Why These Wildcats Will Weaken Us

Thoughts on the UC graduate student wildcat strikes, and why shortcuts in organizing have resulted in workers getting fired unnecessarily

Curtis Rumrill
Mar 9 · 19 min read
UC Berkeley union ASEs at a recent informational picket
UC Berkeley union ASEs at a recent informational picket
UC Berkeley union ASEs at a recent informational picket to protest UC’s failure to address sky-rocketing costs of living in California due to the housing crisis and other economic pressures

Let me first tell you where I’m coming from

Let me first tell you where I’m coming from on this. I’m Curtis. I’m a third year doctoral music composition student at UC Berkeley. In addition to composing, I’ve spent most of the last two decades involved in radical direct action oriented organizing. I worked with public housing residents in New Orleans post-Katrina, on Environmental Justice in Syracuse, NY, in the Anti-Globalization Movement, on the legal defense of activists in Philadelphia after the RNC in 2000, and others. In every single case I participated in and/or supported direct action as a part of a strategy to win. I also spent nearly a decade as a labor organizer with one of the most radical, direct action oriented unions in the country, PASNAP. I’ve been through more strikes and been on more picket lines than I can easily remember. Now I am a rank-and-file member of UAW 2865, the union of 19,000 TAs/GSIs, readers, and tutors at UC. I am not part of union leadership, though I try to keep up with what is going on with my union, as any good rank-and-file member should.

Watching this strike unfold over the past several months has been a deeply conflicted experience for me, because all of my moral instincts say that you stand in solidarity with striking workers, especially striking workers who are fired. My own economic self-interests also scream that this needs to succeed. Coming to the Bay Area for this degree has caused my family to burn through our savings at an unsustainable rate, and next year will likely exhaust those savings: we will pay $78,000 to UC Berkeley in rent and childcare alone. Though we arrived here financially stable, having done “everything right” as far as saving in advance of the move, we are rapidly heading into financial precariousness.

Why am I conflicted about the strike? Because everything I know as an organizer says that it is strategically deeply flawed in ways that range from being naive, to irresponsible, to verging on unethical.

The physics of a strike

Watching this strike feels like watching a bunch of inspiring young activists load into a van and then drive off a cliff on the assurances by the driver that once in the air the van will magically fly. Maybe the driver believes this. Maybe the navigator doesn’t care, and is happy to see them all crash and burn to prove a point. Maybe everyone in the van believes that the van will fly. Maybe it is even the morally correct thing for the van to fly. The problem is that the physics of the fall won’t be subject to moral reasoning.

The physics of a strike are not subject to moral reasoning. A strike is not about being morally correct. A strike is about power, pure and simple. The default state of worker-boss relations is one where, by design, the boss holds all of the power. The only way to change this relationship is to organize, and threaten to withhold our labor (go on strike) if the bosses don’t meet our demands. The mistake that workers and organizers often make is thinking that a few workers getting together acting as a vanguard, and taking radical action will somehow be enough power to bring the employer to the table and get them to meet their demands. It never is. Sometimes these workers imagine that taking this radical vanguard action will be the “spark that lights the fire,” and as revolutionaries they will inspire their co-workers to rise up and join them. Maybe a few of their co-workers do join, but again, this never happens in the numbers necessary to change the balance of power with the employer. In short, that is why you organize first, build your power to a maximum, and then strike, rather than the other way around. “Strike first, then organize” maybe works in movies, or overly romanticized mythologies of the labor movement, but not in reality.

Strikes take strong majorities, and building strong majorities takes a lot of skilled organizers working long hours, sometimes for years. I never took workers out on a strike with less than 90% out the door on day 1, and 90% made me nervous. Building to get 90% out the door and on strike at Temple University Hospital, in Philadelphia, took 3 years of organizing, and that union was much stronger than our union ever has been. That was also only 2,000 nurses. We are 19,000 GSIs, readers, and tutors, and weak. Still, that strike was a pitched battle with administration, and victory was never assured. At the end of the day we won, and we didn’t get anyone fired. I never ever got anyone fired in all of my years on the picket line.

What happened at Santa Cruz?

