The Grassroots Wildcat Strike for a COLA and the Fight for a Democratic, Militant Union: A Response to “Why These Wildcats Will Weaken Us”

Tara Phillips & Shannon Ikebe
16 min readMar 11, 2020
COLA walkout at UC Berkeley, March 5, 2020

“I would not lead you into the promised land even if I could, because if I led you in, someone else would lead you out.” — Eugene V. Debs

“Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful and valuable than the infallibility of the very best Central Committee.” — Rosa Luxemburg

It is mark of a real mass movement to attract a lengthy, dedicated attack piece against it. The COLA strike that began at UC Santa Cruz in December 2019 and has spread throughout the UC system is the most significant student movement and labor action since the 2009–2012 student uprising against austerity measures and tuition hikes. In the face of a movement that has built a mass following on nearly every UC campus, we now find ourselves attacked not only by university administration, but also by those claiming to provide a “sober” analysis from our left. Certainly critical reflection is essential for any successful movement. But Curtis Rumrill’s “Why These Wildcats Will Weaken Us” attacks the movement using a faulty, pseudo-scientific analysis. Unfortunately, his account includes an inaccurate assessment of the ongoing struggle at UC Santa Cruz and other campuses, as well as an erroneous understanding of UAW 2865’s recent history. And worse, Rumrill’s unreliable analysis threatens morale, discourages organizing being done across the state, and dampens intercampus solidarity. In brief, his irresponsibly inaccurate piece provides cover for those who wish to force us back to our hard work and poverty wages with less than what we started with.The moral of Rumrill’s story is that workers can’t organize themselves, and that we ought to leave it up to the technocratic leadership who surely know what’s best.

The UCSC COLA strike

Beneath the fear-mongering rhetoric and the compulsive need to assure his own “leftiness,” there are just two substantive arguments that Rumrill makes in regards to the COLA strike that we wish to address here. First, that a wildcat strike is risky. And second, that a wildcat strike cannot win because it is not a legally-protected supermajority strike. To the former point, COLA strikers, 80 of whom have already been fired, know, of course, that a wildcat strike does not provide the same legal protections against termination that a union-sanctioned strike does. To the latter point, while Rumrill makes some basic observations that those in the struggle already know, the arguments themselves are remarkably thin as to why, exactly, a wildcat strike can’t win.

Despite the fragility of his arguments, Rumrill repeatedly insists that his analysis is scientific, rational, and sober, while the work of the COLA strikers is utopian, emotional and deluded. This assessment insults the political savvy and intelligence of graduate workers who have consciously decided to put their basic security and academic careers on the line because they cannot wait until bargaining in 2022 for relief. Aspersions aside, one of the more insidious aspects of Rumrill’s piece is the false claim to science or “the physics of a strike,” which stands in for solid arguments and empirical evidence. A glib comparison of social phenomena to supposedly deterministic laws of natural science are flawed to begin with, because there is no law in society that works like the laws of physics. But furthermore, misapplication of “physics” leads one to profoundly misread the dynamics of a mass strike, which, as we have seen, grows organically and exponentially.

To the second point, Rumrill argues that a wildcat strike never succeeds because it can’t get enough workers to join. He formulates his opposition to how the wildcats have been organized by insisting that the only way to win is to “organize first, build your power to a maximum, and then strike.” While this may sound like good advice, what Rumrill’s calculation misses is the unpredictable catalystic nature of the Santa Cruz wildcat strike. First, the strike has clearly tapped into deep dissatisfaction with the way the university exploits graduate workers, and has set off a spark in the kindling that is graduate discontent on UC campuses across California. And second, it has shown that democratic organizing employed by COLA strike organizers based on building mass support and solidarity from below is extremely effective. The wildcat strike was not merely “called” by COLA organizers. By and large, the strike has been self-organized by the rank and file who have succeeded in building mass support and power among members. As we’ve seen, once Santa Cruz began a full indefinite strike on February 10 and faced further retaliation from UCOP, the COLA strike spread quickly to grad workers at UC Santa Barbara who joined the strike at the end of February, while Davis and San Diego followed soon after. At Berkeley, once the African American Studies graduate workers declared their strike commitment at the end of February, fourteen more departments organized themselves to join the strike in just one week. The COLA movement is now active on every single UC campus, and literally thousands of workers marched across UCs on two coordinated days of action on February 21 and March 5. Likewise, solidarity actions are happening on campuses across the country from Northwestern to North Carolina, and the strike has caught the attention of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders who has voiced his support. More importantly, it has sparked renewed debate on issues surrounding graduate workers’ precarious livelihoods, not to mention the precarity of academic labor more generally, in the national and international media.

