Socialist and Anti-Oppression Union Work in the Age of Janus: Perspectives from UC Student-Workers

By Workers’ Voice
The UAW 2865 local represents 16,000 academic student employees across the 9 campuses of the University of California. In 2009 graduate students organized a massive fight back against cuts to programs and fee hikes with impressive strikes and occupations in conjunction with the undergraduate students and other workers. As we say, “mass action gets the goods” and they won some important partial demands. From this grassroots rebellion from the ranks, a new generation of union leaders emerged and formed the reform caucus Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU), which won the leadership of the local in 2011. They believed in democratic and militant unionism, in integrating social justice issues into contract campaigns and the role of unions in defending public services, like education and bargaining for the common good. Most of the original founders of AWDU have graduated, but they left a series of key accumulated experiences of union democratization, strike organizing, and political education to the next generation of union leaders.
Today the fight to continue the militant and democratic legacy of the local is more alive than ever, this time in a different context: the right-wing attacks against unions are raging (i.e. the Janus vs. AFSCME case), and yet teachers across the country are leading an unprecedented wave of statewide strikes. La Voz interviewed some socialist comrades currently active in the union, to pick their brains on the current challenges the union faces and the socialist vision they are proposing to strengthen their local and propose an alternative model of unionism.
Alex Bush is a Film and Media Studies doctoral candidate and the newly elected financial secretary of the union; Margaret Mary Downey is chair of the Berkeley Campus Unit, a member of the local’s Bargaining Team, and a student in the Social Welfare PhD program; Ángela Castillo is an Anthropology doctoral student from Bogotá, Colombia, a member of the People of Color Caucus, and a newly elected head steward for the Berkeley campus; and Alborz Ghandehari is an Iranian Ethnic Studies doctoral candidate and a member of the People of Color Caucus and the Anti-Oppression Committee.

Janus, Bargaining, and the role of strikes and staff in militant unionism

LV: The looming Supreme Court decision on Janus—which threatens to defund unions by eliminating fair share fees—has put all public sector unions on the edge. We have seen many different responses: from passive acceptance of the cuts to come, to real attempts to reconnect with the members. The first passive reaction, however, has been the rule. How has your local UAW 2865 reacted to Janus? Concretely what have you done and what is yet to be accomplished?
Alex Bush: Our local is grappling with Janus on many fronts. For the past eight months, we have been engaged in an ambitious organizing drive across the state to build and strengthen membership in preparation for the case. This has the twin effect of both shoring up our financial resources and broadening our democratic practices by bringing more members into the union. In October, our statewide local agreed to a coordinated membership drive that was in direct response to the threat of Janus, with membership targets designed to shield us from the worst effects of the decision. Currently, our leadership is discussing and debating the best way to move forward with (hopefully temporary) budget cuts in order to maintain a balance between keeping our commitments to our members and adjusting expenses to account for a significant loss that we anticipate with the decision coming down in June at the latest. Personally, I believe that a supermajority, active, and politically educated membership is the only way unions can maintain strength through the nationalization of so-called “right-to-work” laws.
Margaret Mary Downey: I think we’ve taken Janus as an opportunity, and that is not to be overly positive and undercut the very real violence that it represents to working people and all those who care for them and for whom they care. However, given the reality, we’ve needed to develop as Alex said an ambitious, coordinated, politically-informed organizing model across the state. This is hard because not every union leader agrees with what organizing should mean or what it looks like. These debates are healthy, as long as we press ourselves and one another to come up with adaptations and alternatives that still challenge “right-to-work” (though we should say, right to work for less!) on the scope and scale that it demands. That’s how I feel our Union has responded to Janus – by reckoning logistically, politically, even emotionally with the scope of our power and the scope of the challenge in continuously organizing thousands of workers in their Union. However, this is what we need to be constantly doing even if Janus were not on the horizon. Again, I don’t say this to be blase about its impacts but rather to highlight what I feel our outlook must be given the dire circumstances.
LV: Some union leaders usually argue that unions need to get to majority first, and only then they can take on important political campaigns, like the fight for racial justice, for public education, etc. As socialists actively involved in leading the union, do you believe that there are two stages of the fight, first a stage to get “strong”, and win members, and then a stage to get “political”? Can you give concrete examples?
