May 7th, 2020
Daraka Larimore-Hall was active in the UAW Local 2865 for over 10 years. He first got involved through the sociology department and became the head steward for the Santa Barbara campus, then the campus unit chair. He was then elected to the executive board of the UAW and briefly served as the UAW president before being voted out in an internal election. Though he continued his membership with the UAW, his leadership role within the organization ended in 2011 following the overwhelming election of AWDU members into power. In this interview, he sheds light on his interest in the UAW, his perspective of the organization, and his experience during the internal election process. Larimore-Hall was interviewed by Frances Woo via Zoom.
Ok. And then so to start off, I was just curious what initially drew you to the grad student movement.
Well, I’m very pro union in terms of my politics. And so as soon as I became a grad student, it’s clear soon as I was on campus site and sought the union out and joined and wanted to know how I can get involved, ’cause I think it’s politically and practically a really important thing to join and get involved with your union, whatever the workplace is.
Were you aware of them as an undergraduate student?
Yeah. I mean, I didn’t do my undergrad at UCSB. I did it in Chicago, but, you know, the. But I was around in. So I grew up in Santa Barbara. I used to work for DSA along many, many years ago for the Democratic Socialist Movement. And so back in the late 90s, early 2000s, when the strikes and fights for recognition for the union’s recognition were happening, I happened to be back in the Santa Barbara and talked with some of the media. So I’d been aware of the struggle. It certainly was like a thing that was written about in progressive magazines and newspapers and so forth. So it’s something I’d been following and supportive of. And so I was excited to be able to be involved with it after it was established when I actually got to grad school.
Ok. What kind of progressive magazines and newspapers was it like, campus specifically? Or just like Santa Barbara in general?
No, neither. I mean, because it was a nationwide phenomenon, right, of this category of workers starting to organize again, I should say, in the 90s, because I don’t know how much of this you’ve been uncovered in your research, but, you know, there was there’ve been different waves of graduate student organizing going back to the, to the 30s at Berkeley.
So back then, the CIO days. And then another wave, like in the 60s, and at one point, there was a local union representing graduate employees. But just at Berkeley. So it was a long, it was a long struggle that a bunch of different steps to it and the kind of, like, big event, at least for the UC, right, was that recognition in 2000, or around 2000. And that’s where the union they, this was the largest group of academic student employees now represented by a union. It was you know, it’s the UC, the flagship public university system in the country, so it’s a really big deal. But it had been a long time coming, and so generations of graduate student employees had, and I still see this come up in left circles where people are like, oh, yeah, I was fighting that back when I was in graduate school in the 70s, but yeah, so. So I was aware of it. And so, you know, you could read about it in the Nation and in These Times. So certainly if you did like, less Lexis Nexis search that you can get a lot of stuff. And then there’s one of the organizers, UAW organizers when I was there, Ricardo Ochoa, who’s now a labor attorney. He, he wrote a piece for like the Public Employee, Public Employment Law Journal for California. And a very like a very academic law journal, I think it was. But he wrote a piece that’s like a whole chronological history of organizing at the UC that will give you a timeframe of like when the first locals were organized, when, when the affiliate-, exactly when the affiliation with the UAW happened, because I’m a little shaky on the dates. But all of that is obviously very accessible. And that’ll give a little bit of a counterbalance to like the academic articles that the dissident groups in the union have published over the years. Sullivan published in Santa Barbara. There was a people at Santa Cruz. And so forth.
And are those publications…So how exactly do those publications differ from Ricardo’s?
