On the morning of November 14, Berkeley undergraduates found themselves surrounded by the largest academic workers’ strike in the history of the United States. We were just a small slice of the UC system’s nearly 300,000 students across 10 campuses. During a time when union activity was on a nationwide upswing, with 48,000 academic workers putting on public display the immense power of collective action, undergraduates had an undeniable role to play. And they should take notes.
The importance of GSI labor has been made apparent; the strike caused grading to nearly come to a stop. Whether workers are organizing at Amazon, Starbucks, Chevron, the UC system or any other workplace, they demonstrate their importance and strengthen their bargaining position by withholding their labor. The democratic decision of a union to strike is a strategic choice that stops the flow of profits and abruptly ends day-to-day operations. More importantly, however, the growing labor movement is a broader struggle to extend the principles of democracy into the workplace, giving those who do the work the collective power to improve their lives and the lives of their coworkers.
Each of us has a critical role to play in this struggle. As busy students on a large and lonely campus, it is easy to feel demoralized about the injustices we see around us. We have seen the university make reductions to student services, like libraries and technology, while increasing the cost of rent and tuition, all while income inequality continues to intensify. Despite the university’s inclusive language, these cutbacks on students and Berkeley residents disproportionately harm communities of color and people with disabilities.
Furthermore, these injustices are merely a symptom of broader austerity, in which working-class students are paying more for an education where they receive fewer services. The striking UAW workers’ struggle to win a living wage and a fair workplace was just one of the many battles in the broader war for a campus and society that exists to serve the needs of its members.
In such times, it is crucial that we stand in solidarity with those organizing for better conditions. Spending time on the picket line was an empowering experience, and it was impossible not to feel inspired by the many beautiful displays of solidarity from workers and the community. Throughout the duration of the strike, unionized construction workers, delivery drivers and garbage truck drivers refused to cross the picket line, Stanford’s marching band spelled out ‘UAW’ on the field during the Big Game, supportive honks from the community were heard around the campus perimeter and Berkeley faculty united in support of their striking colleagues.
Registered student organizations also became meaningful sources of undergraduate solidarity. Cal Young Democratic Socialists of America, or Cal YDSA, the organization of which I am a co-chair, shared information on how to support the strike on social media, while also helping to organize undergraduates. We organized both an Undergraduate Solidarity Rally and a Co-op Solidarity Rally, while also turning out students to 5 a.m. picket lines, collecting nearly 20,000 petition signatures and urging course instructors to honor the strike as much as possible. In collaboration with students at the College of Natural Resources, Cal YDSA published a letter to CNR leadership asking them to protect and support from intimidation those refusing to cross the picket line. A subsequent letter was published to the College of Environmental Design by the Cal Berkeley Democrats, or Cal Dems, and Telegraph for People, who also organized multiple Bike Strikes. Organizing these solidarity actions required dedication to our united struggle during rapidly developing, unpredictable moments and a recognition of the power of organized labor to build a better world.
On Tuesday of RRR week, when the UC surprisingly released a form asking for volunteers to help break the strike by proctoring final exams, undergraduate organizers were quick to respond. Cal YDSA, Cal Dems and Elise Joshi, a Berkeley student and the executive director of Gen-Z for Change, called on supportive students to overflow the form with fake submissions, attracting the attention of hundreds on social media and ultimately getting the form taken down.
On campuses across the country, undergraduates are organizing in solidarity with workers. These efforts make it clear that students, and all people, can build collective power and meaningfully apply pressure on powerful institutions, whether they are leading their own campaigns or planning actions in solidarity.
As the university attempts to preserve and expand its harmful austerity policies, apathy is precisely what they want from you. It has always been the collective power of the united working class that has forced the powerful’s hands to win social and economic rights. By joining student organizations and leading these fights on our campus, we as undergraduates can inspire student activists everywhere, who may go on to lead their own fights in their future schools, workplaces, and communities. Divided, we are weak; united, we can win the world we deserve, where workers determine their conditions and the economy exists to care for people.