Class Size and Class Struggle: Organizing Lessons from the UCSC Strike

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Twenty-two activists were arrested during the Unfair Labor Practices strike at the University of California, and they need your help. Please call the numbers at this link and demand that the charges be dropped.


“I appreciate the calm and professional manner in which UC police handled this morning’s challenge,” wrote Executive Vice Chancellor Alison Galloway in an official email about our April 2-3 strike at the University of California. This was just after one of us was dragged to the ground and forcibly arrested after publicly announcing an intention to legally picket, and complying with police demands to turn around.

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Photo by Alex Darocy

The “challenge” for the administration, it seems, represented an opportunity for the labor movement – our strike has been widely covered in the labor media. This confirms for those of us involved in UAW 2865 – the student-workers union which represents 13,000 teaching assistants, readers, and tutors across the UC system – that we aren’t just a student movement crossing over into labor politics. We are a vital and central part of the labor movement today, a movement looking for creative strategies. Along the same lines, we represent an institutional legacy of graduate student unionization, which is a crucial weapon for academic workers who face increasingly precarious conditions.

Our position between the student and labor movements has been a core aspect of our organizing. While we often end up drifting between these two poles, we have also found that our position opens unexpected possibilities and reveals unexpected allies. Since the issues we confront extend across the whole university system, itself a space that increasingly covers whole geographic regions, we have to ask how this kind of movement can spread. How can academic workers at other universities begin to build their own organizations? How can the labor movement as a whole experiment with new strategies and organizational forms?

We don’t claim to have answers to these massive and crucial questions. We do want to try to answer a more limited, but more concrete question: what lessons can be drawn from the union experience at UCSC – not just this strike, which bothered the administration enough to bring in outside riot police, but also the long, difficult, complicated, and rewarding process of building a radical union movement over the past several years?

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An organizing meeting the evening of April 2.

1. Historic moments for campus solidarity

When In These Times reported on our earlier November 20 strike as “A ‘Historic Moment’ for Campus Solidarity,” it was because we had taken advantage of a “coincidence of timing” to declare a sympathy strike in solidarity with the service workers of AFSCME 3299. These workers drive the shuttle buses, cook in the dining halls, clean the buildings, and maintain the grounds – and they have confronted extreme levels of inequality at the UC. Undergraduate activists took the initiative to shut down the campus in support.

While the sympathy strike might have come as a surprise, solidarity between workers, grad students, and undergrads has been the bedrock for successful campus and system-wide organizing successes for at least the last decade. This solidarity is built on the mutual recognition of what UC administrators most fear: the obvious interconnectedness of all of our struggles. Campus workers, who are typically given little voice in stories of campus activism – despite the fact that their labor keeps the university running – have been working since at least 2004 to become a visible presence in campus struggle.

On the other hand, while top level administrators and their cheerleaders portray student activists as privileged firebrands, the reality is far different. Graduate students do the basic work of teaching and grading, the basic condition for every university’s mission of education and research, for radically low wages. Undergraduates also participate in this work, as well as working part-time or even full-time outside the university, in fields as diverse as farmwork, domestic labor, and the service industry. They find themselves paying the price for the cutbacks aimed at campus workers and graduate students: larger class sizes, fewer resources in the libraries, and fewer workers to service their residence halls, all on top of a rising tuition and plummeting job prospects.

Today the university is one of the primary sites in the US for labor organizing; as United Auto Workers’ interest in graduate students and United Steelworkers’ interest in adjuncts show, unions need the university –  and that means coalition work between students, workers, and student-workers.  Our local has approached coalition work with students very simply: we offer support for whatever organizing projects they engage in. Since undergraduate and graduate student interests have tended to overlap, we’ve had common ground on which to build solidarity and trust. With our fight for a new contract looming, we specifically sought out their help. From the beginning, we designed our campaign around quality of education issues, in part because we built it in coalition with undergraduate friends and comrades.

In bargaining, our union hit a wall with management over one of these quality of education issues. Management refused to negotiate on class sizes, which as any teacher knows is an overwhelmingly important labor issue. There’s a massive difference between having 40 students and having 80 students, especially if you care about the student’s performance and want to give them constructive feedback as they all hand in papers and midterms. Some of us are regularly the only teaching assistant for classes of 300. Usually 25% of these students fail, and many of them come from the communities and families with the least higher education experience and the greatest need for support. In other words, class size is also an issue of class and race hierarchy. We maintain that management’s refusal to negotiate on class size is an Unfair Labor Practice, because the intensity of labor is a “mandatory subject of bargaining.” Even after our Unfair Labor Practices strike, they have publicly dug their heels in, and retain a regressive position on quality of education issues.

