a more active role in the public education movement, the union remained outside the struggle leading many student-workers to organize in other spaces, such as the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) at UC Berkeley, and various activist groups and similar spaces on other UC campuses.
But, many of us felt the limitations of organizing without the strength of an active union, and felt that we could not allow a bunch of feckless, venal bureaucrats keep hold of our local without a fight. What united us was a passionate belief in the power of organized workers and in the need to fight the boss, and not merely pander to the administration in the hopes of gaining a few scraps from the table. This is basis on which AWDU emerged.
….against a bureaucratic and class collaborationist union leadership…
The turning point in the struggle to reform our union was the contract campaign in 2010. It was during this period that activists on different UC campuses were able to link up and form an effective, unified front against the bureaucratic and spineless incumbent leadership. Despite the UC’s miserly offer of a 2% per year pay increase (even less than inflation), the incumbent leadership was prepared to settle a deal with management. Coming on the heels of a sharp decline in wages in real terms over the preceding decade, Union reformers (who were a minority presence on the bargaining team) were determined to fight the concessionary contract. UAW rank-and-file activists organized a “Vote NO on a weak contract” campaign that, although ultimately defeated, gathered around 40% of support and exposed the role of the union leadership, involved a base of militant graduate students in union life and made clear the strategic necessity of rank-and-file control of the union if any gains were to be won.
But the campaign against the contract did not emerge overnight. On many campuses, especiallySanta Cruz,IrvineandBerkeley, activists had organized dozens of departmental meetings as well as mobilizing record attendances at the monthly campus membership meetings. AWDU’s aim was to engage rank-and-file members around the contract and the general lack of union democracy, and push the leadership to inform members about the status of bargaining and to take their opinions seriously. Because AWDU emerged out of the larger struggle against defunding of public education, it was able to take on the contract battle while linking it directly to the ongoing fights against fee increases and privatization, and thus to establish from the beginning an orientation towards social movements and class solidarity. In many ways this period was a testing ground for the idea that it was possible to mobilize the base of the union to fight for progressive aims, and although the leadership succeeded in forcing a weak contract on the membership, they faced an unprecedented level of opposition to their collaborationist politics.
… and with a platform!
The initial success of the caucus was a result of both our concrete link with, and commitment to fight for, the needs of rank-and-file members in the struggle for public education and against austerity. This fight was waged through democratic means inside the union by putting our proposals to a public vote and accepting the results. But the source of the ultimate success of our campaign against the old leadership lay elsewhere, as most members of the union remain disconnected from union activism, absent from membership meetings, and linked to the union only through email updates and the polling booth.
In our opinion as socialists, what made AWDU different from other reform experiences is that we did not seek power for its own sake; instead we had, and continue to have, a different conception of unionism as well as a distinct political project which we have put forward to the membership and counterposed, in a democratic manner, to the policies of the ruling ‘Administration Caucus’ (United for Social and Economic Justice – USEJ). Their policies –‘partnership’ with the bosses and de-mobilization of the rank-and-file — are the policies followed by practically all the unions in the US today, and we continue to believe that successfully opposing them anywhere is a step forward for workers everywhere. That is why it was important to us to develop a clear political platform that laid out our ideas before choosing our candidates for union positions, because we believe that, ultimately, it is these ideas that matter, rather than the skills or personalities of individual candidates.
Once we agreed on a general platform, every candidate who ran on the AWDU slate pledged to respect the principles it espoused if they wanted to be associated with the caucus. Part of this pledge entailed a commitment to fighting for concrete reforms once in office, to democratize the union and eliminate the privileges and perks union leaders very often give to themselves.
These two things, political discussion around the platform and our roots in rank-and-file insurgency against austerity and concessionary policies, were and continue to be today the ultimate basis which keeps our caucus meaningful, and they are our most effective tools in resisting degeneration and cooptation by management or the union bureaucracy. This also means that if we lose one of these two anchor points (the organic connection with a mobilized base and a clear political platform for which the elected officials need to vouch), we will also put in danger this difficult and challenging project that is so desperately needed in the public education and labor movements today.