What happened at Santa Cruz is a textbook example of why the strategy of “strike first, organize later” doesn’t work. It is what happens when you take shortcuts in your organizing, and fail to properly analyze what the boss will do and how your co-workers will react. The basic idea of a strike is that you maximize the participation of your co-workers and thereby maximize your power, while simultaneously minimizing the risk that each individual worker is taking. In addition to this you need to be able to analyze how much power you will have with maximum participation, and what the boss will do in response to this.

The Santa Cruz organizers did exactly the opposite. They did not organize mass participation in advance of the strike. They were impatient, and good organizing takes time and hard work. Instead, they looked to their co-workers in the humanities who were already inclined to strike by way of identifying as leftists, and they persuaded them to go on strike. About 200 of the 1,400 Academic Student Employees (GSIs/TAs, readers, and tutors) at Santa Cruz, or 14% went on a grading strike in December. [Edit: a previous version referred incorrectly to the ASEs all as GSIs] By not organizing a strong majority of workers the organizers of this strike put each of their striking co-workers at huge risk. Compounding the risk was the fact that it was a wildcat strike (a strike during the duration of a negotiated collective bargaining agreement), meaning our union was legally barred from endorsing or encouraging this strike, and that the striking workers could be summarily fired with no legal recourse. At best this strategy was naive. Union leaders warned the organizers of the strike of how dangerous this was. Not heeding this warning was deeply irresponsible.

The UCSC administration, presumably recognizing that the strikers had no ability to organize more broadly, and therefore had essentially defeated themselves, offered them an opportunity to save face. They proposed an annual $2,500 housing supplement. The organizers could have taken this, declared victory, shouted from the ramparts about how “direct action gets the goods,” and ended the strike as victors, which is more than they should have hoped for given their actual power. Instead, in a moment of profound hubris and ineptitude, they refused. Administration then tried another tack. They offered to meet, on the one condition that the organizers shut down their picket line during the meeting. Again, overestimating their power, the organizers refused. At this point the organizers had done everything wrong, and yet still the situation could have been saved.

Finally the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) declared that the striking GSIs would be fired if they did not turn in grades for the fall semester. Still, the organizers, with the help of our union, could have negotiated some sort of face-saving resolution to the strike. The most charitable reading of the organizer’s failure to take this opportunity is that their strategic analysis was so poor that they didn’t recognize they were defeated. More disturbingly, it is possible that their egos lead them to make martyrs of their co-workers by deliberately getting them fired rather than face the humiliation of backing down after setting expectations so high. Here, again, the decision making by the leadership of the strike ranges from naive, to irresponsible, to unethical, depending on their motivations, which from this vantage-point aren’t knowable. Most of the strikers buckled under the threat of termination. Of the original 200, all but 82 turned in grades. Regardless of the organizers motivations in not settling the strike, at the end of the day they led 82 workers into termination, which will most likely result in the end of their academic careers at UCSC, and deportation for some.

And now they want us to join them.

A bit of union history

It is possible that there are less virtuous motives for the decision making of the organizers. These possible motives stem from an internal division in the union that had been festering for quite some time, and erupted during the bargaining of the 2018 contract.

Allow me to preface this next bit by reiterating: I am a leftist. I may be further to the left than many of the leaders I am about to criticize. I have years of organizing to prove it. My issue with them stems from their strategic failures, not their politics.

For years a group of leftists with good politics but extremely poor organizing skills dominated the elected leadership positions of our UAW Local 2865. Primarily based in humanities departments, these leaders saw little value in building power in departments that did not have the same culture of leftism as they had, and were even openly opposed to it. Under their tenure the overall membership of our union fell from 59% in April 2010 to an abysmal 36% in March 2017. They failed to reinvest sufficient dues money into hiring staff organizers to build power. They failed to prepare the membership for strong, majority strikes. Instead they used member dues to pay themselves for being officers, as well as to make donations to leftist causes. In the process they drained the coffers of our union while also allowing our power to atrophy.

Going into the 2018 contract, a slate of newer officers with aims towards rebuilding the union’s power were elected, and slowly many of the old-guard were ousted from their positions. The practice of paying officers was ended, and with that money staff organizers were hired with the express purpose of increasing membership and participation in all departments, not just those deemed lefty enough. By the time bargaining was in full tilt for 2018 membership was back up to around 50% statewide (still very weak, but better), and the bargaining committee was evenly split between the old guard, and the new, pro-organizing activists.