For those observing the movement from on the ground, it’s clear that the COLA strikes have sparked the greatest level of rank-and-file organizing among UC grad workers in recent years. So why, then, would Rumrill — who reiterates familiar arguments from current UAW 2865 leadership — claim that a wildcat will always be weak, that it can’t be the “spark that lights the fire,” despite all evidence to the contrary? It’s because grassroots worker organizing rubs Rumrill (and union leadership) the wrong way. For him, “organizing” counts as such only when it is rigidly controlled and directed by the official “organizers” and union leaders at the top. In other words, he doesn’t believe that workers have the capacity to self-organize. While not explicitly stated, this assumption suffuses the entire article. Rumrill writes, referring to his own experiences as a paid union organizer in Pennsylvania: “I never took workers out on a strike,” and “I never ever got anyone fired in all of my years on the picket line.” Apparently, it is the paid union staff who “takes” workers out on a strike, not workers themselves who decide to go on a strike; it is the paid union staff who “gets” or “doesn’t get” workers fired. It is hard to fathom a more condescending and paternalistic account of union organizing. In this view, workers are utterly stripped of their agency and autonomy, and are reduced to helpless subjects waiting to be “taken out on a strike” by union staff who know better.

That this is not a mere rhetorical quirk is demonstrated by Rumrill’s profound misunderstanding of the way the strike unfolded at Santa Cruz. Rumrill falsely characterizes the strike’s beginnings as a situation in which the union’s “old-guard began pushing for a minority wildcat strike at UCSC, where they still had a small base of support.” He goes on to say that Santa Cruz organizers “were impatient” and “persuaded [“their co-workers in the humanities”] to go on strike.” To anyone who has actually followed the Santa Cruz strike, this story comes off as totally bizarre, if not downright mendacious. The strike was spontaneously called for by the rank-and-file workers on a mass email chain on December 5 in response to the indifferent and openly condescending responses from the UCSC administrators regarding the COLA demand. Rank-and-file organizers who had been working on the COLA campaign from the early fall had envisaged a longer timeline that could potentially culminate in a strike in the spring quarter. The sudden demand from below to strike right then and there took those working on the campaign completely by surprise. To be sure, this history has been recounted in UC Santa Cruz wildcat striker interviews on numerous media outlets. When a call for more militant actions arises from bottom-up, organizers should encourage and seek to develop them further; working to contain and tamper down militancy would have the disastrous effect of demoralizing workers and killing off any chance of a mass militant movement’s success.

In a testament to their political judgment and commitment to substantive democracy from below, once the Santa Cruz rank-and-file workers began to demand a wildcat grading strike, everyone in the COLA campaign united to make it happen with maximum impact, developing an organizing plan to build mass support across campus. Let us clarify a few numerical errors in Rumrill’s account. It is unclear to us where Rumrill arrived at the figure “1,400 GSIs” at Santa Cruz; the university administration has stated there were around 750 TAs (the term used at SC) in the fall quarter. Although few of them likely had experience organizing a wildcat strike, in less than two weeks they succeeded in uniting around 350 TAs to withhold final grades, which ultimately amounted to over 12,000 grades,withheld at the close of the fall quarter — certainly a remarkable achievement after a mere 10 days of organizing. Throughout the piece, Rumrill insists that the striking workers represent so marginal a percentage of the graduate population that the sacrifice of some 82 workers is not reflective enough of the sensibilities of the majority. What he fails to mention, however, is that 500 graduate students at Santa Cruz have promised to withhold their future labor after the university fired their striking peers. 212 of those workers are STEM graduates, which contradicts the assessment that those invested in this fight are only left-leaning humanities grads.