Oh, no, it’s just, it’s more so, like mand-, as you were alert-, alluding to, right, there’s always been like different philosophical strains in union, and like, one of the things that’s been a hallmark of the, like, self, self-proclaimed leftist radicals in the union is that, you know, they like to write academic theoretical articles about the union. So there’s like a paper trail of like that kind of thinking in the union, critical of the UAW, critical of collective bargaining, critical of, you know, mainstream political work, all of that. So, so there’s just been a bunch of those articles written in academic journals or left publications like, political publications; far fewer things published from the more, you say, institutional factions in the union. Because personally, I was, when I was a union leader, I was always very careful with what I would say about the union or write about the union. And I certainly wouldn’t didn’t even though I had my own critiques and my own thoughts, like my instinct or my my feeling was that that was best. Like talked about within the union. Let’s talk about it, work it out, you know, deal with it. Not like I’m gonna write an academic article and seem really smart about sh**ting on my own union. So that was always like a cultural difference between the two tendencies.
Yeah. Yeah. I’ll definitely look into that paper trail, because that’d be really a great resource to have.
Yeah, it’ll be good for underpinning if you do other interviews and stuff like underpinning things with the facts. Yeah. And let me know you can keep me up on Facebook Messenger. Whatever. Let me know if you’re having trouble finding them. I’ll help you find them. They’re all, they’re all going to be easy for you to track down with with your library access.
Okay. Yeah. Perfect. Thank you. And so can you just tell me a little bit more about, like, what your role was within the UAW, and like how long you served?
Sure. So I was active for over 10 years. So it was like, pretty much my entire grad school time, which was, you know, little on the long side, not unrelated to me spending a lot of time on the union and other and other political things. But yeah. So I got involved my first year in the sociology department and became a head steward for the campus. And then I was the campus unit chair, so like the lead steward on the campus, then was elected, some to the, to the like, the state board, executive board, and eventually was vice president, and then very briefly served as president before, like we were all wiped out in an election, like all of my generation of leaders in a really gross, like contentious election that taught me a lot about like some of the bad tendencies on the political left.
Yeah. Yeah. So that was another thing I was going to ask about, like the rift between like and I think it was USEG and AWDU, are there political caucuses that I can across. Yeah. So what was that kind of like, election process for you from your side of things?
Yeah. Well, I mean, so there had been pretty much the whole time that I was involved, there had been a kind of, like I said, a kind of informal political division that people, it wasn’t like hard factions, but at certain times it would kind of solidify into factions over particular issues, but it would flare up over a lot of symbolic stuff as well as programmatic things. But I’d say that the core difference was the, the institutional side or my faction or what we eventually called ourselves, USEG, though that was just really for that election. You know, we were very focused on the nuts and bolts of power in regards to the university. So very focused on staying at majority membership, which, for this bargaining unit, right, which has tremendous turnover just by nature of the work, was constant work. I mean, it was like as an officer, I was expected as a statewide officer, I was expected to spend over 20 hours a week on the ground signing up new members. And so when we would recruit new vol-, like new activists, we’d be like, OK, yeah, you want to talk politics and talk about the labor movement and how it’s going to change society. That’s awesome. But we also have to go and go to the chemistry department and physics department and earth sciences and chemistry and talk to people who are not radical about why they should join the union. And that was hard, exhausting work. And on the other hand, you had people who were like, I want to be in the union movement because I’m a socialist and I’m a radical and f*** capitalism and I get to be in the trade union, which is awe-, great, like that’s fantastic. That’s why a graduate student from sociology or English or something might – and not to stereotype there were radicals in sciences, too, but fewer of them – but anyway, that’s a motivation they had for coming into the movement. But like there was, there was, there were real bureaucratic realities about how power relation works between teaching assistants and