2) A mid-stage balance of AWDU’s work: Some significant advances
We can say with certainty that, after more than a year in office, AWDU has made some important advances, especially in the daily functioning of the union and its relationship to its members (i.e. the organizational structure of our union) and in the proactive role of the union in broader social movements against austerity and in defense of public education.
a. Democratization of the union
We have taken steps towards decentralizing decision-making power in our union and returning it to the members. In the past, power was solely concentrated in the Executive Board (i.e. only, at most, 10 people making decisions for 12,000 members on 9 UC campuses) and often it was exercised by the President alone. But now, all campus organizing and campaigns are decided at campus membership meetings, and that general policies, endorsements and campaigns are approved by the Joint Council of the union or a Statewide membership meeting. The Executive Board is not authorized to make any decisions regarding these kinds of strategic issues.
We have increased the transparency of the Executive Board and its activities: the E-board’s meetings are now fully open to members, along with conference calls, and decisions taken are made public on the website or by email. The E-board also took steps to minimize decision-making by email or text message (which happened a lot under the old leadership) and we restricted the range of issues about which the E-board could make decisions.
We are developing bottom-up stewards’ network at most campuses. Before the caucus was formed, most elected positions in the union were vacant, and in many campuses union decisions were made by 2 or 3 “active” officers at most. Now, we are in the process of trying to fill these positions in a meaningful and democratic way. In particular, we are trying to move towards having at least one steward per department, elected by the members in each department (and not appointed from above). At UC Berkeley, we have even managed to form a Stewards Council, which is a larger body of rank-and-file leaders that is taking care more and more of the daily union work and developing organizing projects.
We have changed the way we run our meetings. We have done so by empowering stewards and rank-and-file members to make proposals and discuss them, abolishing or greatly modifying Roberts’ Rules at the campuses were AWDU is a majority, and refraining from the old bureaucratic procedures that were previously used to silence members (like having pre-set agendas and other anti-democratic, “savvy” uses of Roberts Rules).
b. The fight against the privileges of the union bureaucracy
We have informally abolished the hierarchy of positions inside the Executive Board (President, VP, Financial Secretary etc.), and instead made a list of the areas of work we have in the union and teamed up in pairs to get those done. We also have decided to distribute the paid time not according to positions, but according to the needs and availability of E-board members to do union work. We have also done our best, whenever possible, to rotate tasks and avoid situations where one or two people have lots of duties and responsibilities.
We have only hired members of our union to do organizing work, moving away from the “professional organizer” model that is a key feature of business unionism. We believe that rank-and-file workers make the best organizers because they share the working conditions and interests of their fellow workers. We must develop this capacity of self-organization in our unions instead of taking the misguided shortcut of hiring “professionals”. If we cannot organize ourselves, if we depend on outside “experts” to fight for our rights and demands, then we have already lost the fight for self-emancipation as a class.
In the same vein, we have tried as much as possible to prioritize the hiring of ordinary members to do union-related “specialized” tasks like bookkeeping, media work etc. This is not always possible, for example in the case of our office manager, our accountant and our labor lawyer. This criterion is not simply an abstract principle, but a concrete method to show that workers can develop the necessary skills and knowledge to not only run their own union, but society as well.
We have ended all the gross economic privileges of the previous union leadership, that are unfortunately so common among theAFL-CIO and Change to Win labor federations: huge salaries for presidents and organizers, hierarchy of pay, first class airfare, hotel stays etc. In the union, we all get paid at the same rate as a mid-scale Teaching Assistant, and, crucially we have limited our officers and paid organizers to a maximum of 50% time positions, in line with the restrictions placed by management on the ability of our members to work and earn money. This avoids the previous situation of leaders earning twice (or more) than the average member and developing “special” interests in keeping their positions. It is essential that there should be no material gain when one works for the union, so everybody will have the confidence that our union organizers have only one interest: defending the working conditions and wages of the workers they represent.
c. A public sector union that mobilizes to fight for public education and progressive taxation
The most visible change our local has made since the change of leadership has been the presence and role we have played in the struggle for public education and against austerity. This has included active intervention in the Occupy movement, ReFundCalifornia, other campus and community-based actions, as well as the fight to put on the ballot an independent working class and union-led initiative to tax the rich and make the banks pay for the crisis they caused. Our union has worked in these movements on two main bases – first, an organic link to genuine grassroots mobilization, and secondly, a firm rejection of the traditional union strategy of relying on ‘lobbying’ and ‘negotiations’ with politicians and management.
