A New Force in American Labor: AcademicsBreaking News
tags: unions, labor history, academic labor, colleges and universities
Barry Eidlin is an assistant professor of sociology at McGill University and a former UAW Local 2865 head steward at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Labor and the Class Idea in the United States and Canada.
Cyn Huang is an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley. For roughly 10 hours per week, Huang, who uses they/them pronouns, works as a philosophy tutor — helping students hone term papers and parse the finer points of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics.
More recently though, Huang has been working on something a bit less academic: campaigning to win the right for the members of the United Automobile Workers union to elect its top leadership. While small groups of UAW reformers have advanced this proposal for decades to no avail, activists now see a real chance that it will become reality.
In the next few days, we will learn the results of a referendum allowing UAW members to decide whether they want to elect their top leadership directly, rather than via a slate of delegates. Ballots were mailed in October to nearly 400,000 members and more than 600,000 retirees, who are also eligible to vote. Votes will be counted beginning on November 29.
If the referendum passes, it would end an arrangement that has held for more than 70 years. Currently, local union members elect convention delegates, who then vote for top leadership in a tightly stage-managed affair at a quadrennial constitutional convention. Reforming this system would go a long way toward dismantling the one-party state that has ruled the UAW since 1948.
This one-party system has not served union members well. Over the past few years, a sweeping corruption scandal has landed several top UAW officials in prison. Eleven senior union leaders — including two former presidents — were found guilty of fraud, corruption, embezzlement, and other labor-law violations. The federal government also brought an anti-corruption civil suit against the union; during negotiations related to that case, the UAW agreed to the direct-election referendum. Establishing direct election of union officers (also called “one member, one vote”) could breathe new life into what was historically one of the largest and most powerful unions in the United States.
But why would a philosophy major at UC Berkeley join a campaign to change how an auto-worker union chooses its leadership? As a tutor in the University of California system, Huang is a member of UAW Local 2865 — along with other academic workers like graduate-student instructors and “readers,” students hired to grade assignments. With 19,000 members, Local 2865 is now the second-largest local in the entire union.
Organizing those members has been challenging. “It’s hard enough to get them to recognize themselves as workers,” explained Keith Brower Brown, a Ph.D. candidate in the UC Berkeley geography department. “It’s a whole other step to get them to embrace that they’re a part of this international union, and they have a stake in changing the leadership of the union.” To help colleagues take that step, Cyn Huang tries to connect the referendum to familiar issues: “You explain how the ability to elect top leadership could lead to better contracts, greater accountability, new organizing. It makes sense to people. Once they hear that, it’s pretty intuitive.”
In recent decades, academic workers like Huang and Brown have become an increasingly large part of the UAW. This group — which includes undergraduate tutors, graduate-student teachers and researchers, postdoctoral fellows, and adjunct instructors — now constitutes roughly one-fifth of the UAW’s active membership.
But despite their growing numbers, academic workers have had a limited political presence in the UAW. No academic worker has ever served on the union’s 13-member International Executive Board, which manages the union’s day-to-day affairs. Locals representing academic workers rarely send their full complement of delegates to UAW conventions, where strategic goals and priorities are set. Sometimes, they don’t send delegates at all.
That could be changing with the current referendum. Across the country, academic workers are organizing their fellow union members to vote for direct elections; their sheer numbers make them a significant voting bloc.
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