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Why academic workers should vote yes on amalgamation

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OCTOBER 10, 2023

Starting next week, members of UAW Local 2865 and UAW Local 5810 will hold a formal vote to amalgamate — that is, to merge into one local union, which will represent all 48,000 academic workers in the UC system. This would make the amalgamated local union one of the largest unions in California. Such a dramatic change might come as a surprise to many other academic workers, and as postdoctoral researchers and a graduate student instructor, or GSI, at UC Berkeley, we’re writing to explain why we think it’s important to unite the whole academic life cycle into one big union — and, moreover, why we think it’s important that as many academic workers as possible vote in the upcoming referendum.

Academic work in the UC system is riddled with precarity. An undergrad at UCLA working as a tutor today could graduate, move to Berkeley for graduate school, do long stints as both a GSI and a GSR, receive their PhD, move to Riverside and then to San Diego for postdoctoral appointments and then return to UCLA for a prestigious job as a Project Scientist. In all that time, they would never leave the UC system — and without a union contract, they would never have job security. That’s because, in all those positions, they would always be facing the end of an appointment, the expiration of a grant or both, with no safety net and no guarantee of future work on the other side.

We do not want to spend our entire careers under these conditions, and so we’ve both been active in fighting for more security and rights. Our unions have made enormous progress since UAW 2865 was formed in 1999: the aforementioned worker would spend their whole career under the protection of a union contract that guarantees regular raises, excellent benefits and protections from abuse, harassment and unjust discipline or dismissal.

However, we’ve had to achieve these common goals as two separate unions. The UC system has always attempted to use this against us. For instance, in 2010, 2015 and 2016 bargaining efforts, postdocs proposed a similar child care benefit to the one that academic student employees (ASEs) had. The UC system’s response was that they only provide this kind of benefit for students, not for non-student employees. The UC system finally made an offer on child care in 2022 when it was clear that we had a credible strike threat and increased the amount of the child care benefits during the strike. We’re carrying on a fight for rights that should be fundamental for all academic workers, yet our status as locals means that we constantly have to fend off attempts by the boss to pit us against one another. 

In the auto industry, the UAW has always bargained as one union against three employers. This has had an enormous strategic benefit that we can now see from week to week. When Ford made progress at the bargaining table a few weeks ago, for example, UAW International leadership called out workers at the other two automakers on strike, which incentivized them to match Ford’s offer. Ford, on the other hand, was rewarded for their good behavior. This is the exact inverse of the UC system’s divide-and-rule tactics: instead of benefiting management, it benefits workers. We should follow the example of our siblings in the auto industry and vote to unite. And when we do, we need to do it in large numbers. It’s important that all union members participate — and for all the reasons we’ve listed above, we urge you to vote yes. 

A vote in favor of amalgamation, backed by thousands of academic workers, will both build our power and demonstrate to the UC system our strength and capability to organize. This is crucial in our fight for contract enforcement. The UC system has been dragging its feet in properly administering the immense raises and benefits we won as a result of the largest strike by higher-education workers in US history last fall. Management at Berkeley, for instance, spent months attempting to lower pay for GSRs by placing workers at appointment percentages below those required by their contract. When workers defeated that attempt, they won over a hundred thousand dollars in back pay at Berkeley alone. In some cases, as at UCSD, management has gotten desperate enough to threaten expulsion and charge workers with felonies.

We must show the university that their obstruction is unacceptable. A mass-participatory vote conveys our ability to organize and to escalate if necessary until all the raises and benefits in our contract are secured. 

Amalgamation ballots will arrive in the inboxes of all union members in good standing on October 10. This is our opportunity to ensure a just and humane life to workers throughout their careers in the UC system — let’s take it, not pass it up.

Sebastiàn Puerta is a graduate student instructor and researcher at UC Berkeley. Shilo Xia is a postdoctoral worker at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

OCTOBER 10, 2023