In late August, UC student-workers across the state saw one of the most regressive contracts in a decade take effect. To make matters worse, this atrocious contract was embraced by some in the leadership of the UC Student-Workers Union, or United Auto Workers Local 2865. And the process of contract ratification, we argue, was not a fair and democratic process. As active union members, we have dedicated many hours to fighting for a contract that 17,000 academic workers across the UC system, who perform vital labor for the university, deserve. We expect better from UC management and from our union.
Some of the worst features of this contract include stagnant wages, no housing relief, and punishing concessions on international student fees. The 3 percent nominal wage increase barely keeps up with projected inflation rates, does not constitute a living wage, which is estimated to be $34,269 for one adult in Alameda County, and does not compete with GSI pay at peer institutions. Although the majority of workers listed their priority as securing affordable housing, there were no gains on this front. Instead, management recently increased rent in graduate housing at University Village, Albany. Despite some gains in sexual harassment protections — which management agreed to in the wake of the #MeToo movement and eight Title IX cases that were found to have been mishandled at UC Berkeley alone — that does not negate the regressive character of the entire contract.
Another key demand was remission of the exorbitant fee imposed only on international students, which amounts to about $15,000 a year for graduate students and about $29,000 for undergraduates. We developed an active campaign to fight this unfair treatment of our fellow international workers, many of whom testified in bargaining sessions to its detrimental effects. Not only did the contract fail to win on this demand, but it repealed the small international fee remission we had. Under this new contract, if you are a U.S. citizen, you may benefit from a $300 fee waiver for now (though there is no protection against future fee increases); if you are an international student, you will lose $108 from the $408 international fee waiver that you used to have. This fee sends a toxic message in the Donald Trump era, when immigrants are under vicious attack in our community and nationwide.
It’s hard to believe that such a disastrous contract would have been accepted by workers in a fair and democratic process.
First, the vote took place in the summer, when workers were away from campus. Ratification in August is particularly disenfranchising for most UC campuses, which do not start the school year until late September. As a union, we should have waited out the summer and developed a mass militant campaign in the fall, when we would have the power to negotiate a contract backed by a credible strike threat. The will of members to build the power needed to disrupt university operations was shown by the August “straw poll,” in which 47.4% of respondents agreed they were “prepared to strike and/or help organize a strike.”
Second, despite the fact that the bargaining team was divided (eight in favor, seven against, one abstention), the push to ratify the contract went forward before workers even had the chance to debate, much less fight for something better. With only three days between the notice of the ratification vote and conclusion of the vote, even workers in departments with active unionists had little opportunity to learn about the contents of the contract. For other union elections, the union prohibits holding them in the summer and stipulates a minimum of 21 days between election notice and voting. The summer ambush exploited a loophole in union bylaws.
Furthermore, we argue that the election itself was egregiously biased toward a yes vote. In this extremely contentious vote, the union’s professional organizing staff was explicitly directed by some members of the executive board to canvass for the yes vote. The staff members are paid by our membership dues and work for all of us, not a certain faction within the union. Considering the organizing staff’s privileged position within the union, this undermines the fairness of the vote.
Adding insult to injury, the email containing the ballot began with language that encouraged a yes vote, followed by pro-yes arguments, which included a list of purported “wins” and inaccurate information about a no vote’s implications that could stoke fear. The case for the no vote was buried in an external link at the end of the ballot. Furthermore, the sending of this ballot violated union bylaws that give the elections committee the authority to supervise the ratification vote process; certain individuals in the union leadership unilaterally sent the biased ballot, overriding the elections committee. Due to these irregularities, this ratification vote did not meet the minimum standard of a democratic election.
As we face an increasingly repressive political climate, the labor movement has a pivotal role to play in combating precariousness, and democratizing our universities and workplaces. But the foundations of a powerful union can only be built democratically, by the militancy of its members. UC student-workers must take back our union, and those in the current leadership must take responsibility and make way for new leaders. Furthermore, regardless of these events, we must continue to demand that UC management treat the student-workers it depends on fairly by providing housing relief, eliminating the discriminatory fee for immigrant workers, and ensuring an equitable workplace free from discrimination, harassment and police brutality.
Tara Phillips is a campus graduate student in comparative literature and a head steward of UC Student-Workers’ Union. Shannon Ikebe is a campus doctoral candidate in sociology, and a former executive board member of the UC Student-Workers’ Union.
A tagline accompanying a previous version of this op-ed incorrectly referred to Tara Phillips as a campus doctoral candidate in comparative literature. In fact, she is a campus graduate student in comparative literature.