the university. And we just really emphasized that. So there would be flare ups about contract negotiations where, for example, they would always want to just like, come up with the perfect contract. Hold out for the most perfect language in the contract, and our thing would be more…let’s, let’s really concentrate on the things that are about union security and dispute mechanisms and grievance handling procedures, stuff that seems boring and bureaucratic. Because if you’re actively out in the departments, talking to the workers and filing those grievances, that’s how you build up a case in the next round of negotiations to like win more rights, or win more benefits, right, you can come in and say, now, we want really strict regulations on workload because, look, for the last two years of our contract, we filed 400 workload violation grievances, right. So it was like, always like our way of going about things was like building systematically and very much about “stay at majority”, and so forth. The other thing that we concentrated a lot on, my, my generation in the union, was always looking for new groups of workers to organize, so never being satisfied with like “OK, we’ve got the grad students”. We were always out looking to expand. So I was an active, like an organizer’s, temporary organizer on the campaign to organize the postdocs at the UC, which was successful. So we, we, and then like people that were a little bit before my time in the union, had done all the heavy lifting for organizing the union for, for teaching assistants at the CSUs, which was huge. So here we were like doubling and tripling the number of academic student workers organized. So we weren’t, it wasn’t our biggest priority to like have the kinds of like meetings and program that a radical sociologists would be the most interested in week to week. And like, if I had it to do over and looking back, we should have just should have been more flexible about this, given people. Let people start their committee on radical transformation of consciousness. Fine. You know, like one big fight we had internally was, I was, the you know, the left always really wanted a newsletter. They wanted to write articles and it’s the left, they liked to think and blah, blah, blah. So and like our reps are organizing reps from UAW were like very against that. They’re like “it’s a giant time sink; it’s not organizing anybody new; it’s not realigning power with university. It’s just like people spouting off”. But I saw that it was just like a really important thing to certain kinds of activists and they really wanted like a newsletter for people to read in their department. I mean, there were reasons for it. They wanted it. And it just seemed to me like an easy compromise to make, but we didn’t, and that became another like line in the sand that was like, “they won’t even let us have a newsletter”, and so forth. So this, it kind of came to a head in the contract negotiations. It was like the last set of contract negotiations in my tenure. We, and that was like we really definitely had like two blocks on the bargaining team and we –
What do you mean by blocks? Sorry.
Two factions, two groups, like these debates and these arguments that had been more informal and like I said, people kind of moving back and forth. As we started the bargaining process, they, people kind of chose sides. And, and so basically, we we we we came up with a contract or like we agreed to a draft contract to the university. It was, in our mind, a very good contract, especially for, it was in the middle of the recession. Every other union in every other union in the UC system had given concessions of some kind. We had no concessions. We had wage increases. We had increases in rights. We had a family benefit, like a paid family leave and paid child care benefits for the first time ever in anybody’s contract like this. So we were really excited about it. But the radical side was like, we should have stayed out, gone on strike, gotten more, gotten an even more perfect contract. And we were like, this is a great contract for us to build on. It’s only two years. Let’s like file a ton of grievances, get to 70 percent membership, scare the f*** out of the university, and then we can, like, go at it again. But so they they actually started, this is was the birth of AWDU as a statewide thing, was to start a campaign to vote down the proposed contract. And so we really, so it was like the two factions went head to head in the election of whether to ratify this draft contract. And we won; the, the contract was ratified. But that, like, solidified AWDU as a group. So they started more and more campaigning. Then, the next year, Occupy happens, the Occupy Wall Street, Occupy L.A., Occupy campuses, occupy everything. And there was this huge, sort of swelling on campus of activism aimed at, you know, the budget cuts and fee increases and was very radical and, and then Occupy was happening