The Balance of Power has Already Changed; Response to Curtis Rumrill

Why the UC grad student strike is exactly the kind of new militancy we need at this moment… and why we should support it.

Curtis Rumrill is so right when he says there are no shortcuts to organizing. And he does us a service to emphasize the methodical long haul that is one path to building power. But it is important to apply this wisdom in the full context of actually existing conditions; and in that spirit I offer a critical and complementary response.

To argue there is only one way to organize misreads the history of our labor movement. Yes, our movement encompasses such “ideal type” examples as the multi-year build-out of school-based capacity that took the leadership of United Teachers of Los Angeles huge resources to construct before they launched their powerful anti-charter strike in 2019. But it also includes the thrilling, incomprehensibly successful 2018 wildcat teacher strike in West Virginia that began when a handful of “the willing” risked everything in Mingo County, lit a spark of indignation that spread to all fifty-five WV counties, then leapt to the dry tinder of hard-pressed teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, and beyond, forcing hundreds of millions of dollars from reactionary state legislatures. And, contrary to conventional wisdom, none of these red state strikes were planned or executed by a central body. In fact, they were actively opposed by the teacher union leadership in those states.

Most critically, a form of organizing — always available but too long dormant in the US — was readmitted to our consciousness; that of decentralized rank & file self-empowerment. This is not a shortcut; it is sometimes the only option… and we should be grateful when anyone is willing to risk it.

Rumrill’s opinion piece about the UC grad students wildcat strike was an intervention into an on-going, high stakes class conflict. It offered valuable insight on the nature of base-building and how to wield power, but I can’t see how it was helpful to those on strike, those contemplating striking, or those trying to figure out how to constructively advance in the present moment. To the contrary, it seemed to predict, and reinforce the likelihood of, defeat. I will offer a different interpretation.

My responses are shaped by 50 years in the field as a labor organizer, bringing thousands of workers into new bargaining units, training and developing many hundreds of union officers and activists, running dozens of political and issue campaigns, building and managing many strikes, and currently serving as chair of the board of Labor Notes… the beating heart of the rank & file pole of our labor movement.

How does one measure a victory in today’s labor movement? I don’t think it’s often realistic to anticipate a total capitulation by the boss — especially if the boss has the vast accumulated political and financial power of the UC system. I use a different frame in organizing… that of altering the current balance of power, on our way to equalizing power. If workers can act collectively and force the boss to respond, force them to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do, expose them to pressure they would otherwise brush aside, and — in the course of this — broaden the base for the next struggle — then we have victory.

My main concern about Rumrill’s narrative is that it doesn’t recognize the wildcat strike has already fundamentally altered the balance of power at UC. UC management can -and has — forced poverty wages, refused to bargain in good faith, fired workers, unilaterally imposed policies, ignored faculty demands, and abrogated their obligation to guarantee education to their students. Workers seem to have only the power to withhold labor… and patchily, at that.

And yet, management has been scrambling madly to control this relatively small wildcat strike — offering financial incentives (first “needs based” and then universal), attempting to bargain with any entity they can find (thus, of course, exposing themselves to a strong Unfair Labor Practice charge), inducing undergrads, lecturers, and grad students to scab on the strikers, igniting fear with threats of deportation (for grads who fail to comply) or loss of financial aid (to undergrads whose grades are withheld). These are all concrete indications that the balance of power has already shifted.

And for the striking grad students to hold steady in face of all of these management machinations; to me this represents the exercise of power. It reminds us — elegantly — that the withholding of labor, even in small and limited ways, is what makes the whole system respond. I best understand the struggle of labor against capital (as UC management surely is) as a continuous trajectory, where a particular chapter may not have arrived “according to plan” but can be useful in this long unfolding, especially if it is greeted with solidarity and support on all sides.

Of course Rumrill is correct in saying that a majority strike would wield more power. He competently describes ideal conditions for organizing a strike; a game plan I have followed many times in my career. But, given that we are actually at this moment, not a theoretical other moment, his message to fellow union members comes off more scolding than productive, more demeaning than uplifting… a gesture hard to understand when solidarity would surely be more useful. Indeed, an acceleration of democratic engagement, recognizing the kindling power and seek to strengthen it… surely these options could be exercised as a better path forward.

The disrespectful framing may also scare off potential allies who “believe in the cause,” but are uncertain when it comes to taking sides, especially in a sharp conflict with real consequences. This piece may help distance them from impending questions they face: Will you risk a wildcat strike? Will you put yourself on the line that others already have? If you are tenured faculty, will you stand firmly on the side of strikers? And I find myself asking… wouldn’t an article from a fellow union member encouraging solidarity among allies have helped turn the tide towards greater action and unity rather than self-protection and fragmentation.

Fortunately, his dismissal of the wildcat strike does not extend to the public media’s attitude. Virtually every major media outlet — The NY Times, Guardian, CNN, Reuters, CBS, LA Times, Washington Post, Inside Higher Ed… the list goes on — are covering it as a very important strike. They are underscoring that it is:

  • justified (these are rent burdened workers, struggling to survive);
  • unquestionably serious (the niceties of whether it’s well prepared haven’t made an impact in the public narrative);
  • a strike which is spreading (expansion of solidarity actions and independent strikes / strike preparation on other UC campuses are a foregone conclusion).