From the beginning of negotiations the 2018 bargaining committee was in a difficult strategic situation due to the decisions of the old-guard. The previous bargaining team in 2013–14 agreed to a summer contract expiration date for the first time in the history of UAW 2865. This put our union in a terrible bargaining position because you can’t organize a pressure campaign with the majority of your members gone on summer break. It was inexplicably bad strategy to agree to a contract that expired during the summer, and management exploited this in 2018. Predictably, management made their “last, best, and final” offer at the bargaining table during the summer of 2018. “Last, best, and final” is a legal term which basically means “take this, or take a strike, but we’re not giving you more.” The old-guard wanted to strike. The pro-organizing new officers believed that the local still had not been rebuilt sufficiently to strike and win, especially given the summer expiration. They instead advocated for ratifying the contract, and then spending the next four years rebuilding the union and organizing to the point where a strong successful strike was possible during the 2022 negotiations.

The pro-organizing faction was right. A strike in 2018 would have been lucky to have 5% participation from the membership. It would have been a disaster, and it would have weakened the union long-term, as non-majority strikes tend to do. It would not have been the disaster that the UC Santa Cruz strike was. The strikers would have had more legal protections. But still, it would still have been a disaster. It would have polarized the majority of GSIs against the 5% who struck, because strikes are polarizing. Management would have had legal grounds to offer less than what they were offering prior to the strike as a result of costs incurred during the strike (hiring police, hiring scabs, etc). In all likelihood our contract would have been worse and our union weaker.

The bargaining committee voted along factional lines, and the pro-organizing faction won by one vote, meaning the committee would recommend to the membership that we ratify the contract. The contract was ratified early in the fall of 2018 by a democratic vote of the full membership, though the margin that it was ratified by was narrow, and the overall turnout for the vote was quite poor. This turnout was indicative of the still critically poor health of the union from an organizing perspective. These kinds of votes are important structural tests that union leaders use to help assess how strong and healthy a local is, and how strike-ready it is. By these measures our union still had a lot of work to do to be ready for a strike, and that remains true today.

After the contract was ratified a new round of elections was held for union leadership, and in most of the union statewide the old-guard was defeated at the polls. Though the election was democratic, the now-ousted old-guard would start to refer to it bizarrely as a coup. Over the next year, still angry that they had not been able to take a minority strike, and additionally angry that they had been voted out of power, they attempted to use a bizarre set of anti-democratic parliamentary procedures to invalidate the contract. Their purpose seemed to be to sow confusion among the union membership, and erode the general trust in the elected union leadership. They failed, and by the end of the 2018–2019 academic year they seemed to be out of ideas.

In the fall of 2019 this same old-guard began pushing for a minority wildcat strike at UCSC, where they still had a small base of support. It is unclear what their true motivations were in initiating this, but they have consistently used the #COLA4ALL megaphone to sow distrust in the new pro-organizing activists that defeated them in the elections. Regardless of their intentions, they have done real damage, confusing the general membership, and encouraging us to distrust our union. They have also succeeded in testing their proposal that GSIs should take a non-majority strike, with disastrous results.

Again, now they want us to join them.

Which brings us to now

After getting 82 of our co-workers fired at UCSC the organizers of the wildcat strike, who seem to have declared themselves the unelected leaders of the graduate workers union, want us to join them.

This raises some of the most important questions: Why now? Why a wildcat strike? Why not strike with legal protection?

ULP Strike VS Wildcat Strike

Our union has filed Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges against UC including one for firing the 82 workers at Santa Cruz. This gets a bit legalistic here, but here are the different kinds of strikes, in order from most risky, to most safe:

1) Wildcat strike
-A strike in the middle of a contract while no serious Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges filed
-This is the most risky. You can be fired with no legal recourse

2) ULP strike during the contract
-This is less risky
-If ULP is serious, and the strike is at least in part to protest it, you are protected and can’t be fired

3) ULP after contract has expired
-This is the safest
-If you are protesting a ULP after the contract has expired, no matter how serious, you are protected.

Wildcat strikes are the least common strikes, because the most effective thing they tend to do is get people fired from their jobs. Participation tends to be very low in part because you basically have to decide you want to get fired in order to participate, which most people don’t want to do. A wildcat strike is generally a losing proposition. Due to the predictably low participation it is also a weak strike. It is appealing to lefties nostalgic for the IWW, and others who think that risk=radical=effective, but basically nobody who is actually serious about organizing to win.

