Igniting a union

Leadership struggle among UC academic employees points to more militancy against budget proposals

Union reformer Mandy Cohen addresses an April 5 rally expressing solidarity with Wisconsin public employees.


The most contentious and pivotal election ever for the union of academic student employees at the University of California concluded May 8 in a landslide victory for reformers who will now have the chance to deliver on their promise of a more militant and democratic union. In many ways, it was a microcosm for the larger struggle over how to respond to proposals for deep cuts and tuition hikes in the public university systems.

Local 2865 of the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), represents 12,000 teaching assistants, tutors, readers, and researchers, making it the largest UAW union on the West Coast. Higher education workers make up 40,000 of the 390,000 active UAW members, just over 10 percent.

The caucus of reformers, organized under the banner Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU), won all 10 executive board positions and 45 out 80 seats at the Joint Council, taking control from incumbent leaders from United for Economic and Social Justice (USEJ), which has presided over the union for most of its 11-year history.

Voter turnout spiked tenfold over the last triennial election with 3,400 ballots cast this election cycle. Union organizers said the hike reflects intensive campaigning by both sides and a political atmosphere that is threatening both higher education in California and public employees across the country.

"This was the first real contested election our union ever had," said Mandy Cohen, a comparative literature graduate student at UC Berkeley and the AWDU recording secretary-elect. "There was a huge increase in participation, and it was very contentious. Our leadership never had to fight for their position."

The intensive campaigning translated into an unusually bitter battle for votes with ensuing accusations of foul play. The allegations include intimidation, personal attacks on the character of candidates, and ballot tampering. But the height of controversy and drama came once all the ballots were cast, when the USEJ-dominated elections committee suspended the vote count midway and AWDU members responded with an office sit-in of the union's headquarters.

Each side tells a different tale for these 1,500 disputed ballots from UC Berkeley and UCLA, the two largest campuses.

From USEJ's perspective, the sheer number of challenged ballots and the heated environment in the counting room overwhelmed elections officials, who decided to refer the matter to the Joint Council, the governing body of the local.

"AWDU had 20-plus people in the [vote-counting] room. They were continuing the intimidation and aggression. The elections committee decided that it was too much to handle," said Daraka Larimore-Hall, outgoing president of the local. He said that USEJ elections committee members have been so harangued since the incident that they are not granting requests for media interviews.

AWDU members, who consider UC Berkeley their stronghold, think the vote-counting freeze was the first step on the road to invalidating ballots from a campus with many AWDU supporters.

"Even though we knew they were really threatened by us, the very idea that we would try to disenfranchise 800 voters from the biggest campus — and that's how they would try to win the election — was really shocking," Cohen said.

She defended the AWDU decision to videotape the remaining ballots via webcam and take over union offices in protest. "We weren't taking a partisan position; we just said we wanted the votes counted. I felt like we were clearly in the right. We just wanted to defend the election — and that position was so strong."

Counting resumed when both sides finally settled on a third-party mediator, delivering 55 percent of the vote to AWDU.

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