The recent strike at the University of California has been called “historic;” as the largest strike of 2022 and the largest higher education strike in history, it certainly was. But the strike had the potential to be historic in more ways than sheer scale. The three unions involved, all units of the United Auto Workers representing distinct fractions of academic workers, brought to the bargaining table several expansive demands that went far beyond wages and workload to propose real changes to the university. The demand that gathered the most attention was that for a cost of living adjustment (COLA), a proposal not only to raise the wage floor to match the cost of living, but also to tie yearly raises at each campus to fluctuations in local housing markets. Much has been made of the COLA demand, not least because it arrived as the slogan of the 2019–20 wildcat strike that was this strike’s forebear and dark shadow. COLA supporters argue that its implications go much farther than a new way to calculate grad worker compensation; because the University of California is the state’s largest landlord, tying the UC’s salary obligations to rent costs could impel the university to keep rents low, affecting not just graduate students but local housing costs in general.1
Some bargaining items that did not make the headlines were similarly expansive. The Access Needs article, a sweeping rewrite of the university’s approach to disability accommodations, proposed to hollow out the administration’s capacity to limit disability access by dissolving the administrative barriers the university has historically posed to avoid meeting basic needs. The Community Safety article would arguably have had the widest impact on those outside of the bargaining unit. This article, which built upon years of work by Black graduate workers, would have “defund[ed] the budgets dedicated to the University of California Police Departments.” Advocates painted an expansive vision of how police abolition could transform every aspect of the university, pointing to how anti-Blackness structures both the university and the union; the police’s role in enforcing the capital relation and therefore the conditions of work; the relationship between abolition, food security, and community care; and the importance of police in protecting the university’s financial and real estate assets.
None of these demands made it into the final contract. The bargaining team’s decision to drop COLA language from the wages article early in the strike was met with fierce opposition from many in the rank and file, with chants of “No COLA, No Contract” repeated in online meetings and on the picket lines during the following weeks. The bargaining team’s decision to gut Access Needs in favor of a Reasonable Accommodations article that barely differed from previous contract language was met with similarly vocal opposition by disabled graduate workers and their allies. Meanwhile, the Community Safety article never reached the bargaining table and was eventually withdrawn by the union and hidden from their online bargaining tracker.
Despite these glaring omissions, or perhaps because of them, depending on one’s cynicism about the union as a whole, the contract passed with overwhelming numbers, over sixty percent for UAW2865. Why? Some have pointed to the UAW’s decision to put its full organizational power behind the Yes vote, to a general lack of militancy among graduate students, and to the university’s attempt to fraction off the most prestigious campuses by offering them higher pay. While these were doubtless significant, the outcome of this strike, its debates and internal struggles, and its implications for future labor actions deserve a more thorough analysis.
Fissures and Convergences
The divisions among the graduate students were between those who supported the administrative caucus of the union, deeply tied to UAW leadership and to potential futures as union researchers, and those who supported what they considered a more rank-and-file strategy; in UAW2865, the largest of the units and the center of gravity for the strike’s dynamics; these two camps were often conflated with the majority and minority members of the bargaining team. While these divisions represent longstanding political camps in the union, they festered beneath the surface as momentum for the strike built on a wave of shared hope. This unity could not survive the bargaining team’s abandonment of the COLA language, replaced with a drastically decreased wage demand. The union administration, pointing to declining picket numbers, argued that the strike’s power had already begun to wane and that only a swift agreement could avoid painful losses.
It was here that what would become the fundamental tactical divergence appeared—or so went what would become the potted analysis. Against a swift settlement, the minority members of the bargaining team argued not only that the picket was not an accurate measure of power, but that strikes in higher education work on fundamentally different timescales than those in other industries. Unlike a factory where the effects of a strike are felt immediately, a university strike’s power grows over time, due to the “steady accumulation of missed instruction hours, especially late in the quarter, along with the passing of deadlines for finals, grades, and research grants.” Based on this logic and in contrast to the union’s attempts at a quick resolution, rank and file strategy coalesced around the “long haul strike,” withholding labor beyond grading and research deadlines to increase pressure and win demands.