Alex Bush: No, I do not believe in this stageism. My argument with this theory of union work comes not just from having a strong political commitment to racial justice and gender equality, for instance, but also from my experience on the ground organizing. Issues like gender and racial inequality, or equal access to public education, are often at the forefront of workers’ minds. Only by demonstrating to them that our union is committed to bringing our collective strength to bear on these questions can we win them over to membership. While I do believe that supermajority membership makes us enormously more powerful in these struggles, they must be integrated into the philosophy of how we build to supermajority. In our last contract negotiations, even with a minority membership we were able to make significant progress on gender justice with access to all-gender restrooms guaranteed in our contract, an issue some might consider “minoritarian” but that I believe we must consider part of our solidarity-based fight for justice for all workers.
Margaret Mary Downey: Stageism is a trap. We have to be very wary of simply trying to “win” without being clear about what we are winning and why. Another trap though is signaling radicalism through very beautifully-worded statements but ignoring the need for deep-seated, durable shifts in our political-economy. We have to be clear about what our discourse about a thing achieves, and what it doesn’t.
I believe that workers – humans in general! – are moved and radicalized through struggle. As Alex said, through on-the-ground organizing I think one finds out very quickly that many many of us experience exploitation and oppression at work along the lines of what some would call “minoritarian” identities and experiences that shape and inform our commitment to ending exploitation and oppression at work. At the same time, many many workers with racial, gender, ability, etc. privilege really do care about solidarity. I think stageism underestimates us as organizers and as the un-organized. We can move, and we can move each other.
I can imagine “stageist” arguments against Unions taking strong stances against white supremacy and fascism for instance, claiming that this sounds way to radical and “abstract” for a majority of workers. What we saw with the visits of Milo Yiannopoulos, etc. to UC campuses was that this is politically objectionable, morally offensive, and at the same time, not coincidentally, impacted our working conditions in some really extreme and vivid ways. This became clear even to workers who weren’t previously invested in a Union conversation about white supremacy on our campuses.
Now, we do have to stay in touch with our membership and see where variously situated people are at on issues of white supremacy, fascism, racial justice. Not all members will be at the same place at the same time. I do believe in meeting most people (I mean, those who are at it in good faith) where they’re at when it comes to one-one organizing conversations. Sometimes saying the righteous thing (“Fuck the Police!”) doesn’t work for someone who otherwise wants to live in a world without state violence, coercion, and punishment. This is where public education and organizing work together – I believe people can and will be moved politically through collective struggle and are strengthened (when their newfound ground is shaken) through learning about theory, history, and art that explains their newfound ground back to them.
I’ve had in my head this metaphor of a bicycle versus unicycle for a minute now. Political education is one wheel, and organizing is the other. You can have one without the other (the unicycle of political education, the unicycle of organizing), but you will be less stable, less graceful, and won’t go nearly as far as fast with as many people with as much as power as if you had the bicycle. Zoom!
LV: You are currently bargaining a new contract. What are the major issues that affect today the more than 17,000 academic employees that your local represents?
Alex Bush: Our issues will be familiar to workers in all sectors: low wages, high costs for childcare and dependent care, racial and gender inequity in the workplace, including harassment, the need for real sanctuary protections for our workers, and protections from extreme workloads. We are also fighting for justice for international students by demanding an end to special fees for international students only. Due to the statewide housing crisis in California, our workers are also facing a very hostile housing market, with some of our in-unit workers even experiencing houselessness. It’s a lot to fight for!
4) What is your bargaining and contract campaign strategies? We saw you invited around 200 rank and file workers to the first bargaining session at UC Berkeley. Quite unusual don’t you think? Why did you do that?
Alex Bush: We are committed to a bargaining process called “open bargaining” that is becoming more common among progressive unions. In this process, any member of the union can come to a bargaining session, rather than restricting access to those on the negotiating teams. It is central to our philosophy as a union that every worker has the right to speak directly to the people who control their working conditions, and open bargaining is a chance to do that. Especially at an institution as large and bureaucratic as UC, it can be difficult to find out who the decision-makers even are. During bargaining, they are legally required to come to the table with us, and we think it is essential that workers be present, both to voice their concerns and to see the boss in action for themselves. It is some of the best radical education we can offer to our members.