and people were like coming up with these theories that if we Sit-In in this park for years, we’ll win, we’ll beat capitalism or something. And there was also this real ethos in Occupy that it was like, and this is like typical of what happens in the second term of a moderate Democrat president, right, is that the left is like, f***, we put up with all these compromises and sh** like f*** this, you know, f*** the Democrats. So so the AWDU campaigned on like, they get, like we could get better contracts by, like, being more militant and going on strike. This leadership works with the Democratic Party. And look, the President Daraka, he’s even an officer in the Democratic Party. That’s horrible. Like the Democratic Party hates workers, Occupy, militancy, blah, blah. And they just like went around, told everybody this. We were just so unprepared for, like, their use of social media, their, and really unprepared for, like, their dirtbag tactics. Like we didn’t expect them to do certain things that they did, like follow us around, our people around holding signs with completely made up salaries on them, saying that we made a hundred thousand dollars a year, ninety thousand dollars a year working for the union, and we were bureaucrats and all the sh**. I mean, like following us around with us, we were like, we are your fellow f***ing grad student – like why are you doing this? This is gr-, so and part of it was that a bunch of, not a bunch, but a few of the leaders of AWDU had gone into graduate school from the labor movement where they had been involved in some of the most vicious internal union versus union battles in the health care sector. So NUHW versus UHW. And that those battles were like, just vicious. I mean, they, doxing, name calling, calling management on each other, like just every dirty, dirty business fighting over who was going to control these contracts in the health care sector. So so, you know, these people had, like, learned how to do intra, like, intra-union battles that way. So they started Web sites where they were like photo shopping, our faces onto like Ho Chi Minh and Stalin and sh** and just gross, very personal attacks. And it won, and I learned, you know, like going up to UC Davis, where I’d spent a lot of time as a vice president of the union, going up there, filing lots of grievances, worked really hard on this grievance in the Spanish department where we won like every T.A. in the Spanish department thousands of dollars because there had been a systematic like breaking of the rules, and we went all the way to arbitration and it was like, I was a graduate student flying up to Davis, going through arbitration to win my fellow workers this money and all this stuff. And then I was going up there during the campaign and the and it was just like, the Spanish department all voted against us because they had a leader in, there was like a AWDU person there who went around with just the easiest narrative to say – “You know, how unions are corrupt and they always just support the Democrats. Well, we want a different kind of union. We want to be militant and radical and be like occupy and get rid of those bureaucrats.” People will like sure. Bam. It was like playing into all the anti-union stereotypes that there are out there in the general public and everything. It was really soul crushing. And it took me quite a while to recover from it, like sort of emotionally and psychologically. I mean, the upside personally was like, then I was out of the union and so I just went, concentrated on my my dissertation and actually finished it and graduated. So that was good, but it really sucked. I mean, it really was like, man, we are on the same side. We might have some differences in strategy and so forth that you just you took it to eleven, for no reason.
Yeah. Yeah, wow, I didn’t, yeah, I didn’t know how deep seated like the rift really was. But yeah, it must have been like a lot to go through.
It was among the elites, among us, the, among the leadership. It was really, really deep seeded, I think, among the membership. It wasn’t so much lamented. The membership was like… You know, I mean, one thing I learned in organizing in academia, right, is like the sociology of the department is so important. And there are certain people, graduate students in any department who are seen as leaders and other people who are not seen as leaders and kind of not respected, and so if one of the respected graduate students is like the union is good, it’s very helpful. Lots of people sign up. They’ll be like, this is a normal thing. This is what you do. If that person is like we do things differently in our department and we don’t need the union or the union’s not radical enough or whatever, that just like that becomes the conventional wisdom.
So would you say that like because there are so many different directions within the elites, it kind of like, pulled a lot of grad students in different directions?