AWDU was key to pose the question: how should unions relate to the Occupy movement beyond nominal support or external financing? The emergence of “Occupy Education” pushed by many AWDU activists in Northern California as a wing of the “Occupy” movement was not only a concrete form of involving unions, students and community in support of public education, against austerity and in direct connection with Occupy, it was also an attempt to put a more clear class content to the movement of the 99%, and include other unions and union activists in this common space.
Because of the unevenness of the Occupy movement and the absence of a clear political leadership, only some campuses were able to develop these links between Occupy and the union. In other campuses where Occupy did not have such a popular and working class base as in the Bay Area, our union sought to build more traditional coalition spaces at the campus level to fight the Regents and also to push for progressive taxation with other organizations through the ReFund California Coalition.
But despite our success making many of these changes, we have not clearly addressed the link between our organizational changes (democratic decision making, anti-bureaucratization practices, etc.) and our political goals with the union (to combat austerity, develop class consciousness, mobilize the rank and file against cuts and concessions, etc).
3) A mid-stage balance of AWDU’s work: Limitations of our reform efforts and proposals to advance
Our balance cannot be all rosy and positive, a tendency in activism and amongst the Left that does not help us to move forward in our political projects. If we are so honest and public with our achievements, we must do the same with our mistakes or limitations. We owe that to ourselves, to the union members that voted for us, and to the rest of radical union activists that are following the development of our union work and reform campaign.
a. We need to relate the organizational shape of our union to its political goals
For us, Marxists, the organizational aspects are always subordinated to a political goal: because we need to unite our class to fight the boss, we need union democracy and democratic control of elected leaders. Yet, our conception of democracy is not a formalistic one (about procedure). Rather, it has a class content: it is the democracy of the workers in struggle, the democracy of GSOC voting from below the 3 wildcat strikes in the departments, the democracy of the 5.000+ Occupy Cal assembly in November 2011 calling for actions against the cuts, the democracy of students, workers, and community members attempting to paralyze Regents meetings when they impose austerity measures, etc. But the election of the caucus into office and the relative surge of rank-and-file mobilization led many union activists, including us, to sometimes pursue democratization in a simplistic or procedural way: many times we were more worried about finding the right language for an important bylaws change or finding a way to keep ourselves in elected positions, rather than increasing our roots in and mobilization of the workforce and strengthening our political demands.
b. We need to clarify our platform and our ideas in some key areas
The most obvious limitation that many of us see right now in our caucus is, on the one hand, the ambiguity of some of our platform ideas, and on the other, the fact that most of our emphasis so far has been put on democratizing our behavior in positions of union leadership. Let’s be clear: it is correct to insist that our unions need to be democratic. But this aim alone is not enough to change the things that are not functioning well in our union. How can the rank-and-file hold the elected officials accountable when the Presidency and four other E-Board positions are not being opened for election as we encouraged? How can ourUnionplay a leading role in an independent class movement without clarifying its relation to electoral politics and the bipartisan system (should we be independent from corporate parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, or not)? How can the rank-and-file know if we will open bargaining sessions to their participation, or do the same as the previous leadership and bargain behind closed doors? And are we expecting to win anything by sitting around a table and bargaining in “good faith” with only symbolic protests and “rolling strikes”, or do we think that we need to be prepared to organize a system-wide mass strike to get anything out of UC management?