Margaret Mary Downey: Coming to open bargaining in 2014 is what radicalized me to actively participate in our Union – before, I was coming to membership meetings, liked the people I was becoming comrades with, and was generally sympathetic but I didn’t really understand just how fundamentally antagonistic the interests of UC management are to our interests as workers. I think open bargaining is central to our strategy because one ounce of open bargaining (seeing management be rude to your fellow workers, seeing them refuse to acknowledge housing or police brutality as worker issues, seeing the vague titles and roles that comprise management’s team) provides more political education than any reading or training!
LV: What is your general understanding as a socialist on the role of strikes in contract negotiations and in the labor movement in general?
Alex Bush: As socialist unionists, our theory of power is that the ultimate leverage held by any worker against the employer is the collective withholding of labor. As such, we think that any union engaging in a high-stakes struggle with the employer should always be ready to strike. However, the decision to strike must be up to the workers, who will have to vote on authorization. In organizing conversations, we try to explain to people that the strike is the basis of our collective power, and something we may need to deploy to win our strongest demands. Sometimes this takes more than one conversation, which is why on-the-ground organizing is so central to our vision of union democracy.
LV: In the course of bargaining, how are you planning to decide which demands are still on the table and which demands will be off the table? There are some members that see bargaining as a “trade-off” and then the inevitable dilemma emerges of “bread and butter” wins (wages) versus “minority” issues being addressed (protections for immigrant workers, housing, sexual harassment protections, etc.)…. what is your take on this?
Alex Bush: We reject the opposition of “bread and butter” and “minority” or “social justice” issues. We embrace campaigns that address the whole worker: not just wages, but also safety, shelter, and sanctuary. Inevitably, we will have to let go of some demands in order to get others–this is what bargaining is–but our first priority is to get as strong as possible so we get as many of our demands as possible. The tough decisions down the line will be made democratically by our bargaining team in consultation with our joint council.
LV: As a reform local, led in part by socialist militants, what do you think is the role of staff in the union? How or from where should the union recruit its staff, what relation it should have with the membership and how staff should be treated? Do you support the unionization of staff?
Margaret Mary Downey: This is an incredibly important question for us, and I think for most labor unions,  now. Whenever possible, if the skill-set and capacity are there, staff should be hired from the rank-and-file membership. Longterm, I think staff should also be elected to clear terms, though I don’t want to pretend that voting would automatically make staff accountable. It wouldn’t – strong engagement from a majority of workers in the governance of their union, guided by a militant socialist political vision, does this. By militant socialist political vision, I mean one that advances worker control over their labor power and the means of production, builds international solidarity, and fights to end all forms of social, political, and economic coercion, oppression, and exploitation. In certain scenarios I think that staff time, resources, and skills can be necessary to build towards this goal and train up rank-and-file workers to animate a militant organizing program. In the same way, I think staff should be supervised by a transparent central body that is democratically elected; then it’s clear to staff who their support people are, and it is clear to members whom to go to if they have a question about staff. However, I do want to highlight again that elections are for me a necessary but insufficient way to talk about democracy and I hope to see our Union become one where a majority of workers are actively engaged in its life and governance.
If the capacity and skill set are not there in the membership, hiring staff who are not from the membership is an acceptable and sometimes necessary step. I believe in expertise, or rather accumulated experience in the struggle. I don’t believe that expertise is an essential quality that some people (“professionals”) have and some people (“workers”) lack. I really believe in organizing oneself out of a job. It is also, incidentally, how I approach my work as a social worker.
I think we must make decisions as socialist militants in the labor movement based on the formula of assessment of objective material conditions + principles. Thus any decision to hire staff must be made from both an assessment of objective material conditions AND principles.
I believe that whatever the arrangement, staff should of course be supported in their right to unionize. At a very basic level this is just a practical reality – in our current legal framework right now an employer (in this case, a Union) can challenge a unionization effort or not, and if the employer does challenge unionization the case will go to the Public Employee Relations Board or National Labor Relations Board for a final decision. It is not an employer’s role – whether they are a Union or not – to decide for workers whether or not a Union is necessary. As employers we should respect this fundamental right of all workers or fall prey to the same logic we fight in the bosses.