Misunderstanding the truly grassroots character of the Santa Cruz strike also leads Rumrill to make implausible claims regarding its later developments. Rumrill contends that organizers “could have negotiated some sort of face-saving resolution to the strike” after UCSC management offered a $2,500, and that it was a “failure” on the part of leadership to refuse “this opportunity.” However, this suggestion makes little sense in light of the basic facts on the ground: the $2,500 was not offered in exchange for ending the strike and not guaranteed in the contract, nor were strikers offered any substantive “meeting with administration on the condition of shutting down the picket line.” But perhaps more importantly, the end of the strike is not something that “organizers of the strike” can or should decide unilaterally themselves. As has been clear in the COLA movement from day one, the strike can only be ended after a discussion and vote by the General Assembly made up of striking workers. At that point, there was no appetite for abruptly calling off the strike. And it’s clear why: strikers were unwilling to accept a “diet cola” of $2,500 in exchange for going home and ending one of the most significant grad worker struggles in many years. This is precisely because expectations have been raised through the course of the struggle.

We fundamentally disagree with Rumrill’s views on what democratic organizing looks like. Rumrill understands the basis of democratic organizing as consisting of top-down assessments based on “structure tests” and excel sheets that map workers involvement in order to empirically “measure” their strike readiness. This method assumes a union leadership that is passive and sees its role as “consulting” workers rather than organizing for collective action. The method that the COLA strikers have undertaken understands that the willingness to take action by workers is linked to the existence of concrete demands, a real plan to organize, and the initiation of collective action through an engagement in collective action. These differences boil down to a fundamental question: are we “assessing” and “mapping” workers’ engagement for the sake of assessment and data-gathering, or are we assessing what kinds of doable actions workers are willing to take, and giving them a clear path to action? A democratic movement not only consults and maps, it also inspires, gives confidence, and proposes a plan of action. This is what real democracy looks like. It’s messy, and imperfect, but its power cannot be beaten. Rumrill’s watered-down version of democractic organizing relies on electoral-style hierarchical organization where elected leaders and paid staff tell workers what’s possible and what’s not, while they discourage workers from assessing their own needs and organizing accordingly.

And crucially, we believe that the ongoing debate in our local about what a “democratic” union looks like is fundamental. We should cultivate this debate in the most democratic way possible, without resorting to insincere accusations of being “anti union.” For us, the key questions are: how do we implement democracy, and critically, in the service of what? We do not believe that union or workers’ democracy is the art of polling opinions, or creating the best statistical predictions. Our democracy is a democracy that engages in collective action to fight for our collective needs. We organize democratically in order to transform our living conditions, increase our power as workers in society, and reshape our consciousness as academic workers in public education. Our union democracy is a political practice of solidarity, a practice that starts from the analysis of this world in order to bring about a new world. Our democracy is not neutral or indifferent to our exploitation, acts of injustice, repression, and oppression. It is our best tool to overcome it.

Not only has the COLA strike sparked an intense wave of rank-and-file organizing, it has also already achieved more than the top-down, quantitatively-obsessed but qualitatively-shallow “organizing” in which union leadership has been engaged since 2018. The $2,500 a year housing stipend offered at Santa Cruz, as well as the $2,500 a month summer funding package announced at UCLA on March 10, while far from adequate in lifting grads out of rent burden, are much more than the 3% raise “won” in the 2018 contract. Furthermore, the COLA strike prompted the UAW 2865’s Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) strike, which Rumrill is promoting but would have never occurred without the wildcat. As the COLA movement further grows, it is completely plausible that we may win further gains through our struggle.

