UC Union Movement Grows

Progressive change happens in many ways. One way is through workers winning union recognition from an employer.

Consider University of California Graduate Student Researchers United (SRU) from all 10 campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. After voting yes, 10,622 out of 10,890, to authorize a recognition strike to form a labor union local with the United Auto Workers (UAW) in mid-November 2021, they won the right to bargain collectively with their employer on December 8. This was no overnight victory.

A supermajority of SRU/UAW had filed cards with the state Public Employment Relations Board to join the union on May 24. However, UC had a problem with some of the 17,000 SRU seeking to unionize. Did someone say divide-and-rule?

UC’s interpretation of the California Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act excluded about 6,000 SRU (some of whom did vote in the strike authorization ballot), called fellows and trainees, from becoming UAW members. Fellows and trainees receive their pay from non-UC funds like the National Institutes of Health.

On September 8, the PERB, a quasi-judicial administrative agency, disputed UC’s definition of the 6,000 SRU members as non-UC employees. This was a sticking point for UC until December 8, when it agreed to recognize SRU/UAW.

“It appears that the University sought to recognize only part of UAW’s petitioned-for unit,” reads the PERB missive of September 8. “This was not one of the choices available to the University. The University was required to either recognize the petitioned-for unit, or deny recognition based on the reasons enumerated under PERB Regulation 51080(d)(3). Because the University failed to recognize the petitioned-for unit, PERB must treat the University’s September 2, 2021 response as a denial of recognition pursuant to PERB Regulation 51080(d).”

Laura Beebe is a fifth year Ph.D. student in biological sciences. She represented UC San Diego on the SRU/UAW strike committee. It had two democratically elected members from each of the 10 UC campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

“After relentless organizing and the collective efforts of thousands of student researchers,” according to Beebe, “we’re proud to say that UC finally did the right thing. The sheer size of our unit—17,000 workers—is historic: we are the largest academic student employee union ever formed in the U.S. UAW now represents 48,000 workers at UC, which is California’s largest employer. We hope to use our voice to make the university a more equitable place to work.”

Recent public school teacher strikes partly helped to lay the 2021 groundwork for labor militancy in the pandemic economy, according to author Kim Moody. “Workers learn from the victories of other workers and from the perception that their own conditions are shared by others across society,” he writes. “The education workers of 2018 and 2019 were, indeed, teaching others that when the conditions are right, the time to strike and win has come.”

Each one teaches one that progressive change can and does happen with class cooperation. Just ask the 17,000 members of SRU/UAW.

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email sethsandronsky@gmail.com