Racial justice, anti-Oppression, and the role of the local in the broader labor movement

LV: In the months leading up to bargaining, there has been a lot of discussion about the union’s strategy and tactics for advancing racial justice while pushing for majority membership in preparation for the Janus ruling. As socialists of color and union activists, what do you think is the role of the labor movement in the struggle for racial justice? How are you fighting to advance that vision within the UC student-workers union?
Ángela Castillo: The labor movement has a major responsibility in advancing and pushing for socio-economic reforms that transform the workplaces of people of color into spaces where neither labor exploitation, nor racial or gender discrimination are the norm. Furthermore, from a socialist perspective, unions are fundamental in the struggle for racial justice because they are one of the more powerful tools of the working class. Despite nearly four decades of attacks aimed at destroying the labor movement in the U.S., unions and other spaces of organized labor are the sites where the power of workers is instantiated in concrete ways. Which ways? We need to remember that the kind of power that workers express and build in unions and other spaces of organized labor is a collective power. We always, always need to stress the collective character of that power. We live in a society where neoliberal, liberal, or late-capitalist forms of governing groups and persons tend to emphasize the individual. Unions and other labor organizations are a completely different thing because they set in motion collective modalities of powers. These modalities make unions and workers’ organizations capable of larger transformations. If workers get organized in collective ways to improve their labor conditions, those same organizing efforts can be oriented to transform society in general, and in the American context, that means transforming the structural racism and sexism that pervade every social relationship.
Finally, I want to stress that we need to be cautious when we talk about this articulation of the labor movement and racial justice struggles as though it is something that has never happened. Several historical studies have shown that the labor movement has embraced racial justice fights. More importantly, the work of historians like Lane Windham shows that people of color, specially women of color, were the main characters of the 1970s labor movement. They were at the forefront of the main labor struggles during the 1960s-1970s. They transformed the labor movement by taking much of the political knowledge gained during the civil rights movements into unions. They fought for these rights within unions and they diversified the labor movement. For instance, currently black men tend to unionize more than any other sector of public employees. Now, acknowledging the role of social justice activists in the labor movement is different from asserting that the labor movement is free or does not reproduce structural racism or sexism. It is also true that many unions coalesce with racists and white supremacists. We need to say that out loud.
How do we fight in our union? Our union is currently on a project of seriously embracing social justice struggles. We are working in multiple fronts. We are connecting with student-workers of color on campus. In our Berkeley Unit, several self-identified students of color created the People of Color Caucus in order to raise awareness of the specific working conditions students of color face when working as  academic employees and to influence the current negotiation of our labor contract by pushing for anti-discrimination provisions. However, making the problem of racism public is only one step in our commitment for social justice. We need to fight for material resources that support and help the social justice struggles of student-workers. I see the fight for racial justice in our union as related to: (1) allocation of resources and (2) political education of members. The union should allocate resources to bring students of color to the union and to create spaces where our specific issues or problems are addressed as a priority. And, the union should educate its members in how to embrace the fight against structural racism.
Alborz Ghandehari: The labor movement must be a primary site for struggles of racial justice. When I think about what this means, I think about the history of autoworkers in the 1970s, many of whom were Arab-American who pushed the UAW International to boycott Israeli bonds as a protest against Israel’s oppression of Palestinians; I think about the fact that it was Black workers of Polaroid in the U.S. who refused to make the racist passbooks that Black South Africans were forced to carry under that country’s apartheid regime. I think about the struggles of the mostly Black sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968 who demanded dignity as both Black people and as workers. The historic struggle of the Mexican and Philipino/a farmworkers and the Delano grape strike. In the case of our union, white graduate students outnumber all other racial and ethnic groups because of institutional racism in the education system. Yet in the last several years, members of color have successfully pushed for demands around undocumented students, sanctuary campus, police violence, and solidarity with global struggles like that in Palestine. Members of color have also played leadership roles in making sure that demands such as new unionized positions tasked with access and retention of grad students of color are part of the bargaining team’s docket, as well as other demands such as sanctuary campus and demilitarization of campus police. The fact that we were able to form a POC caucus at Berkeley and push for these demands means that much has changed. With the Janus decision, our union will lose much of its funding sources. This will be detrimental to student-workers of color and thus is a priority for our POC caucus which has stressed recruiting more workers of color into our caucus and our union. Janus represents an attack on our union; without resources we cannot pursue issues related to members of color; this is why building majority membership is important to us. We must build majority membership while at the same time engaging in political education so that we build consciousness in struggle among all student-workers at the UC.