Even though we agree on the goal to democratize our union, there are different views of democracy within our caucus, and we can only gain by clarifying our positions on this issue. Some tend to locate democracy solely in the decision-making procedures, or “process”. The problem with the view of democracy as process is that it leaves out the power dynamics that get established in our union (e.g. with the accumulation of power by E-Board members who remain in leadership positions for multiple years), and also the pressures that are exerted on our union by the capitalists and their allies (and this is why we need to establish a clear independence of our union from the 1% and its organizations, such as the Democratic Party).
These two social and political forces, one internal and the other external, are threatening to another aspect of democracy, which is deeper and cannot be solved by internal bylaw amendments and process proposals: giving power back to the membership, to the workers. To take a “pragmatic”, case-by-case line on these key issuesputs our project of democratization and struggle in a very vulnerable position, because the membership will not be always able to combat the social pressures that make elected union officials “pragmatically” lean towards collaboration with the boss and the corporate government. As a concrete example, we think that the formulation of the “no blank check to the Democrats” policy is very problematic, because it implies that we would write them a check under some circumstances, whereas it has been proven time and again that the Democrats are the party of the 1%, and that unions have zero leverage on its policies.
On the other side, we also have a tendency in our caucus to equate bureaucracy with centralization, and democracy with decentralization or “campus autonomy”. This political analogy can turn into an empty formula and become dangerous for our project of empowering the membership through struggle. Like the other tendency critiqued above, it presupposes that we are operating in a vacuum of power. The romanticization of “campus autonomy” could lead many activists to believe that local and separated actions can supplant our state-wide struggle against the UC administration and the state. In addition, this idealization of “campus autonomy” accompanies a refusal to acknowledge the importance of our platform and the role our union should play in the broader labor union movement. With our platform-in-action, we want to set a strong example for reform caucuses and rank-and-file members of other unions, and we want to lead the labor movement towards class independence. We do not want to be seen as “just UC students” struggling within their own campus and disconnected from other unions and the working class.
c. We need to reconnect and expand our base as a caucus in the campuses
There are other dangers that are less visible and maybe more lethal to our political project for the union than ambiguity in our platform. In the absence of a clear strategy to build the caucus on a political basis, there is a real danger of developing insular, ‘cliquish’ tendencies, and becoming increasingly isolated from rank-and-file members. The intra-caucus struggles between different groups or individuals has reached a point where it discourages more Union members from involvement in the caucus. Most of the time the interaction in the caucus has not consisted of clear political exchanges, but rather personal squabbles and a reluctance to debate certain issues. We need to grow our caucus, but we can only do that if we have some political clarity on why we still need a caucus and what the political basis is for building and joining it.
d. We need to emphasize the need to build rank-and-file activists to prepare for the coming contract fight
Most importantly, we need to be conscious of the relation between the size of our activist pool and our ability to run the union as we would like. By making an honest and committed attempt to change our practices as a union, we are also learning that reforming the union is not just about defeating the former leadership through elections, not even about staying strong in our political principles and methods to run the union, but that it contains a deeper challenge. We need to be able to involve a majority of workers in union work and develop them as activists, with political clarity about who our real enemy is and what are the best methods to fight them. This is the only way that we are going to overcome the political differences within our caucus without producing a split. Again, reforming our union is not just about winning elections and changing procedures, it is about daily struggle, education, agitation, and organization of the membership.
This is why our main priority as a caucus must be building and expanding the base of union activists on our campuses. We cannot just call for a strike, we need to already start building the capacity to fight among our membership. This kind of work is challenging because it is not immediately rewarding and does not produce immediately visible results. But this is the basis on which AWDU built the campaign against the concessionary contract in 2010, and we can do it again to win a great contract in 2013.
4) How do we move forward? Upcoming elections and contract fight
The challenges our caucus faces are the challenges that any union that wants to fight back against austerity is facing: we need to take a stand against concessions, mobilize our membership and prepare for a fight with UC management, and do so through democratic means so we that we can bring together the widest possible base of support for the fight.
What is the role and importance of the October elections?
