A Basic History
1. Ten years ago, a group of graduate Teaching Assistants at the
University of California, San Diego found themselves discussing
all-too-familiar topics once again: work load, class
sizes, health benefits, and
the absence of any due process. They took their issues to the Graduate Dean. He told them
that if they found they were working beyond the hours for which they were
paid, they should buy an egg timer that pours sand from one end of an
hour-glass to the other in the span of three minutes. When you start to
grade each paper, he said, flip the egg timer. When the sand runs out
after three minutes, stop grading.
2. Fed-up, the employees turned their criticism into action
and joined the U.C. union movement that began a few years earlier at the
University of California at Berkeley. They formed the Association of
Student Employees (ASE) and, along with Berkeley, U.C. Santa Cruz,
U.C. Davis, U.C. L. A., and U.C. Santa Barbara, affiliated their local with
the United Auto Workers (UAW) to strengthen their legal and organizational
foundation. To this date, organizing drives have taken hold at each U.C.
campus employing Teaching Assistants, with U.C. Riverside and U.C. Irvine
joining this year.
3. However, although the workers have followed the
democratic process required to achieve unionization in the state of
California, the University of California administration has consistently
denied student employees basic employee rights each step of the way. The
U.C. administration's effort to keep student employees silent and
exploitable has cost taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees as they
employ over 5 outside lawyers to delay enforcement of the California labor
law and engage in unethical--and costly--union busting activities, all at a
time when budget cuts drastically reduce educational resources in other
areas. Our struggle is still a fight for simple recognition of each union
at each campus; despite the fact that 10,500 of the 15,000 academic student
employees in the U.C. system have signed union membership cards, as
verified by the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), the
administration has refused to recognize us.
4. As members of the U.C. San Diego based Association of Student
Employees (ASE/UAW), we speak specifically of our local union activity and
refer as well to the campaigns at each of our sister unions across the U.C.
system. The ASE/UAW is pursuing a multi-tiered approach to moving an
extremely resistant administration, including membership mobilization,
legislative lobbying, and legal action.
Why Affiliate with the United Auto Workers?
5. Before getting into too many specifics about our struggle, we should
explain the importance of affiliation and our relationship with the United
Auto Workers, for our UAW support has been foundational to the success we
have had. In 1991, the Association of Student Employees at UC San Diego
voted to affiliate with the larger international union, District 65/UAW (as
did UC Santa Cruz and Berkeley at the time.) Affiliating with the UAW has
allowed us to take advantage of their experience in union recognition
campaigns as well as providing us with the financial backing necessary to
battle a multi-billion dollar employer like the UC.
6. Like many international unions, the UAW is diversifying the kinds of
employees they represent, and they are no longer only the representative of
the factory workers in auto plants. The UAW has a large and growing
professional and technical employees division which we are a part of, as
are many clerical unions. The UAW also is affiliated with the recognized
academic student employee unions at the University of Massachusetts at
Amherst and UMass Lowell. The UAW has provided us with their legal
Counsel when we battled the UC in the California Public Employment
Relations Board (PERB) court over whether or not academic student employees
are entitled to collective bargaining rights. We would not have been able
to have access to that kind of legal Counsel without the UAW's support.
They also provide the financial backing for the operational costs of each
7. One of the most common questions and concerns members and administrators
have is "what can a bunch of auto workers have to contribute to an academic
workplace?" Ignoring the possible elitism which the question tends to
carry, (there are several instances where administrators and even some
members show their classist colors when they resist wanting to be
associated with any blue collar work-force) the most common misconception
about affiliation is that the UAW actually runs the activities of the
8. UC administrators frequently make insinuations as to "thugs from
Detroit" coming to UC campuses, into classrooms and into labs to tell
professors how to do their jobs and treat their academic student employees.
They obviously want to create the impression with the general public and
the campus community that the ASE and the UAW are foreign influences onto
the campus and therefore are to be mistrusted and feared for they have come
to disrupt our "family." What they fail to state however is that the UAW
functions as a consultant to the member unions, and that the day to day
operations of the union, including all organizational decisions are either
made directly by the members or their elected leadership (who are also
members). As the slogan says, "the members run this union."