Some deeper union history

In the section titled “A bit of union history,” Rumrill attempts to break down recent union history, but misses the mark in the analysis of key moments. This is no surprise, as Rumrill’s narrative follows the oft-repeated talking points of current UAW 2865 union leadership who have been less invested in defending the interests of rank-and-file members, and more interested in defending a series of questionable actions and decisions that have been made since bargaining in 2018.

To begin with, it’s important to mark a distinction between the union as a collective of workers, and “the union” as leadership. This is especially crucial because it is a distinction that the caucus in power (OSWP), for whom Rumrill has in practice become a mouthpiece, have been purposefully blurring. Conflating “the union” with union leadership is inaccurate and alienates workers who do not feel represented by leadership’s current politics and practices. While the right to collective bargaining through the union is a fundamental right of workers that we must always defend, it’s also essential to recall that not every union does a good job of defending its members rights and interests. UAW International leadership has for many decades suppressed rank-and-file, militant and anti-racist movements, and has recently been embroiled in a corruption scandal that threatens to take it out of the hands of members and into government stewardship.

For our own local UAW 2865, the battle for a substantively democratic union has been difficult, and the current leadership has sought to roll back many of the gains from the campaigns of the reform caucus Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU) that began in 2010, emerging from the mass anti-austerity movements of 2009 that united students and workers. AWDU was born out of grassroots and democratic wildcat actions organized by graduate students in response to the utter passivity of the UAW 2865 leadership when GSIs were being fired, wages cut, and tuition and fees were skyrocketing. AWDU organizers, who had mobilized in many departments to defend workers rights, eventually chose to run for union leadership in 2011 and won, because they were the best at organizing a strong, fighting union. So when we talk about “the union” we must be careful to remember that the union is constituted by the collective body of its members, and that it is disingenuous for leadership to represent its own interests as those of the collective as a whole, especially when it has actively worked to undermine those same interests. We must also keep in mind that leadership’s current defensiveness has everything to do with their failure to secure a decent contract in 2018.

Rumrill’s narrative of the AWDU years, reflecting a common discourse among OSWP supporters, is full of distortions and selective interpretations. Much is made of the decline in membership numbers; what that assertion hides is that the post-AWDU union was far from an active one at the grassroots level. The problem was exacerbated by the extreme top-down control exercised by the pre-2011 statewide leadership who failed to engage in the mass anti-austerity movement in 2009–10 in any meaningful way. We organized two strikes during the contract campaign in 2013–14, which we could do because we were not unduly afraid of contract expiration (which would allow us to strike with a legal protection), unlike the 2018 leadership that sought to prevent expiration at all costs. The 2014 contract, while by no means perfect, managed to win a 17% wage increase over the 5 years (higher than in 2018), as well as groundbreaking wins on trans rights, the rights of undocumented student workers, and others. Furthermore, Rumrill insinuates something nefarious by claiming that leadership at the time “used member dues to pay themselves for being officers.” This appears to be another way of saying that campus unit chairs used to be paid the amount equivalent to the 50% TA position to compensate for the significant work that the chair position involves. However, Rumrill wrongly implies this as an AWDU reform, while in reality the paid elected positions existed before 2011 and were only eliminated by OSWP in 2018.

