To my AWDU comrades far and wide

Originally circulated via Google Docs by Alex Holmstrom-Smith on August 3, 2018. Reposted with permission.

To my AWDU comrades far and wide, or anyone else interested in my thoughts,

I have been loathe to wade into the current debates within my former union, UC Student Workers Union (UAW 2865), because I’m not there and can’t speak to current dynamics. However since my comrade Duane Wright (for whom I have the deepest respect) posted a piece evaluating the overall accomplishments of AWDU since 2011, I thought it would be useful for me to add some perspective from the time that I was active. Because grad student unions have such high turnover, this reflection process is happening across different waves of organizers who have participated in the union at distinct stages of its evolution. The geographic spread of our local across 9 campuses has also always led to a variety of patterns and experiences that are hard to encapsulate in a single narrative (which has led to significant intra-UC-AWDU conflict in the past). So for those reasons, I hope my perspective might add something to the story.

Like Duane, I arrived at the UC in the fall of 2011 and quickly became active in the union. (I think of us as 1.5 or 2.0 generation UC-AWDU, since we weren’t around for the formation of AWDU and it’s original electoral victory, but we arrived when those activists were still around and AWDU was very strong). I was on the Executive Board through most of our contract campaign, and then I was elected Unit Chair of the UCLA campus in the spring of 2014 right at the end of our contract fight. At that point, as many 1st and 2nd gen AWDU folks left the UCs or became less active, I continued on as Chair up to the start of the fall 2016 semester (which for perspective is when Garrett Shishido Strain arrived at UC Berkeley).

My assessment of our work 2011-2014:

I’m with Duane that I will be proud of that work forever. We ran an ambitious contract campaign, both in terms of the breadth of the demands and people we brought into that process, and in our willingness to use collective action and innovative tactics to deliver on those goods. As Duane outlined, during our contract campaign we faced constant disruption and sabotage from the old guard (the Admin Caucus, USEJ/Switch). They used fearmongering to argue against militant tactics, and they used utterly disingenuous arguments and outright lies to try to undermine our campaign. And yet we prevailed, and as Duane outlined, the contract we signed in 2014 represented a massive improvement over the years before and inspired a lot of other grad worker organizing.

During that period and the years following we also worked hard to reform the structure of our local to make it more democratic and accountable to members. One of the things that I fought for more than anything was to get term limits for elected positions, and we also were able to change our elections to biennial instead of triennial, and to prohibit multiple officeholding. Those bylaw changes that are still in place and that I feel very proud to have helped implement them.

A lot of the organizing we did around the contract campaign was based on affinity-type working groups, which were awesome in terms of developing demands and contract language and mobilizing around those specific demands. While this structure of organizing involves a lot of committed activists, our campaign would have been even stronger with the type of systematic and broad organizing that can mobilize a truly mass collective action. We did start building up a stewards’ network, but the number of departments covered was always short of what would be ideal. At the end of the day, I felt that our preparations for our strikes were a bit haphazard, and as a result, the participation in our strike could have been higher (a fact that I have never denied, even if it meant Jacob Denz got a negative soundbite out of it).

I still believe striking was the right call. We caused disruption, freaked the university out, had lots of good conversations with students and other members of the university community. We raised the stakes for what our union could and was willing to do, and we won bigger because of it. I still believe that fearmongering about the risks of a “weak” strike were and are vastly overstated in the context of our university.

But, we could still improve, a lot! A more built-out stewards network would have helped with strike and contract mobilization, and it would have also improved contract implementation moving forward. Furthermore, strike participation varied across departments, with some having almost full participation in the strike and others having less. A main goal of the next contract campaign would logically be to build on those successes and expand our reach throughout the university.

And, despite our efforts at improving the formal democratic structures of the union, the lack of outreach to many members DOES raise questions about how democratic our union really was. If people aren’t members or aren’t aware of the things that the union is doing, they can’t be said to have a meaningful say. To me those are legit questions that can and should motivate us to expand and improve our vision of what a democratic union looks like. And my experience from 2014-16 *to me* indicates that there was room to combine these orientations, rather than pit them against each other.

What did we do at UCLA between 2014 and 2016?