Our union leadership has called for a vote on option number 2 (ULP strike during the contract) in April. This kind of strike would offer us legal protections that a wildcat strike cannot. It is a far better idea than a wildcat strike, and also more likely to be successful, and not get everyone fired.

The wildcat strikers say that April is too long to wait; that we need COLA now, which seems disingenuous to me. I have my theories as to why, but since they are theories I won’t speculate about them here.

Is this a winning strategy?

Whether we strike now with no protection, or in April with protection, winning a COLA in the middle of a contract, with the small number of members we can actually expect to participate in the strike is unlikely. To give us a COLA in the middle of an already bargained contract would set a dangerous precedent for UC with their other unions: they could never expect labor peace during a contract if they reward a mid-contract strike, and they are under no legal obligation to bargain with us, no matter what kind of strike we choose. They have a huge incentive not to give in beyond tossing us a small bone like the ones they offered at UCSC before they fired everyone. It is also possible that UC might be willing to negotiate something on COLA as a part of a legally binding resolution to a ULP, as opposed to reopening our contract. Getting fired for a wildcat strike, rather than a ULP strike, however, is highly probable.

I won’t go so far as to say that a wildcat strike cannot win. Miracles do happen. Still, as an organizer, I think it is deeply irresponsible to lead members into a strike like this, where the overwhelming odds are that we will lose in ways that are devastating to us. I personally cannot afford to bet my job on this, especially considering how ineffective the organizers have proven themselves thus far. If I lose my job, I lose my tuition waiver. Since I live in university housing, and I cannot afford to pay tuition, I will lose my housing as well. I will also not be able to afford the exorbitant childcare costs of the Bay Area. The organizers of this wildcat strike are asking me to risk all of this for a strategy that has such a minuscule chance of success, and where the negative outcomes are almost guaranteed. Thankfully I have spent years in the labor movement, and can assess the situation based on my experience, and come to the conclusion that it would be ludicrous for me or anyone else to participate.

However, others will be led down this path. The wildcat rallies feel good, even if the majority of the participants are undergrads, not graduate workers. I find myself drawn into them in spite of the fact that I feel like I’m watching a train wreck being planned. Still I want to join them.

What do we do then?

The organizers of the wildcat strike say they are waiting for 10 departments to declare themselves “strike-ready.” At that point they will call a wildcat strike. It is unclear what this means. Does this mean 50% of respondents on a survey, or 100% of all members in that department? Either way, though it may not feel good, the best possible thing we can do to prevent our co-workers from being fired unnecessarily is to not be one of the 10 departments who declare themselves “strike-ready.” It is worth noting that UC Berkeley has over 130 academic departments, so calling a strike after 10 departments have declared themselves strike-ready is fundamentally anti-democratic. Exacerbating this, it seems that the few departments that do claim to be strike-ready at this point are among the smallest on campus.

We are not strike-ready

Strike-ready means that we have been making financial plans for what we will do when the university stops paying us because we are on strike. Strike ready means we are ready and know what to do when the university shuts off our health insurance because we are not working. Strike-ready means we took a strike vote at some point along with the rest of our membership, rather than having a strike thrust upon us by self-appointed leaders. Strike-ready means we have a plan for when we are evicted from university housing, or lose our childcare. Strike ready for international students in this situation means they are ready to be deported. Strike ready should mean we have a ULP undergirding our strike and are prepared to take 90% or more out, keep them on the picket lines daily, protect them from retaliation before it happens; prevent it from ever happening. This is what real organizing looks like.

We are not strike-ready. UC Berkeley is not strike-ready. Santa Cruz was not strike-ready. They struck, and because they were not strike-ready the university fired the strikers.

If we want to strike we must do the hard work of building the infrastructure and participation to strike and win, rather than be martyrs. We tell all those inspiring young radicals getting into that van that is about to drive off the cliff that, yes, by some miracle, the van could magically fly, but we’re not getting in it, and we don’t think they should either. If they want to fly, let’s all get together and build an airplane instead. It will be hard, but those fly.

What if we want to be martyrs?