In addition to refusing to discuss class size, the UC’s recent posture towards the UAW has involved escalating threats, intimidation, and now outright violence. Videotaping protests, threatening strikers with firings, polling workers about their union activities, threatening international students with revoked visas for union participation – such tactics have become standard management practice. The chair of the UCSC writing department declared to a group of his employees: “If you strike, you will not work in this department again.” All this built towards the April 2-3 events at UCSC, when a total of 22 undergraduates and graduates were arrested during the two days of the strike – the “ugly irony” of violently arresting union members at a strike in protest of intimidation has not been lost on the public.

Arrests seem to constitute an “event” for the movement – an explosion of the norm that excite and inspires far beyond the everyday situations of meetings and announcements. While this kind of dramatic rupture with the state of things is a real phenomenon, our experience shows that such events only matter if we have already built a framework that can produce that effect – if we are there en masse with a well-articulated and well-supported project. And they only explode if we make them explode – if we have the organizational basis to spend the night distributing flyers and mobilizing people to protest the arrests the next day.

2. We are the union in general!

On the first day of our strike an unhappy motorist who wanted to cross the picket line complained that “the union in general” didn’t support our decision to strike. Quick-witted strikers responded with a new chant: “We are the union in general!” This slogan represents the most fundamental principle of our union, the one that has given strength to our actions. But in order to structure our movement around this principle of self-organization, we had to fight an internal struggle against a bureaucratic leadership more interested in absorbing us into the Democratic party.

Between 2004 and 2011, our union was under what we now call the old leadership, or the “administration caucus.” One of us participated in the union from the very beginning (2004), when the administration caucus ensured it was an undemocratic, demobilized mess. A few characteristics of the old regime:

  • All communications to the membership had to be vetted through the president of the union. Any time campus leadership wanted to email members, the president had to approve – and often refused to, or drastically altered the message.
  • The executive board and the president controlled the budget. Every request for money, no matter how small, had to approved by the president, who often denied the request. Once, one of us requested a ream of colored paper. The president at the time, Christine Petit, would only grant the request if we at UC Santa Cruz agreed never to use the colored paper for “unauthorized” petitions or flyers. The request for one ream of colored paper was denied.
  • Campus-based staff were hired by and directly answerable to the president of the union. Elected leaders and members at the campuses had absolutely no say over our campus staff, including the hiring process and overseeing the organizing projects of people on staff.
  • The UAW international staff, often working behind the scenes, played a central role in quashing union democracy within the union. The International staff were (and still are) hired by the United Auto Workers, our parent union, to help us out. Instead of helping us mobilize effectively, however, the international staff persistently attempted to keep us under control.

This extreme level of micromanagement meant that our membership was completely disinvested from participation in the union. The Joint Council, our statewide leadership body, was more than half empty. We had no campus autonomy. Technically – though we found some ways around this – we simply could not organize anything on the campuses without the permission of statewide leaders. Our union was demobilized and unable to effectively organize to protect and improve the working conditions and compensation of teaching assistants, readers, and tutors.

When those of us who believed in self-organization discovered that we had no voice within our own union, we formed the Graduate Student Solidarity Network to organize graduate student support for AFSCME 3299’s contract campaign in the spring of 2005. We found that meaningful solidarity work had to happen outside of our union. We tried to take up the class size issue, organizing a petition around the effect of ballooning class sizes on workload and quality of education. When we brought our petition to the annual statewide meeting of our union at UC Berkeley in 2005, it was dismissed. Although we were the largest campus contingent present at that meeting, we were derided by the leadership, dismissed by some as anarchists, and ultimately shut down.

At UC Santa Cruz, we saw that undemocratic practices within the union impeded our organizing efforts, and decided to begin the slow process of reform. We linked up with reformers on other campuses and formed a minority reform bloc on the bargaining team. We pushed for greater transparency and member input into bargaining, and were consistently opposed by the old leadership.