These rifts opened further when the union, shocked to discover that their show of power didn’t frighten the UC into capitulating, called for “escalation” and staged a series of spectacular “direct actions.” Targeted largely at the UC regents and prominent state politicians, they departed from the historical sense of direct action. Rather than laying bodies on the gears and upon the wheels to cease their turning, they were more of an attempt to lay images on the inside pages of the local papers. They were designed to be seen: to generate outrage and send a message. These public spectacles, combined with the union’s assertion that power lay in the size of a picket line that they insisted remain peaceful and nondisruptive, revealed their theory of power—our strength lay in spectacle, visual rhetoric, and persuasion.
The union’s propensity for spectacle was roundly critiqued by the opposition. In their communiques following the UAW’s turn toward “direct action,” minority leadership (centered on the Santa Cruz campus) criticized UAW administrators for “appeal[ing] to state representatives and campus administrators who they hope will intervene,” a move that located power “not in our strike, but in Sacramento.” This clearheaded assessment of the UAW’s strategy, however, led to some unfortunate conclusions. Conflating the performance of militancy with militancy tout court, the dissidents necessarily fell into a false opposition. They identified two mutually exclusive ways forward: the exercise of worker power through labor withholding, and direct action, understood as mere appeal to authority. While they acknowledged that “protest and demonstration” have their place, they repeatedly contrasted the “frenzied” and “desperate” nature of direct action with the organized, rational strategic vision of the long-haul strike.
The result was truly a world turned on its head, one in which the allegedly radical faction of the strike discouraged direct action or any form of escalation other than convincing more workers to individually withhold their labor for the long haul. Meanwhile, the conservative administrative caucus appeared to support escalation and direct action, though in reality they proved openly hostile to any actions unvetted and/or disruptive. In the end, both factions had more in common than they recognized. Both relegated direct action to the realm of spectacle and performance; on neither side was there any openness to intensifying and expanding forms of pressure on the university, particularly of the sort that might lead to solidarity with other social fractions. Here the abandonment of, e.g., access demands in the contract was echoed in the unwillingness to make common cause with disability activists who might propose some other path than the quiet of refusal. Escalations were marginalized and worse by the union, both its hegemonic and dissident factions. Policed and threatened by yellow-vest-clad UAW strike captains, sidelined and dismissed as unserious by the major voices of the opposition, the action happened on the fringes, taken up by a motley group of rank-and-file workers, undergraduates, and others bound together not by their ability to withhold labor but rather their willingness to take the offensive against the university.
Comparing the composition of these actions versus that of sanctioned strike activities reveals yet another similarity between the two factions within the union: both sides shared the conviction that the worker is the only proper subject of a strike. The UAW strike captains made this abundantly clear in their policing of the picket line—at UC Davis, one strike captain claimed that it was “suspicious” for anyone other than graduate workers to participate in a union-led occupation of the administration building. The dissident leadership at UCSCS took this a step further, not only casting the worker as the only subject capable of exercising real power but going so far as to position withholding labor as the only acceptable tactic and all else as mere distraction.
To be clear, there is nothing controversial in UCSC leadership’s claim that workers withholding labor is at the center of a strike—what is a strike if it does not prevent the product from being produced? And this faction, insisting in the power of a grade strike, successfully posed the question of what it is, exactly, that operates as the university’s product—at least, its public-facing product veiling the corporate R&D, the real estate machinations, the medical centers. But their insistence on limiting the strike to labor withdrawal betrays a narrow workerist viewpoint unable to account for the array of tactics that have historically been deployed during strikes and which have taken on increased importance in our age of stagnation and organized labor’s obeisance to capital’s survival. In their focus on withholding labor, they could not ask the larger strategic question of what would mobilize a broad militant movement, retracting instead into a cadre of long-haulers with limited means to grow, mobilize, reach out, or energize. To do so would have required them to look beyond withholding labor and recognize other possibilities, like the many dining hall takeovers that occurred during the strike, including one on their own campus. Even the picket line, that most iconic strike activity and central location for rank-and-file organizing, disappeared in the UCSC leadership’s singular focus on withheld labor. In comparison, the barricades and dining hall liberations embodied the connection between the radical, expansive demands that would have affected more than just graduate students and a form of attack that included more than just workers.