9. In conjunction with our grassroots direct action campaign for
recognition, the ASE and other student employee unions in the U.C. system
have gone to court to achieve collective bargaining rights. In 1994, U.C.
San Diego's ASE initiated a hearing with the California Public Employment
Relations Board (PERB) about Readers, Tutors, and Teaching Associates. The
U.C. administration argued that it should not be subject to labor law with
academic student employees because the university is a special environment
equivalent to either a cannibalistic society or alien planets explored by
the Federation in the TV series Star Trek. The opening argument of lawyers
hired by the U.C. administration illustrate the lengths they went to in
their effort to represent the University of California as exceptional, and
therefore exempt from state labor law:
10. U.C. Counsel : "What I really want to focus on in this opening is extremely
difficult for me to articulate . . . [b]ut it's why this employment
relationship is so profoundly different, and I come at it a number of ways.
Actually a number of my colleagues have suggested a variety of analogies,
none of which, I think, work very well. One of them involved cannibals and
I decided not to pursue it. But it's -- it's -- well, I will. I will just
11. ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE: "I'm just curious. Who are the cannibals and
who is in the pot?"
12. U.C. Counsel : "No, if you -- if you asked a society which had a practice
such as cannibalism: How do you justify it? Why do you do it? What does
it do for you? They might or might not have worked that stuff out. What
they would know is that it's inherent to their society and that's -- as I
say, I had discarded the idea."
13. ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE: "Probably a wise move."
14. U.C. Counsel : ". . . When the students are working as employees of the
University, in its academic enterprise -- I don't mean tangential to it, I
mean directly within it -- the University has a responsibility to those
people which is wholly different. . . . [The University] should be able to
guide, should be able to assess, should be able to feel intuitively what
seems like the best way in those academic processes. . . .
15. "Here again I was influenced in preparing this by my daughter, as it
happened this time, who is a big Star Trek fan and I wish that I could come
up, again, with a more dignified illustration of this. But we were
watching together a Star Trek program which was addressing the concept of
the prime directive. In Star Trek, years and years and years from now, we
have these spaceships flying all over the place and visiting other worlds
and they are free to do what they wish and do good and see what happens,
but they have one restriction upon them, and that is that they cannot
interact with those worlds in a way that would change them. And the reason
for this is an appreciation that those worlds are evolving in a way that
they should be able to control their evolution. . . .
16. "To some extent PERB [the Public Employees Relations Board] has
experience with us, with the University. . . . Some of it is just on the
collective bargaining side. . . . [The problem] is that [there is] an
outside force, such as the aliens who were really on this Starship
Enterprise, when they enter another world they're not supposed to
17. ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE: "Alien PERBs?"
18. ASE/UAW UNION Counsel : "Right, they're not supposed to interfere, but
here what we're talking about are student employees, who are part of the
University system, who would like to have a voice in their employment
rights. And so, we're not talking about somebody from the outside. So, I
think that it's a poor analogy and that actually enlightened life forms
would find that collective bargaining would service the purpose of the Act
[that protects employee rights in California]."
19. In spite of, or perhaps because of, such imaginative (imaginary!)
and exceptionalist arguments, the PERB judge ruled in favor of the ASE/UAW
union. He found that collective bargaining for readers and tutors would
"encourage excellence" within the university.
20. The U.C. administration filed an appeal, postponing our ability to
enforce the legal decision and spending more tax-payer dollars on outside
legal counsel. For the UC, the court system has never been a place to
resolve its differences with its employees: it has usually served as a
means by which they can stall labor negotiations for years at a time.
Meanwhile, the Student Academic Graduate Employees union (SAGE/UAW) from
U.C. Los Angeles won an important legal victory. The PERB judge ruled
that Teaching Assistants also have collective bargaining rights along with
Readers, Tutors, and Teaching Associates. The U.C. administration's refusal to
follow the PERB decision prompted strikes by three U.C. student employee unions
and supportive actions by two more campuses.
21. Since 1989 the ASE has gradually escalated its membership
activities, which began in the form of specific requests to meet with the
administration, letter-writing campaigns, and public forums. In the last
two years we have supplemented those strategies with teach-ins, grade-ins,
rallies, and walk-outs in which we have picketed and withheld our services
from the university from anywhere from two to four days. Our most recent
strike during the Spring quarter of 1997 was coordinated with unions at
other U.C. campuses and was both visible and effective: the strike received
national media coverage, and unionized workers in other industries showed
solidarity by honoring the picket line, canceling their usual deliveries.