Then the recession hit, with budget cuts and tuition hikes the order of the day. Another round of bargaining occurred in 2009-2010, again with reformers the minority on the bargaining team. While bargaining was taking place, the movement against the budget cuts and the privatization of the UC burst onto the scene. Massive rallies, strikes, and building occupations were widespread throughout the UC system. For the most part, the union, still in the grip of the administration caucus, was disengaged from the movement. Once again, to do meaningful organizing in the new movement we needed to organize autonomously from the union.

However, reform efforts came alive on the heels of the movement against privatization in 2009-2010. Seeing the near-complete disengagement of the union from the movement, graduate students at Berkeley formed Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU). Inspired by Berkeley, we formed an AWDU chapter in Santa Cruz as well. In the spring of 2011, we consolidated our forces, building a statewide coalition, and won the triennial election. From 2011 to 2014, Academic Workers for a Democratic Union has made up a majority of the union leadership.

Since being elected in 2011, AWDU activists accomplished a great deal towards their three primary goals: democratizing the union, developing an explicit anti-oppression labor project, and building an activist union in solidarity with other forms of student organizing. The class size and non-discrimination demands central to our current contract fight are examples of this work. Not only are far more people involved in union activism than before, at UCSC and several other campuses, the campus leaders share all responsibilities equally.

Bargaining, beginning in the spring of 2013 and continuing to this day, has been opened to all members: in Santa Cruz, over 150 activists came to bargaining and told their stories. One afternoon, on October 22, 2013, 100 people marched to a bargaining meeting, while management hid upstairs for over an hour (they had things to print, apparently). When they finally came down, they had to listen to the testimonies of graduate and undergraduate students describing their struggle to make ends meet, and teach and learn effectively. At UC Davis, a group of 40 parents and children marched into bargaining with their children to demand family and housing support. At UC Berkeley, after attending bargaining, students marched off to occupy the Chancellor’s hallways. At all the campuses with strong AWDU support, bargaining was a lively and powerful affair – it became a means of demonstration, mobilization and radicalization, rather than a quiet bureaucratic procedure.

However, we now face a considerable challenge. Many of the democratic reforms AWDU implemented in the last three years have not been institutionalized in our bylaws. If the administration caucus wins this next election, they will be able to overturn many of these reforms, and the union will likely return to its old state – a rigid, centralized bureaucracy disconnected from social movements and incapable of defending and improving the lives of its members.

3. Don’t mourn, organize

It’s easy to get disheartened by the challenges academic workers face in pulling off actions like strikes. Along with high turnover, structural conditions of insecurity have led many graduate students to keep their heads down, to protect their semblance of a position and get their degrees. But ruminating over these obstacles – or worse, theorizing them – tends to become a substitute for intervening against them with the unglamorous but game-changing work of rank-and-file organizing. This means knocking on doors, making phone calls, and trying to fill membership meetings. During our strike, it meant talking to every single car that approached the picket line and making sure they left with a flyer.

Tactical flexibility has meant refusing to get trapped in debates about whether union struggles over wages, benefits, and labor conditions are reformist, and whether it’s necessary to go beyond union struggles towards radical actions that push the boundaries. We have won our labor demands with actions that push the boundaries; we know we will not convince the university that our demands are better policy, we need to compel them to concede through active disruption. It has also meant joining social justice demands to quality of education through the most broadly visible elements of our working conditions, like class sizes. We knew in this contract fight that there would be pressure to ditch non-majority demands like gender-neutral bathrooms, family issues, and support for undocumented workers. So we put them first in bargaining and in mobilization, and are aiming for a contract that will transform the ways we think about graduate student labor – although we still have a big fight ahead to win it.

Thinking strategically requires enormous creativity, and the refusal to fall into ideological traps. It’s a cliche on the Left today to invoke the virtues of union organization against anarchist adventurism. That kind of statement is radically incoherent for us, since our union has a large proportion of anarchists, and others generally committed to anti-hierarchical and anti-oppressive organizing principles, who have played a fundamental role in making it function as an institution. Social democrats can take a moment to chuckle at the fact that anarchists are working as leaders, and should then ask themselves if they can claim to have done the kind of grassroots labor organizing that these anarchists have. Without a vibrant rank-and-file basis and anti-bureaucratic organizing principles our union wouldn’t have the strength that it does.

