Igniting a union - Page 2

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

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

However, on May 16, USEJ released a statement documenting a slew of alleged misconduct throughout the election and calling for a rerun. "It is critical that our members have confidence that the election process is fair and democratic," reads the statement. "It seems that several categories of problems, with many more individual examples, occurred that are serious enough to justify setting this election aside."

Whatever happens, reformers at least will have some opportunity to translate their political platform into action. They say they will focus on two areas: increasing the participation and power of the rank and file, and a more aggressive stance toward the university administration and the budget cuts.

"There is real institutional power in this union that should be better mobilized in those fights [for public education]," said president-elect Cheryl Deutsch. "We are hoping to bring into that debate a more mobilized membership ... so that we can be a stronger coalition [with others in California]."

She added that the election was already a huge victory in the long-term plan to increase involvement. A history of member indifference and vacancies in the governing board hopefully will give way to a revival in the higher education labor movement, she said.

But Larimore-Hall expressed strong disagreement with the sentiment that the election was a victory for the labor movement. He said he heard AWDU people tell workers that USEJ represents "centrist sell-outs" and "out of touch union bureaucrats," tactics he criticized. "Going around and telling people their union leaders are corrupt union bosses ... in a culture that is steeped in anti-union rhetoric is an easy thing to sell people on," he said.

Deutsch said she couldn't take responsibility for the actions of a few amid hundreds of supporters and activists, but that AWDU as a whole did not engage in personal attacks. She said she is proud that her winning slate came from rank-and-file workers, not from traditional union leadership and staff.

It wasn't the first time the two factions confronted each other. The origin of the tensions can be traced to the recent wave of budgets cuts at the university, and to the ensuing protests. In the summer of 2009, the UC Board of Regents announced a 33 percent tuition hike; the resulting discontent sparked a student movement with its own fair share of ups and downs. Among the protestors were many graduate students who would go on to become AWDU leaders.

Cohen recalls that in fall 2009, there was a "huge explosion of organizing and activism on our campus trying to organize resistance to the cuts — but not within our union."

Cohen said that she and other graduate students approached the union to encourage action, but that union bureaucracy stifled their efforts. "It was too top-down and difficult to participate. We realized the local wasn't structured in a way that could be powerful."

Larimore-Hall said UAW already was "one of the unions that [the university administration] fears most." He said that AWDU's position overlooks the union's accomplishments on the public education front, citing a petition to Sacramento legislators that USEJ organizers got thousands of members to sign.

Early this spring, the issue of labor properly and sufficiently flexing its muscles came center stage as the UAW and the university negotiated a contract. With no concessions to management and gains such as a 2 percent wage increase and more childcare subsidies, Larimore-Hall said the contract is a resounding success.

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