Well, for sure. I mean, I think what happens afterwards and you can talk to people get their side of it, but from some sort of outside and talking to people who are still on staff, like what happened was the union became a radical activist left organization very quickly. So like right away, they started this thing of becoming pro BDS…right, and so and they took that vote to the membership. So the membership voted on whether to endorse BDS And you had all of these Jewish graduate students or other graduate students who were, you know, with particular ties to or sentiments about Israel being like, why is my union taking up this issue, like I’m for my union, I want better wages and working conditions in my, but like, why are we talking about Israel Palestine? So a bunch of people left the union because it won, of course, because the turnout was highest in the radical departments. And so, you know, the union became, so the union for teaching assistants and readers and tutors at UC, you know, gave its thumbs up to BDS, lost a bunch of members; Palestine didn’t get free. I mean, it was just, so so there was, things like that. And then it was just was like, “we’re radical; we’re left; we’re” so forth. So membership just went down. They stopped, the, like treadmill, tough program of organizing that we had just. That was brutal. I, and we probably could have done a better job of kind of working with, like working people into it, but like, but membership went into the toilet. And so then they had that like a long contract fight, like went to impasse, stayed out, went on strike, got a good a good contract as far as the contract itself. But they’ve gone so long without a contract that the wage increases that they got for the contract actually were less than what they lost by working with without the contract. So. But you really got the point that it wasn’t about that. It was about, we want to be in a union that’s on strike and that is militant. It’s like, for some people that’s awesome, and that’s what they want out of their union. But for most of the membership, you have to convince them to join the union because they’ve grown up in a viciously anti-union culture in the United States. And so getting that pr-, I would rather have 80 percent of the graduate students or teaching assistants, I should say, because it’s also undergraduates, readers, tutors…I’d rather have 80 percent membership of the people that the union represents than have 30 percent membership of the most militant, coolest, most down Marxists, bad asses. And that was to me what the, the split came down to. And so, so membership has been in the, in the f***ing garbage can for years now. And I think that my sense is that the newest group of statewide leaders have recognized that, or are trying to turn it around. I’ve had a couple of conversations with a couple of them. They seem like they’re trying to get things going. But there’s there’s like this, by the way, to sound like old guy talking to a young activist. This is like an iron law on the left, I think right, is like splits. So AWDU split, right? And there was like people that… So right away after they took power, they purged some people. And then there were splits. And so there’s like no AWDU any more, I don’t think there’s a new thing. But anyway, it’s like inevitable, of course, because once you, once you when your politics become how, how do we be the most radical and most left, like that is a unwinnable game. Someone can always be more radical. So the, yeah, it was, my understanding is that in terms of power, visa v. the university, the union went downhill and that was, that was our number one priority.
When things started kind of, like breaking up and like splitting up within the party, was there, because I know that a lot of their tactics were like spreading all these rumors and like information about members like elite members in the UAW. So was there ever like an effort on that side of things to try to explain kind of the process, or like the reasoning behind everything? Or like transparency?
Yeah, we, we f***ed up on that. I mean, that was like, we learned too late the power of the email and social media, not that we didn’t know those things, but in terms of this election. We really thought that our very old fashioned, which I think in general is the best way to build that union, of going face to face, talking to people, was the most important-, was like the thing. So we just did a program of just having people out talking to people while they were just spamming and putting up, and like doing these blogs, like sh**ty attacking us blogs and so forth. And you just and we were like, that’s all lies. We don’t even, we’re not going to respond; we’re certainly not going to hit back. The other thing was that this was like a political question about constituencies. Their base constituencies were the social sciences and humanities in Northern California and the Northern California campuses and a little bit in some of the Southern California campuses. So at our bases of support, we’re like more in Southern California and like the not social science departments. But those members were not, they didn’t give a f*** about this internal thing, right, I mean, like, that was the thing was our base was not engaged and we didn’t do a good job of like we should have just gotten dirty and scared them. We should have played the other side honestly, gone to the, gone to the, to our base of members have been like these people, you will be asked to vote on BDS, if they win. They will turn the union into an activist, a small elite activist group, not a trade union. We should just f***ing hit them hard on that. We were way too like we’re just going to run on our record. You know, really trying to cover our left flank by talking about our our progressive politics, our radical politics. It didn’t work at all like, it was, maybe it was unwinnable because of the whole Occupy feeling. But we definitely did not run the campaign that we needed too. Looking back.
Yeah, I mean, it’s understandable too, considering how unprecedented it was.
Exactly. I mean, it was kind of like dealing with Trump. But, you know, we didn’t I mean, Hillary Clinton campaign was garbage. And I think she should, you know, like, hold her head in shame for the rest of your life because of that, but at the same time, nobody had a playbook for how to beat a Donald Trump. How do you, when somebody is just like, I’m just going to double down on being a dirtbag?
Yeah. Yeah. And also, I just want to go back a little bit, too, in terms of my contract negotiations. So from like another interviewee’s perspective, they said that the UAW had like this saying that “Our power is at its greatest the day before the contract expires”. Can you explain a little bit more about what exactly that statement means?