Getting a bunch of people fired for striking only scares people from striking in the future. It weakens us. But if you want to be a martyr, I guess that’s up to you. But you’re not helping anyone. You’re not building the union. You’re doing the opposite.

Here’s the thing about strikes

The thing most people don’t understand about strikes is that your power is at its peak the moment just before you go on strike. Once you pull the trigger on the strike, and walk out the door, your negotiating position immediately becomes significantly weaker. Why? Because up until the moment you walk out the door you have in your hands an enormous threat that the boss has an opportunity to avoid. They haven’t yet experienced all of the bad PR that comes along with a strike. They haven’t spent the hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars that a strike will cost them in police, scabs, legal fees, etc. if it is a majority and truly strong strike. The moment before you actually go on strike there is a huge political and economic incentive for the boss to agree to demands that they never imagined they would have agreed to without facing a strike. Once you strike, and the boss starts to pay the political and economic costs of the strike, their position tends to harden against you. It becomes harder to win, and often the battle becomes a long, protracted war of attrition.

It is never smart to say we will strike if we are only bluffing. If we say we are willing to go on strike have to mean it and be ready to do it. Bluffing about a strike is extremely dangerous. If the boss thinks you are bluffing they will call your bluff and use the strike as an opportunity to weaken and demoralize you.

So what should we do? We should call a legally protected ULP strike. If we call that strike we should be 100% prepared to take that strike with as many members as we can organize. Because it is unlikely we will have majority participation in the strike, even if a super-majority of members vote to support it, we should be realistic about how much power we actually have. It will be a weak strike, though stronger than the wildcat strike, and the boss will be inclined to give us just as much as our small amount of leverage amounts to. Will we win a COLA? Maybe they’ll offer us something like what they offered UC Santa Cruz as a way to try to appease us and avert the strike, but I am doubtful that they will offer even this. A more realistic outcome, and still a victory, would be to use the leverage of the threat of a ULP strike to reinstate the fired workers from UC Santa Cruz.

But I want COLA!

So do I. I want that, and so much more. I know that my co-workers and I deserve it. But we are divided (and this wildcat strike has increased that division). If we want a COLA we need to do real organizing, with no shortcuts. It won’t be quick, but the difference is, it can actually win. The time to start planning for a strike to win COLA and all of the other things we so desperately need is now. But we need to do it right. We need to build real unity, and real power, rather than relying on a radical minority vanguard that broadcasts our weakness to the boss. Can we do this by the time we are back in negotiations in 2022? I don’t know. We have to dig ourselves out of a serious hole left for us by years of poor organizing, and heal divisions created by the fundamentally anti-union rhetoric of the minority but extremely vocal wildcat contingent. We have to build a strong majority who are truly strike-ready. That means 90% ready to go out the door on day one of the strike. This is what strike-ready looks like. In our union what this means is that rather than 200 workers on strike on day one, we need to be ready to take more than 17,000 of our 19,000 members on strike, day one. That’s what a real strike looks like. That’s how we win a COLA.

Sounds like a lot of work, right? It is. It takes months, sometimes even years of work. Can we reach those numbers by 2022? I don’t know. Maybe, if enough of our members who are coming out for COLA are truly committed to building power. It is the only thing that actually has a chance of winning us COLA. If we truly need this, as we say we do, then we have no choice but to try. There are no shortcuts, and no easy victories.

I’m ready to do the work. I’m ready not just to fight, I’m ready to win.

Are you?

Here’s what we can do:

  • Build union membership and union steward structures in our departments so that more members are participating in union actions
  • Participate in and support legislative action to win rent control and more funding for UC
  • Sign and circulate union petitions
  • Be ready to participate in rallies, marches, sit-ins and other forms of direct action
  • Be ready to strike should circumstances justify
  • Help to organize a strike should circumstances justify so that the majority of our co-workers participate

Upcoming actions we can immediately take:

  • Attend a strike forum on Wednesday, March 11 at 6pm (location TBA)
  • Attend the newly formed ULP strike committee meeting on Thursday, March 12 at 7pm in Wheeler 300
  • Sign a ULP strike pledge

Curtis Rumrill

Written by

Curtis Rumrill is a composer. He is currently a PhD student at UC Berkeley studying music. He is also an a committed social justice organizer and activist.

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