While it is the case that after AWDU began to weaken as an organized caucus around 2014, union activities began to slow down. But that is why there was virtual consensus in the spring of 2017 to implement a statewide organizing program, to first build up membership and presence in all departments across UCs, and then develop mass militant actions after those steps had been taken. As most of those (loosely) affiliated with AWDU supported such a strategy, this was not a simple tale of “new, pro-organizing activists” replacing the “old guard,” as Rumrill reports. The expectation held by many workers across the state, who tirelessly organized members to prepare for a mass militant action in the fall 2018, were cruelly betrayed by a faction within OSWP who rammed through a terrible contract — that did virtually nothing to address the rising cost of living in California — in the middle of the summer and by extremely unethical means, They did this without holding any kind of forum for debate, and used paid staff to persuade members to vote yes. This is what the Mussman Appeal, a rank-and file response to the un-democratic way the contract was ratified, was all about. It wasn’t a “coup” of the “old guard” or “a bizarre set of parliamentary procedures” as Rumrill claims, but an organic expression of the disenfranchisement, anger, and sense of betrayal that was shared among so many graduate workers across the state who had organized their departments in good faith with the belief that that were building a mass militant movement that would bring home a good contract.

Much of Rumrill’s analysis of what happened in 2018 and after does not hold up to scrutiny either. In a counterfactual history of bargaining, Rumrill makes the purely speculative claim that “A strike in 2018 would have been lucky to have 5% participation from the membership.” It’s unclear how Rumrill can honestly stand behind a hypothetical assertion about the past, particularly without any concrete evidence. Again, organizing cannot be reduced to mechanical science. The idea that a strike “would have weakened the union long-term” is pure guesswork. And further, based on the mobilization occuring now, it’s clear that there are deep reserves of power and militancy that the leadership could have tapped into had they tried. Instead, Rumrill mischaracterizes the nature of the dissent that emerged in 2018 after a dismal defeat at the bargaining table by reiterating leadership’s worn-out arguments about why the rank-and-file can’t accomplish anything themselves. The organized dissent that emerged from the rank and file after 2018, particularly with the Mussman Appeal, was so offensive to the current leadership because they misunderstand their role as leaders. Instead of tapping into and cultivating the power of worker-led militant organizing, they have routinely stepped in to quash it in the service of exercising full control of all union organizing.

As our high priest of protest, Rumrill is charitable enough to our efforts to admit he can’t say wildcats never win. “Miracles do happen” he writes. Fortunately for us, we don’t need to rely on his statements for confirmation. The fact of the matter is that wildcats do work, and have for over one hundred years; after all, all strikes before the Wagner Act in 1935 were “wildcat” strikes. As San Jose labor historian Robert Ovetz reminds us, wildcat strikes in the early twentieth century “escalated tactics and strategy to open the way for long overdue concessions and reforms that shifted the balance of power to workers for years to come.” A brief survey of wildcats corroborates this, demonstrating also, against the suggestion that UC wildcats are involved in union-busting, that wildcat action historically builds and consolidates union membership by including members, who are most often marginalized by traditional bureaucracy, in directly participating in its action. Most influential for our movement is the wave of wildcat strikes in 2018, “Red for Ed,” starting in West Virginia and spreading to Kentucky, Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona, and beyond. Does this guarantee us our victory? Absolutely not. The road ahead is impossible to map in advance. Much as we may like, it cannot be scripted or composed like a series of musical notes. But this does not mean we should pull back from a movement that has swiftly consolidated up and down the California coast and that continues to build power at every UC campus.

At the heart of democratic and fighting unionism is the right to openly disagree with leadership and its decision-making. The OSWP leadership has often weaponized the charge of being “anti union” against those who openly challenge them. We write this response to Rumrill’s attack piece knowing full well that we will likely continue to be smeared as “anti union” and “anti worker.” But we believe that our union, and our collective power as workers, will only be made stronger when workers demand that leadership be held accountable to workers’ rights and interests. The COLA wildcat strikes have already successfully organized UC graduate workers to an unprecedented degree for the first time in many years: thousands fill the streets, normal operation of the university is shut down on several campuses, and the movement is growing as we speak. It is time for the union leadership to acknowledge this fact and let COLA organizers lead any negotiations with the UC management that may occur. We make the UC work and we’re going to win a COLA together!

We thank all our comrades in the COLA movement who have helped us with this article! The sole responsibility for the article lies with the authors.

Tara Phillips is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley.

Shannon Ikebe is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at UC Berkeley.