Back in December, you may recall the bitter debate that rocked our union regarding the pay raise negotiated in our most recent contract campaign. AWDU members on the bargaining team strongly opposed –from the very start of negotiations — accepting the paltry 2% offer from the UC, and AWDU as a whole campaigned for a rejection of the tentative agreement partly on the basis that the wage offer was not really a pay raise at all. Little did we know just how true that would turn out to be…
As UAW 2865 members are now painfully aware, our take home paychecks did not, in fact, see any growth in January, because the expiry of a federal tax credit led to an increase in tax withholding. How much did this amount to? Funnily enough, 2%… So the ‘pay raise’, which our local’s leaders told us was generous, wholly satisfactory and indeed a victory for our contract campaign(!), turned out to be functionally nonexistent.
Clearly, the leadership should have been aware that the tax credit was expiring (the local, after all, does have its own payroll…) and the ‘pay raise’ they were trying to push on us was going to amount to nothing. If they didn’t know, they’re incompetent, and if they did, well, that raises another set of questions about why they would have kept that information to themselves. In the absence of hard evidence though, we’ll assume that our leaders were asleep at the wheel, rather than intentionally misleading members into thinking a 2% raise would have resulted in an actual increase in take-home pay.
Could it have been different?
It’s fair to ask though, could anything really have been done about this, even if the bargaining team had been made fully aware of the situation? The tax credit was due to expire, and that wasn’t something the bosses or the local could have done anything to prevent. The answer however has to be an unequivocal yes; if the contract campaign had been run along the lines AWDU proposed from the very start of negotiations, the likelihood of ending up with no pay raise would have been very much smaller.
AWDU consistently argued for a far more assertive contract campaign. Beginning in February 2010, before the vote on initial demands, we were arguing for much greater member participation in the process, something much more meaningful than the ‘report card’ campaign. The ‘report card’ involved massive investments of phone time by stewards, executive board members and staff, and ultimately had the effect of demobilizing members by presenting tactics to them as having already been decided, rather than engaging with members to collectively develop strategies and particular tactics we thought would be most powerful. Rather than view our fellow union members as a body to be literally called upon to say simply “yes” or “no” to pre-packaged demands, strategies, and tactics, AWDU created a space for discussion by calling for dozens of department meetings asking members what their bargaining demands would be and how to ensure they would be met.
Additionally, AWDU demanded open bargaining, i.e. that all bargaining sessions should be public and that members should be actively encouraged to attend. Our brothers and sisters in the UE (United Electrical Workers) have written about why open bargaining is so important to a successful contract campaign. In short, it would have been a key mechanism for keeping the UC under pressure and would have dispelled the ‘chummy’ atmosphere that far too often prevailed during bargaining sessions. Open bargaining not only puts UC under pressure, but also functions as a powerful mobilizing tool — there are few experiences that put into starker relief the antagonism between UC workers and management than seeing UC’s bargaining team call a session for 9:00 a.m. and show up at 2:00 p.m.; delay the delivery of financial information that is easily accessible; lecture us about what we need and deserve as academic student employees; and interrupt crucial parts of negotiations with disingenuous joking around, making light of the process that for many of us will impact our debt-loads for years to come.
AWDU knew that the real contract fight was never going to be at the bargaining table, but rather in mobilizing our membership through grassroots organizing. Rather than the massive waste of time and resources that was the report card campaign, which tied up the bargaining team and paid staffers for over three months, such resources could have been used to build mass actions, involving substantial numbers of members. The effectiveness of this strategy was revealed in that the vast majority of those who actively participated in contract campaign events were the same people who showed up to AWDU-organized departmental meetings. Had the union leadership allocated more time to listen to member demands and work with membership to articulate a vision of the working conditions we need and deserve, we could have organized mass actions by members to leverage our position at the table and could have given wide layers of the membership a sense of ownership over the both the contract and our union as a whole.
Most important of all, the local leadership failed repeatedly to make any serious efforts to prepare for the possibility of strike action, a fact that the UC administrators were well aware of. When a strike was ‘threatened’ the UC responded accordingly; they offered us nothing, having not seen the kind of mass action that would have demonstrated both our power and willingness to use it.
Winds of Change
The contract campaign could have been very different, and it could have helped serve as a precedent for other UC, and public sector workers struggling for fair compensation. The leadership told us it was “irresponsible” to ask for a bigger raise, and that it would be “insulting” to our brothers and sisters working elsewhere in the UC system. This claim is a fundamental reflection of the difference between our approach to organizing and union democracy and that of the leadership. First of all, if it is irresponsible for us to ask for a wage that meets our cost of living and one that reflects the importance of investing in the instructional components of public education — then what exactly is the leadership’s touchstone for what constitutes “responsible” demands? Secondly, given how out-of-touch our leadership is with its own membership, we have a hard time taking seriously their claims about the sentiments of people in other UC unions. Even if their claim is true, we would hope our own leadership would continue to operate on the reality that when we win significant victories, the position of all UC workers improves. Extracting major concessions from the boss gives others increased confidence to fight for and win gains of their own, and it sets a benchmark for all future negotiations.
We desperately need a radical change at the top of our local. The current executive board, with a couple of prominent exceptions, is staffed by people who consistently refuse to take advantage of the power of our membership and even act as a barrier to the democratic reform that would force them to do so. What we really need is a reform slate that can dismantle the excessive centralization of power and resources in our local and allow ordinary members to take back their union. In just a few short months, the membership will have the opportunity to debate these questions in the context of the first fully contested leadership election in our local’s history. We look forward to holding the incumbent leadership accountable for their repeated failure to truly advance the interests of Academic Student Employees at the UC.