  • BDS vote (I’m very proud of this work!)
  • Built relationships with groups like the Undercommons, MOCA, and SJP
  • Supported grad students and union members doing anti-sexual harassment campaigns
  • Hosted the 2016 CGEU conference
  • Worked on grievances
  • Relocated the LA office
  • Tried to update our database

    All of the above was great and important work! But it still wasn’t the systematic membership building, leadership development that I knew we needed. Yes, I recruited new stewards and trained them to handle grievances. Yes I put a ton of work into reaching new members at orientations. But the rest of the time, we didn’t do that much new member outreach. And because we had just signed a 4-year contract, building for the next contract campaign didn’t have the urgency required to really motivate people or organize our activities.

I never felt that the reason we weren’t doing the systematic membership and base-building that I thought was necessary was because I was too busy doing activist work on campus on issues such as sexual harassment. I wasn’t always THAT busy all the time in my job as Unit Chair. (OK maybe the fall of 2014 was somewhat consumed by the BDS campaign, but after that things died down quite a bit). Because I perceived our clunky and inaccessible database to be a barrier to systematic membership organizing, I got us started on a project to switch databases, which didn’t end up going anywhere1. But the reason we didn’t do systematic membership building and organizing at UCLA at that time was that I just didn’t have the skills (or perhaps enough confidence in my skills) to create and implement a membership building organizing drive from scratch, nor did I have the tools to do so. I didn’t have any staff support to do that work, and we didn’t have a model we were implementing or mentorship from more experienced organizers. We just didn’t have a plan, and we didn’t have the existential threat of Janus to make us make one.

The bottom line is, 2014-16 was a great time to be doing the work of building up our membership base, but we didn’t do it. So since then, I’ve watched with a lot of admiration for the organizing work that folks in the local have been doing, and I’ve also been somewhat concerned and critical about some things. (As an aside, I’ve also been truly saddened by the level of discord and deep unhappiness that I see in my comrades who are still active in CA. I don’t have any analysis of why this is, but I just want to acknowledge how hard it has been for everyone).

Trends and new policies that I am worried about:

  • Whether having an organized staff will present new dynamics and perhaps challenges w/r/t union democracy (yes, workers should all have unions and job security, but the high turnover in grad student unions might exacerbate inequalities of knowledge and empowerment between members and organizing staff, which might be something to think about in the future)
  • Potential for centralization of power & accountability with the lead organizer position
  • People on the bargaining team getting closer to Mike Miller (our International Rep and mastermind of all things UAW Admin Caucus)
  • People on the bargaining team and in the JC seriously considering settling the contract before the fall semester, thus eliminating the possibility for a strike or massive collective action
  • A focus on membership-building that is a goal in and of itself, rather than as a way to build for a more badass contract campaign and collective actions
  • An explicit policy that they will not go on strike unless they reach a certain membership %, rather than a goal (I have to say this is the thing that bothers me the most because it is most closely mirroring the Admin Caucus line in the last contract campaign, and was used explicitly to oppose going on strike *at all*)
  • The implicit idea that a good contract can be won through high membership % alone, rather than by mobilizing those members through collective action

However despite all the things that I’ve outlined above, the real test of AWDU principles is collective action, and there’s still time to make that happen.

Along with Duane, I feel disheartened by the return of some of the arguments and talking points that the admin caucus used to argue against AWDU. And, I feel borderline insulted by the way Garrett’s narrative lumped in the period before 2011 up to this year, as if there had been no improvements made when so many people I care about put countless hours into making our union a democratic, fighting union. However I don’t believe that the union has – yet – gone back to the days of the AC. The AC never built stewards networks or organizing committees, and they never put things like sanctuary campus on their bargaining demands. There is no better way to prepare for a strike than to do the deep base-building work that has been happening on many campuses. So my hope is that my comrades in CA can just keep their eyes on the prize and don’t let Mike Miller or anyone else convince them to pull back from utilizing the collective power they are building. Collective Action Gets The Goods.

In Solidarity,

Alex Holmstrom-Smith

Proud AWDU member

1 The local actually did switch databases after I left, but the new one ended up being disastrous and folks are still managing to do systematic member organizing using the old database + googlesheets, which is the same as we were using in my time.