Berkeley, a city that is no stranger to community organizing, is home to a diverse array of unions representing everyone from tenants and student researchers to campus librarians and lecturers.
The Berkeley Tenants Union, or BTU, advocates for tenant rights and protections, according to BTU secretary Matthew Lewis. Its current iteration was founded in the mid-2010s, Lewis said.
“There is significantly more vacant housing in Berkeley than there are homeless people,” Lewis said. “We have more than enough housing; what we need is more affordable housing. That’s what we need to solve the housing crisis.”
According to Lewis, the biggest actor to blame for the current housing crisis is the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act. The law, which was passed in 1995, “severely gutted” rent control, Lewis said. He added that it is one of BTU’s goals to get it repealed.
So far, the union has been successful in its campaign to strengthen Berkeley’s eviction moratorium, according to Lewis. BTU also worked to pass Measure U-1, which made credit money available for affordable housing, and has successfully campaigned for pro-tenant politicians, such as helping secure Bernie Sanders’ win in Berkeley during his the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.
Another union working in Berkeley is the University Council American Federation of Teachers, or UC-AFT. Founded in 1971, UC-AFT represents both librarians and lecturers across the UC system.
According to Timothy Vollmer, co-chair of UC-AFT’s Bay Area chapter, the union advocates for equity to improve working conditions for librarians and lecturers, through negotiations, collective bargaining agreements and contract enforcement.
“Everyday, librarians and lecturers demonstrate their incredible expertise, creativity, and dedication in service of students, faculty, and the teaching and research mission of the university,” Vollmer said in an email. “That’s why they deserve — and will continue to demand through their collective labor power — fair treatment, adequate compensation, and robust worker protections.”
Recently, Vollmer said UC-AFT librarians have successfully renegotiated a contract that includes annual salary increases, which secured professional development funding, the inclusion of librarians under the university’s Academic Freedom Policy and support for flexible work arrangements. UC-AFT lecturers also achieved a “significant” new contract last year after threatening strike, which included better compensation, more clear pathways to promotion and a more reasonable workload, Vollmer noted.
In addition, the new lecturer contract restructured teaching labor by altering the two-tiered faculty labor situation which requires departments to hire lecturers on two-year contracts.
Showing solidarity with the organizing efforts of other unions is an essential part of UC-AFT’s work as well, and the union regularly collaborates with organized graduate students, such as those represented by UC Student-Workers Union, or UAW 2865, which represents any graduate student teaching in some capacity.
“We are actually currently in negotiations with UC negotiating our new contract,” said UAW 2865 member Liz Hazen. “One of the big things we’re fighting for is increased compensation that reflects the high cost of living in the Bay Area.”
Since it was chartered in 2000, UAW 2865 has achieved wages for its members that have significantly outpaced inflation, full remission of all tuition and university fees for workers who are employed at least 25% of full time, as well as protections against sexual harassment, Hazen said.
Hazen said they joined UAW 2865 because they felt that the protection that the union afforded its members in numbers was important. The same sentiment is echoed across members of other unions.
“We do it together. If you try to make change by yourself, it’s frustrating and slow,” Vollmer said. “If we work collaboratively and support each other, much more can get done. Collective action and organizing is much more effective, and fulfilling.