Many undergraduate parents called the Chancellor, asking him to improve
U.C.S.D's learning environment by recognizing the ASE union.
22. Several of our members have also met with our Chancellor as a good
faith effort to explain to him why we feel so vehemently that unionization
is our only recourse in the workplace. The main reasons we meet with our
Chancellor is to keep the lines of communication open between his office
and our union since we believe that we will eventually be in a bargaining
relationship with them, and we also feel a need to counter the
misinformation he is receiving from his advisors and from the UC Office of
the President. At our last meeting our Chancellor was not even aware that
PERB had certified that a majority of TA's want the ASE to be their
exclusive bargaining agent. Also during this meeting, Senior Vice
Chancellor and returning Graduate Dean Richard Attiyah made his views on
the union and state authority very clear as he stated that PERB decisions
on the case are irrelevant to him because he "know[s] this campus better
than any judge." The U.C., when stripped of all the false rhetoric about
mentoring and academic training, fundamentally believe that when push comes
to shove, they are above the law and are accountable to nobody but
23. The U.C. system has shown that they engage with the issue of academic student
employee unionization on a statewide level. As a result, the individual
academic student employee unions on the U.C. campuses have decided that they
must be able to communicate with each other on a regular basis in order to
discuss how to best fight the U.C. and secure collective bargaining for
their separate constituencies. While these unions do not come together as
a separate decision making body apart from the locals, they do meet
regularly at one of the U.C. campuses to share their experiences with each
other and give each other advise on how to better mobilize their members.
This communication also offers them the ability to occasionally coordinate
their separate labor actions so as to achieve the most effective result and
visibility, thus maintaining pressure on the UC system to recognize these
24. In the Spring of 1997, five academic student employee unions (U.C.S.D.,
U.C.S.B., U.C.S.C., and U.C.B.) participated in five weeks of rolling
California legislature noticed our strikes and representatives offered help;
40 representatives wrote letters over the summer to U.C. President Richard
Atkinson on our behalf; and the Senate and Assembly supported 1998 budget
language that would require the U.C. to reveal and eliminate its spending on
outside Counsel to fight union campaigns with taxpayer money. While this
budget language made it through the legislature, California Governor Pete
Wilson used his line-item veto power to eliminate the language in the final
budget. Wilson stated that providing this information would present an
undue burden to the state.
25. One of the important factors to realize here is that the legislature
solicited the academic student employees for their participation in the
budgetary process first. Our strikes resonated strongly in the
constituencies of so many legislators that they took the initiative to
contact us to voice their support for our collective bargaining rights.
Many legislators have continued to put pressure on U.C. President Atkinson to
recognize the unions and to fully disclose how much public money the U.C.
continues waste on union busting.
Support From Other Organizations
26. Throughout the many years that we have been fighting for recognition many
outside institutions and organizations have offered their support in many
ways. Organizations such as the Graduate Student Caucus (G.S.C.) of the
Modern Language Association, the National Association of Graduate and
Professional Students (N.A.G.P.S.) and the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions
(C.G.E.U.) have endorsed our strike actions and called upon our chancellor and
the U.C. President to immediately recognize our union. Another organization
which has been supportive of academic student employee unionization is the
U.C. Students Association (U.C.S.A.). The U.C.S.A. is a board made up of
representatives from the graduate and undergraduate student governments
from all the U.C. campuses. Every year the U.C.S.A. picks a series of issues
which they will advocate for and for the past several years, academic
student employee unionization has been on that list, and the U.C.S.A. often
assists locals in their outreach to students. The U.C.S.A. also offers a line
of direct communication to U.C. President Atkinson, and at a recent meeting
between the U.C.S.A. and the President, he gave the U.C.S.A. verbal
despite Governor Wilson's refusal to disclose how much money the U.C. is
spending on legal Counsel to fight the unions, that he believes that it is
an issue of the public record, and that these figures will be made
27. Every year the C.G.E.U. has a national convention for all academic student
employee unions (whether with contract, in contract negotiations or
fighting for recognition) to share their experiences and ideas. This past
summer, the conference was held in Eugene, Oregon, hosted by the local
union, the University of Oregon's Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation/ A.F.T.
