by Mattie Armstrong-Price
I am a former UCB graduate student, and was on the bargaining team during the 2013/14 contract campaign. While the question of whether to accept the current contract proposal as-is, or to send the bargaining team back to the table and build for a strike this fall is a question that can only be addressed by current student workers — those whose working lives will be governed by this contract — I wanted to share some critical reflections, as a former bargaining team representative, about the current contract proposal. Given that 48% of those members who voted in the straw poll voted against immediate settlement, it is clear that a broad swathe of the membership has some doubts about whether this is the best deal that could be struck with management. I have similar doubts, and wanted to outline what I see as the limits of the current contract proposal.
1. The wage proposal loses ground relative to the last contract.
Management has offered 3% annual raises for the next four years (that is: 3%, 3%, 3%, 3%), equivalent to the current annual raise for non-unionized GSRs. Our previous contract covered four years, but also sought to address the year during which we were bargaining and out of contract, so actually should be thought of as a 5-year deal. The annual raises were thus as follows: 0%, 5%, 4%, 4%, 3%. This averages to a 3.2% annual raise. While seemingly minor, this .2% annual difference is meaningful, when we consider that wage increases build upon each other, or “compound.” To grasp the difference, let’s assume a $20,000 annual salary. After four years of 3.2% versus 3% raises, the base pay differs by $175 dollars ($22,685 vs $22,510). This annual difference then repeats itself in perpetuity, and even gradually expands, regardless of the rate of future annual increases. Any regression in wages relative to the last four years of raises is significant, especially given rising inflation and costs of living. [editor’s note: you can find more detailed analysis of various wage proposals on our graphs and charts page].
Those in favor of settling with management would doubtless counter this analysis by pointing to the $300 annual waiver on campus fees, but:
2. The fee waiver is not reliable, is not universal, and is a concession in principle.
Campus fees are different at every campus, and change on an annual basis. A waiver of a certain dollar amount (rather than a full or even percent-based remission) introduces a clear incentive, amongst those who set the rates, toward offsetting increases in campus fees. Moreover, eligible grad students who fill out the FAFSA generally receive a grant that covers the full cost of campus fees. The $300 dollar waiver is therefore most likely to be redundant for poor and working class graduate students, an ironic outcome to put it mildly. For these reasons, and because the waiver is not built into our base pay, it will not do to conflate the waiver with a wage increase.
Our union has historically made inroads on fees through percent-based waivers, ultimately winning full remissions on tuition and student services fees for those working at least 25% appointments. It is an important step to begin making inroads on campus fees, but to do so with a flat-rate waiver rather than a percent-based remission is a concession in principle.
3. The proposed contract involves multiple concessions, including on grievances.
There are multiple concessions made in this contract. The first is a repeat of a concession that was also made in 2014 — namely, to agree to a 4 year contract. Doing so delays, relative to the previous norm of 3 year contracts, the moment when members will next have a collective say over their working lives. By repeating this concession, the bargaining team agrees to a new norm around contract duration. While the concession on duration was made once before, the bargaining team has also conceded new ground on the issue of grievance resolution, and has agreed to eliminate, rather than revive, a labor-management meeting on all gender bathroom redesignation. On the former, they have agreed to have grievances “bifurcated” for the sake of third-party arbitration, which is to say that grievances will be arbitrated twice, first on the question of whether the grievance is arbitrable, and second on the merits of the grievance as such. (So, for example, a grievance over access to all gender bathrooms might be found to be within the proper scope of arbitration, but then at a future hearing — perhaps even after the relevant semester or quarter has ended — found to be without merit.) Bifurcation increases the cost of arbitration for the union and delays the timeline for grievance resolution, which is especially problematic given the high turnover of our working lives. The bargaining team has also agreed to a free 7-day time extension in the grievance procedure, which further allows management to drag out the resolution of grievances. Management has requested bifurcation before, but our union has always been able to hold out and not agree to this concession.
4. Most non-economic changes simply codify current law or university policy.
Four years ago, our contract codified a new right (to access to an all gender bathroom within a reasonable distance from our workspace), and a new principle (that undocumented graduate students should have the same working conditions and compensation as documented grad students). The current contract generally does not codify new rights or principles, but rather codifies current law or university policy. The new language around all gender bathrooms — namely, that the university will redesignate single-occupancy bathrooms as all gender and that they will provide a map of all gender bathrooms — codifies a 2015 UCOP policy to this effect. The language around disability accommodations echoes the “interactive process” outlined in university policy. The stipulation that a grievance against sexual harassment can proceed concurrently with a Title IX inquiry does not break new ground: university management had no legal or contractual basis upon which to insist on non-concurrent resolutions of Title IX and grievance complaints. Other means, such as initiating legal action or formal complaints, might have been sufficient to overcome management’s intransigence on this question. Moreover, the clauses related to interim measures simply codify management’s obligation to provide a workplace free of discrimination and harassment for all employees, but don’t affirmatively oblige them to any particular interim course of action. On immigration, the requirement that police agencies present a judicial warrant is consistent with a 2016 university policy to this effect. On the other hand, the obligation that management notify the union in the event of immigration enforcement against a member appears to break new ground, as does the leave protections for members to attend immigration hearings. Finally, the language pertaining to employment in the immigration sideletter is not consistent with the principle that undocumented graduate students should have the same working conditions and compensation as documented graduate students, to which management had agreed in 2014. On demilitarization and disarmament, a labor management meeting in the absence of further contract language provides no guarantee of progress.
5. Absent settlement, the union will not lose access to orientations this fall.
This section gets into a bit of inside baseball, but in a post-Janus world, the question of whether union organizers have a guaranteed right to speak with new employees is especially salient. Apparently, in recent weeks, many union organizers have been concerned that extending the contract campaign into the fall could have jeopardized their right to speak to new employees, and even could have put in question the practice of management giving to new graduate students a form on which to elect to join the union. These fears are essentially without foundation. Both the contract and a new law, AB 119, guarantee union access to orientations. The fear seems to have been based on the assumption that management would not have agreed to extend the existing contract into the fall, would have pressed a maximal interpretation of Janus, and would have flouted AB 119. But based on past precedent (including the precedent of earlier this summer), management is open to extending the contract past deadline. Contract expiration lifts from student workers the “no strike” clause of our contract, while not involving the loss of significant contractual protections in relation to working conditions (including on the question of union access to orientations). Any unilateral management change to working conditions after contract expiration constitutes an unfair labor practice, which can be remedied through strike action. In 2013/14, the union chose to let the contract expire during the fall term, so that we would have the option of striking in solidarity with service workers represented by AFSCME (which we did in November), and of striking over workplace grievances (which members at Santa Cruz threatened to do in the spring, compelling management to concede to members’ lofty demands for full back-pay for tutors). Management does not want to face a strike, and will act in ways to head-off strikes, including by agreeing to extend contracts, and by conceding to at least certain demands.
6. The proposed contract is not backed by a strike threat.
Given that the current contract proposal was made in the absence of a credible strike threat, the pressure management felt to concede on certain demands was less than it might have been. There is no way to know how much further wages might have been raised, or how much more progress on non-economic demands might have been made. These questions can only be addressed and resolved if the membership votes down the current contract proposal, sends the bargaining team back to the table, and organizes a credible strike threat this fall.