In light of this media attention, it has to be asked whether — prior to the wildcat strike:

  • Was any meaningful attention being paid to rent burden of UC grads prior to the wildcat?
  • Was UC admin doing anything beyond endless, meaningless palaver about “addressing the housing problem”?
  • Was there any effective challenge to the status quo of executive unilateralism?
  • Were power relations challenged?

In short, was there a strategy being pursued by the UAW 2865 leadership that actually shifted the balance of power before the wildcat? Unarguably, there could have been other paths to changing the balance of power… but this is the one we have, and therefore the best platform available to use.

Rumrill positions himself as teacher and strategist. But a good teacher, just like a good strategist, is safest starting from conditions as they actually are. Whether one approves or not, actual conditions are a wildcat strike, and they are solidarity actions that involve thousands of UC grad students on every campus, placing themselves at risk by withholding labor, occupying buildings, defying their own collective bargaining agreement that bars strikes, acting outside of the sanction of their own union leadership. Now, of course, conditions also include the cascade of shut-downs and discontinuities necessitated by the Covid-19 epidemic… further suggesting that all factions within Local 2865 are well served by continuous, egalitarian, respectful consultation on next steps, lest self-isolation and fear obliterate all other options.

Speaking as a labor strategist myself, with half-a-century in, I know I’m best used when I throw my shoulder behind the wheel that is already in motion. This doesn’t imply a non-critical attitude; quite the opposite. If you’re pushing a heavy wagon and see a mud-hole up ahead, you should yell at the pig-headed driver if they head straight for it. The driver and those pushing from behind should all pay attention.

I’ve had a unique chance to pay attention to this strike, by randomly answering a phone call from a UCSC grad student who I knew casually, just days before the first strike vote was taken. Given an unfortunate cleavage between UAW 2865 state leadership and UCSC campus union leadership, the UCSC leaders saw no channel for seeking advice, and were looking for a sounding board. From this first contact, to the present moment, I’ve been able to closely observe the many hectic chapters of this struggle.

What is amazing to me is how much this strike is the opposite of a shortcut. In Rumrill’s version of organizing, there is a central body which assesses opportunities, makes a plan, and allocates resources to organize members into an already devised campaign. There is a time and place for this kind of approach… but it can be an approach that shortcuts bottom-up democracy, by centering all decisions in a few hands at the top. In the rank & file pole of the labor movement, where I’ve schooled myself since the 1970’s, we also say that the purpose of organizing is to bring people together to figure out their own goals, their own strategies, and their own time-lines. These UCSC workers had no central body, no long-term plan, no resources… and only themselves to rely on. This is the much more common situation for workers in the US than those fortunate enough to be in a union with progressive leadership — such as UTLA — where a textbook strike is possible. So the UC strike can also be an invaluable teaching moment for other workers… those with conservative union leadership, or no union at all.

The questions I posed over and over again to UCSC activists were the same questions Rumrill would surely have posed himself, were he helping the effort: Who is stepping up? Who is on your organizing map? Which individuals, which departments? Who’s covering them? Where are reports coming back? What are the formal and informal networks for communication? Where and how are decisions being made? What are the shared goals among the broadest number of members? How have those goals been shaped and affirmed? How are you addressing fears and objections? What are the strategies for involving more vulnerable or disaffected groups? How are you reaching undergraduates, staff, lecturers, tenured faculty? What are you expecting from management and how will you respond? How are you guaranteeing transparency and inclusion in your process? And so on and on.

Though faced with a barrage of criticism, and confronting coercion, co-optation, and ultimately brutal retaliation by administration, what I consistently encountered was intelligent suppleness, fearlessness, and the creation of a beloved community. So infectious was this energy that, despite the threats and intense pressures, undergraduates, lecturers and tenured faculty moved in great numbers towards this action. And it spread… in true movement fashion, not through official directives of the union but by way of inspirational example… to nearly every other UC campus.

Of course it did not achieve the super-majority, ready to follow orders and picket at the command of union officials — the ideal-type strike Rumrill invokes. Under conditions Rumrill sketches, members have the institutional resources and guarantees of protection that a union can provide. But Local #2865 leadership was not providing any protection; under these conditions it is actually miraculous that hundreds of workers went ahead anyway, willing to fight on the sheer basis of their collective conviction that they deserved to live with dignity and decency.

I recognized early on that this enmity between UCSC activists and Local #2865 leadership was a serious blind spot that weakened the effort. A difference in strategy, and recent history of internal factionalism had developed into a seemingly unbridgeable organizational chasm. Fortunately it appears that there are efforts on both sides to seek convergence where possible. This will be a tremendously important trend, if it strengthens.

Which brings me to the simple unbreakable law of class solidarity — don’t cross picket lines, join them. This does not require complete agreement on every tactical or ideological point. It only requires a recognition that your shared interests as workers are stronger than any other interests that might divide you, especially at a crisis moment. It requires you to behave as a unionist, even if you fear defeat… otherwise, you are hastening defeat.

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