Coalitions are a core part of this kind of strategic openness. Working with undergraduate student groups make every action a little bit unpredictable for management and draws in new activists. Organizations like Autonomous Students follow in a rich tradition of hell-raising that they consistently and clearly place behind campus workers’ struggles, and organizations like Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/a de Aztlan (MEChA) places the politics of a large proportion of the campus worker and student population at the center. Our emphasis on student movement issues, built from our pivotal position between faculty and undergraduates, as well as between student and labor organizers, may be one of the key legacies of AWDU.

As the UC experiments with new approaches to university security, we need even more creativity. Strikes, campus shutdowns, and occupations have been frequent occurrences at UCSC; part of our discussions now will be directed towards discovering new tactics that can change the political terrain.

Since 2010, the UCSC campus has been shut down numerous times. The first of these shutdowns was organized by graduate and undergraduate students, and caused a massive change in the UCSC culture. The strike took over three months of intensive organizing, by which activists collected over 2,400 commitments to join the line. Students reported that nearly 1,000 people showed up throughout the day, and the campus was closed by virtue of these overwhelming numbers. The next strike, in 2012, was also student-organized. It required 2,000 commitments, brought out approximately 600 people, and became one of the pivotal actions in the spring following Occupy that pushed the state towards Proposition 30. UCSC’s new Executive Vice Chancellor Alison Galloway decided to let it happen without police intervention.

In the past year, with AFSCME and the UAW both in negotiations, strikes have become labor-focused, and legally constrained in new ways. Instead of graduate and undergraduate coalitions holding the campus shut, as in previous strikes, the closing work has now shifted entirely to undergrads, while graduate students – hindered by National Labor Relations Board regulations prohibiting unions from blocking commerce – walk a moving picket. But the culture had been established, both on the side of student activists who felt that a total shutdown was possible, and administrators who thought it was inevitable and were willing to concede a day’s labor to keep the peace. In this context, a campus shutdown was accomplished in fall 2013 – very early in the year – with only 1,000 commitments to walk the line. It was thin, but enough for the moment.

Then there were three other strike threats, and management caved each time. AFSCME’s two unions each settled their contracts on the eve of five-day statewide strikes – both negotiations concluded within a hair’s breadth of picketing. The third was a grievance strike planned at UCSC by UAW, in response to two grievances. The first grievance involved 28 undergraduates who were hired for positions equivalent to a graduate teaching assistant, but were only paid a quarter of what is required by our contract. The second involved TAs who were scheduled for an excess of class time, which made it impossible for them to fit their labor within the contractual limit. Again, at the last minute, the UC averted a strike by essentially agreeing to all of the union’s demands, and we cancelled the strike because we won. We won $6,000 per quarter in back pay for each of these undergraduate workers, the TA classroom hours were reduced to a reasonable limit, and the university agreed to set up a joint Labor-Management Committee to oversee workload concerns.

But the balance of opinion among the administration had shifted. When we finally called an Unfair Labor Practices strike starting on April 2, with only 400 commitments for a whole day’s picket, at 6 a.m. the line was less robust than necessary to effectively counter the 30 riot police brought in.

Overcoming these challenges will take hard work and advance planning – we need to prepare for actions over periods of months and years, and we need to knock on every office door to sign up thousands of participants. But we also need to explore new organizational practices. How much further can coalitions can be extended – can graduate student unionization efforts at urban universities link up with fast food and retail strikers to generate new and dynamic kinds of organizations and actions? It is increasingly clear that the professional life that universities have trained students for over the last half century is disappearing. So university unions are part of a movement to connect graduate student workers and our undergraduate allies to the a broader politics of labor, rather than to an ever more fictional middle class. Our struggles are not just the struggles of those on university grounds, but are intertwined with workers throughout the cities and towns we live in.

We may also be rethinking our understanding of power. Just because Santa Cruz geography allows a direct and complete shutdown, is this the only, or the best means for students to radicalize a community and build workers’ power? It may be. But in the last strike students also began to experiment with other forms of collective action, differently disruptive, more fleeting, but also more labile, and perhaps similarly effective. These are open questions. We hope that we will be able to learn from other organizations that emerge across the university system as we plan and organize our own political futures.

Authors of the article

is a graduate student and academic worker at UC Santa Cruz, and an activist in UAW 2865.

is a graduate student and academic worker at UC Santa Cruz, and an activist in UAW 2865.

is an editor of Viewpoint, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz, and an activist in UAW 2865.