The UC strike was indeed historic in many ways, but it was historic in the context of a labor movement in decline for decades. Despite many well-publicized unionization campaigns and a record number of filings for union elections, overall union density decreased in 2022, and the past few years have also seen strike numbers at all-time lows. It is unsurprising that it took historic numbers merely to maintain the status quo and win a modest, run-of-the-mill contract. As one anonymous publication argued, the UC strike’s anticlimactic resolution provides just “one example of a larger trend: the labor movement, weak as it is, requires more and more energy just to keep its head above water.” This is hardly a new observation; as Society of Enemies noted in 2011, unions on the defensive must increasingly turn to “tactics of the historical workers’ movement at its most radical,” including blockades, occupations, and riots, not to win unprecedented demands but merely to “keep a floor below falling wages” and defend the right of workers to unionize at all.
In the context of the social unrest of the last few years and the longer cycle of struggle since the 2008 financial crisis, the UC strike stands out not just for its size but for the tameness of its tactics and its adherence to legally protected actions. From a distance, it cannot help but appear as if the strike weapon actively wishes to be eclipsed by the public occupation, the infrastructural blockade, the urban uprising (to name the three paradigmatic forms of struggle that oriented the previous decade). This particular strike’s tepidness can in part be traced to its origins as an Unfair Labor Practice strike; since the occasion for the strike was illegal actions on the part of the UC, the union was obligated to portray itself as the law-abiding party—a feature decisively common to the strikes of our era in the United States. This concern for legality structured every part of the strike, from picket activities to calls for solidarity. Because the union was committed to doing only what was legally protected, they were willing to ask only for legally protected support from students, faculty, and staff. The resulting limits were astounding: we could not ask students to skip class, as we could not promise them that they would not face academic penalties for doing so; nor could we ask members of the staff or lecturer unions (who all had contracts that prohibited sympathy strikes) to respect the picket line. Solidarity was reduced to a riskless, legally bound technicality. Meanwhile, fears over the union’s legal standing limited the actions of striking graduate students as well, with policed picket lines preventing the very generalization of struggle that might have created real pressure on the UC and brought undergraduates and others into the strike. While there were some attempts at such actions by groups of grads and undergrads, they were never widespread enough to cause major disruptions of campus activities, discourage scabbing, or encourage widespread absenteeism. Despite the chants of “shut it down,” there was a lot more shutting up.
Legally sanctioned strikes offer some protections against firing and other forms of retaliation, but only so long as the strike remains within limits predetermined by the state. Such actions are fought always and only on enemy terrain. Many of the limits of the UC strike were therefore those inherent to legal strikes as a category. However, the active suppression of direct action must also be attributed to the failures of both the UAW administration and their opposition to consider how the union might look beyond itself and work alongside other actors, including those who could deploy a wider variety of tactics and engage a larger range of participants. This extensivity, we might suggest, is the sine qua non of effective labor actions in the twilight of the historical labor movement.
That the COLA demand ever made it to the bargaining table, even for such a brief moment, should be credited to the COLA wildcat strike of 2019–20. That strike emerged not only from rising rents, but from the inadequacies of the contract UAW2865 adopted in 2018. That contract was ratified despite rebuttals similar to those of 2022: that it did not meet the needs of the most marginalized or of campuses with the highest cost of living. As would again be the case in 2022, the 2018 ratification process was rife with accusations of unfair practices on the part of UAW administrators. This may be a convention. It is hard however to ignore the trend: union membership ratifies an inadequate contract; those whose needs are not met by the contract are forced to act outside of the union in an attempt to meet those needs; that energy is captured by and underwrites the next round of contract negotiations; the new contract fails to address the conditions that led to the original problem; rinse and repeat. Given the disappointments of the 2022 contract, it seems likely that we will once again see wildcat actions or other unrest before the next round of contract negotiations.
