Solidarity is our power: Thoughts on the UCSC COLA Campaign

We’ve recently been asked by workers at UC Santa Cruz and elsewhere for our take as union leaders on the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) campaign and wildcat job action announced over social media, and how it relates to UAW 2865 as a whole.

As union leaders, we stand with workers engaging in collective struggle to win their demands. Because UCLA is similarly located in one of the most expensive rental markets in the country, we support the spirit of the COLA campaign and our co-workers’ fight for a more livable and accessible UC. We stand with workers who face threats and intimidation from Administration, and we encourage you to sign this letter of support as well as contact UCSC Admin: here is their contact information and a template message.

Our support also comes in the form of critical reflection meant to strengthen our shared movement. The COLA campaign has some major shortcomings that need to be addressed by UCSC organizers in order to win lasting power for Academic Student Employees in the UC system, and to advance a progressive vision for higher education. Below, we offer an analysis of those shortcomings, and invite organizers at Santa Cruz to join us and other UAW 2865 members across the state in our effort to build an organization that wins a UC for all.

1. Where are the undergraduate student-workers?

UAW 2865 represents thousands of undergraduate Academic Student Employees across the UC system. Around a quarter of represented workers in the UCSC unit are undergraduates, typically in the tutor or reader job title. Tutors receive many benefits under the contract — including more pay than other undergraduate positions on campus thanks to our collective bargaining efforts — but their hourly wage rate is still about half that of a graduate teaching assistant. More importantly, undergraduate tutors and readers don’t receive the fee remission that covers the cost of in-state tuition that TAs receive. For TAs, the slogan has always been, “you can’t make us pay to work.” Why should it be any different for undergrads, who often have to go into massive debt to fund their education?

In short, it shouldn’t be different. Ending this two-tiered system for academic workers based on their student status has for too long been on 2865’s backburner. It will take serious solidarity to end this inequity: undergrads will have to be motivated and engaged around our collective demands, and graduate workers will have to be willing to fight alongside them. And yet, in the rhetoric of the COLA organizers, undergraduates are asked to play a supporting role in a campaign that also has yet to activate a majority of the campus’s graduate workers. Undergraduate workers aren’t just allies in our struggle as graduate workers — as our co-workers and fellow union members, they’re part of this struggle too.

Maybe that’s why union membership among tutors at UCSC has dropped from 32% in December 2018 to 17% in December 2019; as a result, a majority of UCSC ASEs are no longer union members. Elsewhere in the state, the percentage of undergraduate tutors choosing to join the union, along with overall union membership, has increased.

What makes this abandonment of the most exploited workers within our bargaining unit particularly ironic is that COLA organizers are keen to compare their wildcat job action with the West Virginia teachers’ strike of 2018. But that strike was a fight not just for teachers, but for all public sector workers — and public school students, too. This is a particularly glaring oversight since in Santa Cruz, unlike the West Virginia public school system, students and teachers are literally in the same union, but the only people polled for the job action are graduate workers.

It’s not just factually accurate to emphasize the shared interests of students and teachers. It’s strategically important, too: by excluding undergraduates from their demands, COLA organizers present an opportunity for the UC to break their job action by organizing undergraduate workers against them. For example, students who receive financial aid packages based on their grades may lose their scholarships, and those working as ASEs may be less inclined to join and organize with 2865. A strong campaign to create solidarity between students and all workers at UCSC can prevent the boss’s tactics of division.

2. What about the rest of the state?

The way organizers at Santa Cruz have framed their COLA demand also excludes similarly precarious graduate workers across the state. The demand for an additional $1,412 a month is not based on the consumer price index but rather ostensibly on the difference between the average cost of housing in Riverside vs. Santa Cruz, where TAs currently make the same salary.

The Facebook event announcing a UCSC “camp out” in support of the COLA for Nov. 12, 2019, used the slogan “Equal Pay for Equal Work” to describe the demand for $1,412 more a month. So, quite explicitly, Santa Cruz COLA organizers rhetorically justify a more than 50% raise for themselves by arguing that TAs at Riverside already make an equivalent amount. The irony of using this social justice phrase to make this exclusionary demand cannot go unnoticed: UCR is one of the most diverse campuses serving a working-class population—whites are only 11% of the undergraduate and 28% of the graduate population. By comparison, 40% of graduate students at UCSC are white.

Academic Student Employees formed a statewide local union in order to avoid letting the boss play one campus against another. If we argue that workers in less privileged parts of the state deserve less, we play into the boss’ logic: during bargaining, one campus may be asked to make a concession because another did. It’s easy to imagine administrators at one campus offering a fat raise in return for, say, weakening protections from harassment and discrimination, and then at the next campus not offering the raise but demanding the concession all the same.

If ASEs decide to bargain for a system of pay tied to local cost of living, that’s something that we should decide on together, because it will take statewide power — in fact, it would probably take the power of multiple unions working together — to win. We need solutions for California’s statewide housing crisis that mobilize our collective, statewide power, so that no campus and no community are left behind.

To look to West Virginia again, the scale of solidarity demonstrated by teachers there is difficult for members of UAW 2865 to recreate when we have different visions for the direction of our shared movement. Right now, the COLA campaign does not do enough to build statewide solidarity and harness the real potential power of our statewide union. And when UCSC leadership refers to the “statewide” union like a hostile third party, rather than their hard-working colleagues at other campuses who share many of their same struggles and concerns, they make this task all the more difficult.

3. Solidarity is our power, striking is the tactic.

In her speech at the 2019 DSA convention, AFA-CWA president Sara Nelson described her union’s decision to call a strike during the federal government shutdown that left airport workers without pay for over a month. Her union’s credible strike threat helped end the month-long stalemate. One particular remark stood out to us: “we have to understand that a strike is a tactic, solidarity is our power.” We think about this message often, because it recognizes the ephemeral nature of strikes which often win, sometimes lose, but never decisively conclude the struggle that we engage in as workers in a fundamentally exploitative system. Mass solidarity and participation is what makes strikes powerful, and when the strike is over, it’s only through our continued solidarity, expressed in manifold ways, that we make lasting change.

Here, we can take another lesson from teachers in West Virginia. It was only through building solidarity across the state that 20,000 teachers could flood the streets and enter negotiations directly with the legislature. Their success would not be possible if they bargained district by district. The analogous action for academic workers at UC is not to engage in localized job actions that pit campuses against each other, but to unite across campuses and job titles into a more powerful whole that forces the UC Office of the President, or even the State of California, to act.

Moreover, in each of the powerful teachers’ strikes that grabbed national headlines, a supermajority of workers in each school district walked off the job, which gave workers the power and unity to win major gains. If we’re serious about winning major wage increases, stronger protections against harassment and discrimination, and political solutions to the housing crisis — such as rent control and expanded public housing — graduate and undergraduate workers across the state must work together and build the capacity necessary to engage in supermajority-participation actions. That’s where our real power lies.

With these thoughts, we offer critical reflection to our union siblings at Santa Cruz because we know our struggles are inseparable. Organizers at SC have demonstrated admirable leadership, particularly in their turnout efforts for COLA actions on such short notice, and Santa Cruz will play a pivotal role in realizing the vision of a statewide, fighting UAW 2865. We look forward to continued dialogue with Santa Cruz leadership, and to eventually work together to build the power to win what we deserve.

In solidarity,

Yunyi Li, Unit Chair, UAW 2865 UC-Los Angeles

Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies

Michael Stenovec, Southern Vice President, UAW 2865

Ph.D. student in Political Science

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