LV: Do you think it has been challenging to recruit academic workers of color as both members and elected leaders of the union? If so, why do you think that is? What do you think are the best approaches for bringing more POC communities into the union? Can you give concrete examples?
Ángela Castillo: Yes, it is challenging. First, students of color perceive our union as a space that isn’t committed to fight structural racism. Second, we need to understand that many students of color are participating or leading social justice struggles in their own contexts. Even though they aren’t in the union, many students of color are very active political actors in different contexts. I mention this because we need to acknowledge that many students of color really don’t have time to dedicate to the union, they are in the position of not having more time for political work, mainly if they feel that they aren’t valued as leaders or if they feel their fights are underestimated. We need to address those material constraints by embracing, supporting, and learning from their struggles. Right now, the struggle against police brutality comes to mind, the demilitarization of campus police, the divestment for the prison complex, and the struggle for full-citizenship for the undocumented working class. Those are struggles that will make our universities and society in general more egalitarian. In terms of approaches, I think Academic Workers who are not people of color should be aware of how they reproduce problematic readings. I’ve heard for instance that our People of Color Caucus has been described as a “people of color club”. This framing problematically reproduces the narrative that people of color think they are entitled to special treatment. We do not think we are entitled to “special treatments”, we just think we are entitled to the very same rights other Academic Workers have, such as non-discrimination in our evaluations, etc.
Alborz Ghandehari: I think graduate students in general are hard to organize because many may have become burnt out from undergraduate political work or feel too burdened with the demands of grad school to get involved in organizing. These issues are compounded for many grad students of color who face added burdens of being first-generation, having to support families through other jobs, and racially insensitive actions and harassment from advisors, faculty, and students. Among many friends of mine, there is also a sense that they do not see the union as a primary place to organize as people of color. They decide to spend their time in other organizations that are more explicitly centered around racial justice. So yes, it has been challenging to get student-workers in our communities to see the union as a place to organize. But we have had successes when we build substantive campaigns around issues that members of color face. In my post as anti-oppression committee coordinator in 2017, I helped organize know your rights workshops for student-workers affected by the Muslim ban. As an Iranian-American, I saw both international and domestic student-workers with ties to the seven countries that were banned look to our union as a place of support and care. It was heartening for me to see other Iranian student-workers, for example, become active union members through that process. Another example was when we ran the BDS campaign in solidarity with workers in Palestine in 2014. Palestinian American union members led that campaign and through doing so, I remember other Arab American student workers developed trust and respect for our union and saw themselves as a part of our union. When David Cole, a Black service worker at UC Berkeley was attacked and arrested by police at his union’s protest for better wages and working conditions, our union came out in strong support calling racial violence a labor issue. I think often, both members of color and white members who want to be “allies” call out the absence of workers of color in the cadres of our core activists and call for internal conversation. Internal conversation is important. However, often white people who want to show that they are “allies” engage in this calling out while stopping short of actually acknowledging and uplifting the organizing work that is actually happening–though that they for whatever reason may not be seeing–among leaders and workers of color. As we have seen historically in our own union, organizing is the most important thing that gets student-workers of color to join our union: organizing campaigns that address our various needs. It also serves as consciousness-building among those white members who may not have thought about the importance of these issues before.
LV: What is the role of the POC caucus and the Anti-Oppression committees in the union? What kind of work are those two spaces engaged in during this semester and what kinds of challenges have you encountered?