Local 3544. The convention was attended by 20 unions from across the U.S.
and Canada. One thing which was clear from the conference was that the U.C.
recognition campaign was probably the most organized and active ongoing
campaign in the nation. Correspondingly, what was also obvious in addition
to the expertise and conviction of the U.C. unions was the conviction of the
U.C. chancellors and the U.C. Office of the President to deny the recognition
of these unions. Of the many unions with contracts represented at the
conference many achieved that recognition with markedly less of a struggle
than what the U.C. unions have seen. The intensity of the resistance of the
U.C. system is somewhat unique. While most universities do not simply grant
union recognition when asked, they also do not engage in a decade long
fight dragging the issue through the courts and enduring several strikes
like the U.C. system has.
Looking Forward: Local Labor Community and the ASE
28. In trying to come up with a conclusion to our article, we considered trying
to sum up the struggle in San Diego with the U.C. We could disclose that
undoubtedly we are prepared to strike again, in a bigger and better way
than we have struck before. In the U.C. system we are bigger than we ever
have been, with more locals and more members than ever before. The
legislature has begun to back us up, and even the court decisions have been
coming our way, despite the U.C.'s money, power and influence. But all that
seemed pretty self evident.
29. What we want to focus on, is what we see as being part of a larger
vision of labor and labor organizing going into the next century. We
represent a new and growing sector of labor, the technical and professional
workplace. A workplace that more and more people are becoming a part of,
and as a result we need the labor movement, and quite frankly they need us
too. The face of labor has changed somewhat over the past two decades, the
big factory plants with their large unions are largely a thing of the past.
Many of these jobs have hopped on that "fast track" out of the country.
Slowly, labor has responded to this, and in addition to their traditional
membership base, they have expanded into new work environments.
30. In San Diego, like many of our sister unions in the U.C., we have worked
closely with our local Labor Counsel s in various local struggles. We have
picketed with service workers at the San Diego Sports Arena and we have
walked the lines with the Teamsters in the UPS strike. Being on the
border, we also have had the opportunity to participate with labor in
Mexico. We have worked closely with he Support Committee for Maquiladora
Workers (SCMW) in their quest for justice for Mexican labor. Through SCMW
we were invited to be part of the international observers of one of the
very first union authorization votes to take place in the maquiladora
system, at the Han Young (a division of Hyundai) factory in Tijuana. We
watched as maquiladora workers literally risked not only their jobs, but
their personal safety to openly vote to have union representation. Just
three weeks ago we attended a Congressional sub-committee hearing on the
use of dues money for political lobbying, as the Republican party attempted
to have a show trial exhibiting the danger of "union bosses" using members'
money for "their own political agendas." We sat in a room full of
Teamsters, Steelworkers, Shipbuilders, Auto Workers, Plumbers,
Electricians, and many other unions, all in solidarity to show our support
of union rights both in the workplace and in the political arena.
31. We firmly believe that it is only a matter of time before we win
recognition in the U.C. system. This will be a victory for all academic
student employees, certainly, but this will also be an important victory
for labor as well. Our members come from diverse backgrounds, many from
professional and academic households where unionization was not part of
their everyday lives. Still other members have strong memories of the
labor movement in their households where their parents' union was in
important reality of everyday existence. Whatever our members'
backgrounds, our union offers them the opportunity not only to work for justice
in their particular lab or classroom workplace, (and in
the light of California Proposition 209, equity in any public workplace
will be harder and harder to find,) but it offers them the opportunity to
work for justice in the workplaces of ALL our members , and through our
solidarity actions, for justice in all union workplaces on and off campus.
Through solidarity actions our members have worked on many civil rights
issues such as affirmative action and domestic partnership as well. So
many academics espouse one particular leftist ideology or another, but for
many, perhaps most, that ideology has its limitations at the classroom
door. What our union offers us in the largest sense, is the opportunity to
seek empowerment and justice in our local communities. It challenges us to
put our actions where our politics and rhetoric are.
Kate Burns and Anthony Navarrete, University of California