In October we are going to run a statewide union election. This is an important event for two main reasons: first, because it was a promise of our electoral campaign and it shows our true (and not merely opportunistic) commitment to union democracy and rank-and-file decision-making. Holding elections for officer positions every year, or at least more regularly than every 3 years as it is now (which is a very long term for students who stay in their programs and jobs between 2 and 7 years), was not plucked out of thin air by radicals and socialists. It was a tradition of all UAW locals from the 30’s through the 60’s, when the union was more active in struggle: workers demanded more regular elections to promote their best leaders and remove from office those who betrayed their promises and caved in to the pressures of management. Again, we do not think holding more frequent elections guarantees democracy, nor do we think that voting in a formal election is all that democracy consists of. But we do think that holding frequent elections, every year or at most every two years, is a necessary component of the fight against bureaucratization, and helps to prevent the accumulation of power and privileges that is a tendency found in officers who serve longer terms. If anyone has any doubts about the effect of long-term exposure to elected office in the labor movement, they only need look at what has happened to most of the former presidents and officers of our local, whose bureaucratic careers (and fat paychecks) are the envy of our opponents in USEJ!
Second, since we are starting a bargaining year, we need to clearly distinguish the two ideas that exist in our union (and in the labor movement more broadly) about the role and strategy of unions during bargaining, and sharply define which one we take on. We need to argue clearly, forcefully, and publicly against the idea of concessions and compromises between officials and management and in favor of rank-and-file mobilization and direct action in the form of strikes and protests.
It is true that elections in many ways are “time consuming” in terms of organizing, and also that elections are not the only or best form of democratic participation in the union. We all agree that participatory democracy is more powerful and what we should aim to extend it. But we cannot build participatory democracy at the expense of elections, which are now, for better or worse, the main vehicle for engaging the membership at large. We should rather try to think how we can involve the members we will encounter during the elections in the daily work of the union.
One thing needs to remain clear, as a guiding principle or bottom line of our union work: our commitment to union democracy is not a commitment to hold onto power by any means, including by minimizing the frequency and impact of elections. Because this is precisely the kind of conception of “democracy” we combated when we created our caucus: the “democracy” of those in power who “know better” than the rank-and-file, who are afraid of losing power because they are afraid of the test of democracy and have no trust on the membership. We always knew, when we started the caucus, that we could eventually lose elections, and even lose the control of the Executive Board, but that prospect has never frightened us. As we outlined above, reforming the union is for us a project to build a larger base among the membership rather than winning elections and then holding onto power to implement reforms from the top down. Of course it helps to be in office to do it… “it helps”, but we need to be clear that we oppose the “politics of fear” that lead to maneuvering to remain in office in order to impose democracy.
We know that much discussion with the rest of our members is required to explain why we should not only refuse any concessions regarding our current pay, rights and benefits, but should actively fight for concrete measures that establish quality public education as a right (like small class sizes and full fee remission of student employees). This is exactly the role of a caucus that stands for class struggle unionism in our current context: to put forward a political alternative to the current trend in unionism that accepts concessions without putting a real fight and prefers to “mobilize” to get out the vote for the Democratic Party (who are the authors of the cuts and rounds of austerity) rather than organize a strike to get the boss out! We need to use the elections to demystify the ideology of university and government officials that all should “share the pain”, forcing us to pay for bailing out banks and corporations that brought about and profit from the crisis.
Four key political points to put at the forefront of the campaign
a) A union that does not accept cuts and austerity
It is important that our caucus initiates a broad campaign to convince the workforce that we cannot accepts more cuts and austerity measures. Instead, we should reverse the rhetoric of “shared pain” and make the ruling class, the 1%, pay for the crisis they have caused. This is even more important in the current context where many unions are refusing to fight to keep hard-won gains of the past, and are openly collaborating with the government and public administrations to convince workers to accept some cuts to supposedly prevent bigger ones.
Concretely, because we are in a public institution that claims to be broke, we need to be clear that the university has the money necessary to guarantee the pensions, healthcare and wages of its workers, and denounce its refusal of public oversight to show its supposed “bankruptcy” because it wants to hide the constantly rising perks for high administrators and speculative activities they lead to enrich themselves with public money.