Ángela Castillo:
The POC Caucus role in the Berkeley Unit is a productive space to discuss working issues for students of color and to advance our demands. Please note that we do not make a distinction between “better working conditions” and “social justice struggles”. For us, these are the same. Anti-Discrimination provisions that protect us from discrimination due to changes in the migratory status or the current state of migratory status are not “special social justice demands”, these are just demands that protect students who are working. The POC Caucus is a space that embraces this perspective. The main challenge we have faced is involving students of color as members and also expanding these social justice struggles to other campuses.
Alborz Ghandehari:
Berkeley’s POC caucus is engaged in supporting demands for the contract campaign, organizing student-workers of color to become union members and core activists, and putting on political education events. For example, last Fall, we sent delegates to the Bargaining Convention in Santa Barbara to present demands that the POC caucus had endorsed as important racial justice demands. These demands included creating positions represented by our union that would work on access and retention of graduate students of color to the UC, divestment of the UC from the oppression of Palestinians, sustained funding for undocumented students including expanding our last contract win of TA opportunities for undocumented students, and non-discrimination issues such as sanctuary campus policies and demilitarization of police. In February we organized a well-attended event called “What is the role of labor in the struggle for racial justice?” where leaders of color spoke from AFSCME (UC service workers), the Black Labor Center, ILWU 10 (dockworkers), and from our own union. In my experience, I have seen how these kinds of events are transformative and consciousness-raising for all members who attend, not just members of color. Our caucus has steadily grown from a few people to almost 30; I think a good goal for us to grow to 50 members by the end of the year. The Anti-Oppression committee has also been a space where racial justice struggles have been waged by union members. As a member who myself was organized first through this space and as someone who later served as the AOC Coordinator, I think the AOC is a hugely necessary and important space. While our union has developed an organizing structure over the past year to build to majority membership with the creation of Organizing Committees, there have been some questions around what are the distinct roles of the Anti-Oppression Committee and the Organizing Committee. Some members have come to the conclusion that the AOC does internal dynamics work to address harms between union members and leaders and the OC does organizing work: I think this is fundamentally wrong. Internal dynamics can be one aspect of the AOC but it must also continue to be an organizing space alongside the OC; The rich history of the AOC in building issue-based campaigns can serve as a model to the OCs while the OCs’ development of rigorous organizing trainings, and sustained member engagement and recruitment can be of great use to the AOC as well. All of these spaces approach the question of how to organize student-workers, yet each from a unique and equally necessary perspective.
LV: Your local is one of the most militant and democratic in the state. What do you think should be the role of UAW 2865 in the broader labor movement? What would playing that role look like in practice? Can you give concrete examples?
Ángela Castillo:
I think I’m going to repeat some ideas that others have mentioned during these days: we are seeing the relevance of education workers in revitalizing the labor movement in the U.S. through the uplifting mobilizations in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona. I think the role of UAW 2865 in the broader labor movement is deeply related with the fight for public education, real public education. In practice, it means educating the UAW 2865’s members in the importance of public education for getting a more egalitarian -less destructive- society. It means building a strong union where the majority of the workers are members of the union.  It means educating and mobilizing members around for instance the importance of state funding for public institutions and consequently the severing of ties between the University of California and the fossil fuel industry.
Alborz Ghandehari:
A number of unions at the UC are in bargaining negotiations now: our union UAW 2865, AFSCME (custodians, patient care workers, other service workers), CNA (California Nurses Association), UPTE (healthcare workers and IT workers), and AFT (librarians). We must all build together, we must coordinate and engage in militant action to make the UC a school with truly quality education run by workers and students. When we hear about teachers in West Virginia going on a successful illegal strike due to poverty wages and terrible working conditions that shut down all schools in the state (check?), we must learn from their example. I think the role we can play in the labor movement is by sharing our organizing model with other unions: member recruitment that constantly provides opportunities for members to get involved in campaigns, not the type of recruitment that just stops at getting cards. I think we can share our strategies about how we are a social movement union, meaning we support community struggles around housing, police violence, and xenophobia because many of our members face these issues every day. These two examples–sustained rank-and-file engagement and leadership, and being a social movement union–are the bedrock of how I understand democratic unionism in UAW 2865. If we can build trust, confidence, and courage in every worker over the forces of isolation and fear, then we can build a labor movement that is a true threat to capitalism.

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