Just as the COLA wildcat strike set the terms for the 2022 strike, the limits of the 2022 strike will certainly return to haunt any future strike actions. The arguments against direct action made by both sides of the bargaining team divide are likely to be the most damaging, as they have severely limited the range of acceptable action to the realm of individual labor withholding on one hand and mere spectacle on the other. With the consolidation of rank-and-file strategy behind the long haul strike, the purportedly radical pole has been reduced to a form of workerist organizationalism lacking dynamism, momentum, or the ability to generalize revolt against the university
The strike won some limited gains, mostly in the form of higher wages. Even the most vocal critics of the new contract have been able to find a silver lining: high levels of rank-and-file participation and a “core of organized rank-and-file workers” ready to build upon the energy generated by the strike. For many rank-and-file organizers, this increase in engagement can serve as the foundation for the type of long-term grassroots organizing needed to reform the union and put it in a stronger position for the next contract negotiations. This is not so different from the position taken by those in favor of the recent contract, who argued that it sets the stage for us to fight for even more in the future. In either case, both the union administration and the rank and file agree that the only way forward is to “redouble our commitment” to labor organizing. It is not surprising that the reformist tendencies within the union are most open to this interpretation, believing that the limits revealed during the strike can be overcome by sufficient rank-and-file participation or the replacement of the current union leadership.
However, if we refocus our attention on the most expansive visions of the strike—the demands for disability justice and police abolition—it becomes clear that working within the UAW is not the only path available. Throughout the strike, the union showed itself to be structurally incapable of supporting the types of broad-based solidarities and diversity of tactics that these expansive demands both generate and require. Faced with the repeated failures of the UAW to take these issues seriously and the real limits imposed by legal strikes, it is likely that those committed to abolition, disability justice, and other “social justice” demands will continue their work outside the confines of the union. Indeed, a similar process of what we might call exile occurred after the 2019-20 wildcat. While many participants in the COLA strike continued organizing with UAW2865 or worked to found SRU-UAW, much of the energy, organizational capacity, and cross campus networks established during COLA were refocused on the Cops Off Campus movement, mutual aid in the face of COVID-19, and disability justice activism. In each case, participants joined spaces and movements not limited to graduate students or even to workers of any kind.
This trend serves as a useful reminder that organized labor and the strike weapon are hardly the only methods available for social change. And while organized labor may be at a historic low, class struggle is certainly not. Since 2020 alone we have seen not only the George Floyd Rebellion and the attendant movements for abolition, but also struggles for disability justice, housing security, and debt relief in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as well as community defense of queer and trans people against attacks from the far right. The great weight of participants in these movements are workers—albeit often informal, unwaged, uncounted—but they are not bound together by shared workplace grievances. They are proletarians fighting against racialized capitalist violence, dispossession, and abandonment.
For those weighing whether or not continuing with the union can address either their own needs or those they see in the world before them, these larger movements will likely prove instructive. By and large, their dynamism and widespread effects have not been measured by their integration into the labor movement but by the very factors that separate them from it, their refusal to be limited by worker status, legally protected strike action, or the type of practical demands that can be brought to a bargaining table. Evading capture by formal organizations, be they nonprofits, political parties, or unions, has been for the most part to these movements’ benefit. The question then is not whether these movements can be brought under the auspices of the union, but whether organized labor has anything to offer these movements.
- See Zach Hicks and Rebecca gross, “No COLA, No Contract: On the Ground at the IUC Strike,” Field Notes, Brooklyn Rail, December–January 2022–23.