Mary’s Response

Dear Members of the Joint Council, Executive Board, et al.,

As the first signatory of this appeal, I want to be clear that I stand with the goals of union organizing: I am not interested in breaking up our union but rather in collectively organizing to demand from management that we will not work under conditions that leave many UC Student Workers housing insecure, food insecure, deciding not to seek medical treatment (even with SHIP insurance), and being forced to supplement our already underpaid labor in ways that hinder us from doing our research.

I have been a rank-and-file member of the UAW Local 2865 since the fall semester of 2015, when I first arrived at UC Berkeley—which was my first introduction to the possibilities of union organization. While I am rarely able to make it to the monthly membership meetings in Berkeley (my evening teaching schedule and other research obligations often conflict with the scheduled meetings), I am nevertheless involved in ways that I can be. This was especially true over the course of the last year of bargaining: I helped organize discussions around bargaining in UC Berkeley’s Comparative Literature Department; I attended the grade-in last December to build solidarity and momentum; I led a CAT-group in my department as part of a union-wide effort to help ensure that every rank-and-file member was consistently aware of ways to articulate our demands, of the goals union members voted to ratify, and of updates once bargaining with management began—in short, to participate in a process of ensuring that everyone knew what was at stake and how we could be involved, even on a small scale.

I have never expected UC management to bow down to our demands without widespread, persistent collective action, and I am aware of how difficult it was for this year’s bargaining team to secure each and every one of the provisions in the current contract—that it took months and months of planning, hours and hours of emotionally draining bargaining against a hostile management team. I am immensely grateful for all that the bargaining team did achieve: the benefits achieved for current and future workers will radically improve my personal experience as a graduate student worker at Berkeley, especially those concerning sexual harassment and sexual violence.

Even in light of all that the bargaining team did achieve, I was immensely disappointed by management’s offer. Their so-called “last, best, and final offer” fails to recognize some of our most important priorities—the very priorities listed in the bargaining goals that 95.2% of student worker respondents voted to ratify, including the following:

“Increase ASE compensation to keep pace with real cost of living and be competitive among UC’s peer institutions”
“Provide financial support to offset rising cost of housing across UC campuses”
“Increase the number of TAs/GSIs, Readers, and Tutors to reduce class size and student-to-ASE ratios”

These goals—among others—were big goals, but they were not pipe-dreams. Moreover, they directly affect every single worker in our union, and had they been achieved, would have significantly improved our working and living conditions in ways that the current contract does not. These goals reflect struggles that I, along with thousands of other UC student workers, face daily: they are the reason I take on extra GSR and research-assistant positions; they are the reason I often work hours above the 50% GSI appointment I have been hired to do.

I have not been privy to conversations within the Joint Council or by the Executive Committee, so I don’t know the details of decisions made this summer or in mid-August. What I do know is that everything happened very quickly from my perspective—within ten days, during a hectic transition point. Management pushed our union into a corner, and we had to respond quickly; but this hastiness had severe, lasting consequences for our members.

When I received the straw poll this August, my immediate expectation was that our members needed to communicate to management that their response to our demands was inadequate and unacceptable. However, the wording of the straw poll made it seem like there had been an a priori assumption that not enough workers would be willing to mobilize for a better contract—through a strike or other means. To ask workers to participate in a strike, and to give clear descriptions of what a strike might mean differs from asking rank-and-file members if they are ready to organize one. It is not unlikely that many rank-and-file members have never participated in a strike, let alone organized one, and would not know where to begin. I certainly don’t. Yet I am enthusiastic about collective action and about organizing to improve our worker conditions—no matter what excuses UC management throws at us.

I believe in what our union can accomplish, because it has accomplished so much. I am uninterested in dividing our union into factions, especially when our goals are mutual: to improve worker conditions, and to maintain the provisions that we’ve already secured. I am invested in advocating for democratic processes that allow for rank-and-file members like me, who require discussion in order 1) to understand what possibilities are open to our members, 2) to make an informed decision about what possibilities I support and will fight for, and 3) to voice that decision to fellow-members and to union leadership. My appeal is meant to address a moment when the democratic process outlined by our union’s bylaws broke down. Our union can do better, and should do better.

It was the powerful arguments of fellow rank-and-file members and of campus stewards that first convinced me of how important our union has been for UC workers—not just in my discipline or on my campus but across the state of California. Our local is the largest student workers’ union in the country, and I envision our organizing strategies and actions as influential not only for our membership, but for other student workers’ unions across the country. In turn, our union has the potential to build momentum from other teachers’ and student workers’ unions—as well as from our own membership. To rush contract ratification in response to pressure from management was to miss an opportunity to let members know that immediate support and action were necessary for us to claim working conditions we deserve—and to explain to union members exactly what collective actions means, what it entails, and what kinds of positive, lasting outcomes collective action has had and could have for the thousands of UC student workers who make up our union’s membership.

I look forward to hearing a reply from the Executive Board clarifying confusions I had about their previous response, as well as to hearing what next steps our union leadership is planning to rectify recent problems in following union procedure, to build solidarity within membership (both at the level of the Executive Board and Joint Council and at the level of rank-and-file members), to maintain the momentum of bargaining, and to agitate and organize around collective labor goals.

Mary Mussman