The real problem are political priorities and not budget mathematics, and we need to make this clear to student-workers. The UC President (UCOP) and the UC Regents are corporate managers appointed by the governor and not elected by and from the university students, faculty and staff, so we cannot be deceived by their double-speak. Despite their rhetoric of defending our education, they are pro-privatization, they are openly collaborating to dismantle public education and attack public workers’ labor rights, they never supported any progressive tax initiative (the Millionaires Tax or the Oil Tax) to raise revenue for public education, on the contrary they have opposed them as they are opposing the bill that would grant basic labor and collective bargaining rights to GSRs. They never supported the students and workers that took action against the cuts, on the contrary they threw the cops at them and pressured the DA’s office to press charges against them. They never supported the message of Occupy “Make the 1% pay!” and “Tax the Rich”, they raided the Occupy encampments in UC Berkeley and UC Davis, and repressed the protests inRiversideand LA with a violence that tarnished their reputation around the world.
b) A union that fights to improve education: for a class size policy, improved benefits, and total fee remission for all student-workers
It is also key that as a union we take upon ourselves to fight against the attacks to public education inCalifornia, this is why we must raise demands that not only represent the direct economic interests of student workers (graduate and undergraduate) but also move us towards greater consciousness of the role of education in a democratic society. When class sizes are increased and student-workers suffer economic hardship to put ourselves through school, the care and attention that we can devote towards the actual academic and personal improvement of our students suffers, and formalistic procedures of grading replace conscientization as the goal. Consequently, students wind up “trained” for acquiescence, shallow quantitative assessments, and meaningless pursuits in a generalized rat-race, transforming them into malleable workers and consumers, rather than educated human beings willing and able to determine for ourselves the quality and dignity of a fulfilling life.
c) Democracy during the contract fight
In order to resist the cuts and qualitatively transform our union and our university, we need to organize the most open and democratic bargaining process possible. Student-workers must actively determine themselves the priorities worth fighting for in a better contract, since no “enlightened” union bureaucracy can determine this on behalf of the membership. A bargaining survey is only one tool among many to be used in this process, but ultimately this requires department and membership meetings where student-workers and union stewards openly discuss our contract, the various ways in which austerity affects us in different programs and departments, and our commitment to fight for an improvement of our work and education conditions. Student-workers must also actively engage in the bargaining process so that the bargaining team does not succumb to the pressures from the union bureaucracy and the UC administration to compromise on a contract that fails to satisfy the demands and priorities set by membership. And finally, broad participation and leadership from the rank-and-file during the contract fight is the only way we will have sufficient strength to force the administration to concede to our demands.
d) The need to prepare for a real strike
During our last contract campaign, the UC administration did not bargain in good faith, frequently failing to attend bargaining sessions or sending “bargaining officials” who had no authority to actually negotiate with us These are legitimate and legal grounds for a strike. But the previous union leadership had not prepared itself for a strike or mobilized the membership to actively play a role in the bargaining process, and so it could not even make a “credible threat” to strike sufficient to force the UC to bargain in good faith, much less accept our terms for a new contract. It was primarily against this process that AWDU came into existence as a reform caucus in our union.
We are aware that the UC administration will not accept our demand for a contract that makes no concessions to their intended cuts and austerity. We are aware that the UC administration will once again fail to bargain in good faith, and will actively attempt to infringe on our collective bargaining rights. So we should also be aware that we need to organize ourselves ahead of time to ensure we have a realistic capability to mobilize a mass strike across all our campuses in order to achieve our goals. This involves creating strike funds and bail funds, strengthening links with our community and other unions that are not opportunistic but are based on common and concrete goals in the struggle, establishing union stewards in all programs and departments, and actively educating and mobilizing our membership for direct action.
AWDU continues to be necessary and have a purpose insofar as we comprehend that the goals of building the caucus and preparing for a democratic mobilization for the contract campaign are one and the same. We must link our process of union reform and democratization, i.e. developing rank-and-file leadership and class consciousness, to the political content of winning our upcoming contract fight without any concessions to austerity.