That’s definitely a, was a tactical difference, and like a legitimate tactical difference of opinion, but yes. So the people who trained us, who had come out of the original fight, the original recognition fight, so, so this was another thing that was really annoying is that we’d actually built a culture in the academic student employees on the West Coast of taking people that came up in the rank and file and, and hire, and getting them hired as UAW international staff. So we were like running, so we all knew each other; we, we’d come out of the same kind of work. We had a similar kind of perspective, and so that’s why when, you know, when they were organizing in Washington, at University of Washington, we sent people up there to help them organize. They sent people down to help us organize CSU. We all worked together to organize the postdocs. We started to organize postdocs up in Washington, too. It was like, and it was very much like a program, a project of being like, if we build enough of these kinds of locals, we could take over the UAW region for the actual, for the whole UAW. And like build, and then even not be just organizing academic student employees. Let’s get in there and start organizing in aerospace and manufacturing and all the areas that the UAW like naturally represents but haven’t been organized. So but like, we weren’t gonna self marginalize within the UAW. And this is union politics 101. If you’ve got a plan in the union, you don’t go to the leaders and say, our plan is to keep building power and get rid of you and change the union. That’s stupid. You put a target on your back, they take you out or marginalize you. So we weren’t like publicizing on our website, “join us. We’re going to change the UAW; we’re, we’re like in conflict with the bad forces in the UAW”. That, that would’ve been stupid. So but like the our, the dissidents, the AWDU types, you know, they were like reading labor notes and all these books critical of the UAW leadership and thought the UAW leadership were all garbage. So they’re like, we should say that as a local. And so because we wouldn’t say that then they were just like, you’re just like them, we’re like this, that’s that’s little kid politics to be like, just say your piece. Like, look, strategic politics is, you know, build, build your, build your, your, your forces till you can win. Anyway, but that comes down, that, that plays down to how the international union was portrayed in our faction fight. So, yes, our international reps are the people who worked for the International Union, for UAW, but who worked to service our local had come out of this, they were former graduate students who’d come out of this struggle, who were big in the, the recognition fight, the original strikes, all of that, so, and what they had learned from being trained as a UAW organizer and negotiator is the UAW’s a playbook for negotiation, and it very much is, is on, is two things. One is, you know, really use the contract expiration date as, for leverage. And be like, and like build, build up so that you have a really credible strike threat, and the university knows you could do a really big strike and really hurt them, all the way up to that point, and then get the best deal you can at that point. And part of that is like building up, so second big thing, and this is a very public sector thing. This wouldn’t have, this wouldn’t work for GM, but for the public sector in California, it works that, that we were filing grievances, un-, unfair labor practice grievances all during the negotiating period to, because that’s the only legal way that you can go on strike while the contract is still in effect. So we, it’s like, you played soccer?
So, you know, how, like in good, aggressive, fast paced soccer offense, right? You, you want to, you just like really keeping the ball on the other side, on your opponent’s side as much as possible. And you move your halfbacks up and you move your fullbacks up, right, to keep it on the other side. And part of that is like, so you have scoring opportunities, but part of it is, what happens when the other team makes a fast break. They’re very likely to get offsides and then stop the game, right. So it’s a, it’s a catching them off offsides strategy. So we would do all these things to catch the university in breaking bargaining laws so we could file unfair labor practice grievances and then we could strike legally. And that was like, again, to show the force. So, yes, it was all like, build up the strike threat. Get the best deal that they can. And their argument, their philosophy was let the contract expire. Take a really long time. Build up a strike. Go on strike for a really long time. Get a bigger, get better contract and, and I just don’t think that’s true. I think it’s, that, that there’s a lot of wisdom in the idea that, like, the thing about a strike is its threat and that once you actually do it, you’ve sort of played those cards. The university knows how much real support the strike has, and then you’re in an attrition game. And, you know, like, it’s not that hard to break a strike by people who make very little money, whose supervisors decide over their entire academic future, who, you know, all those reasons, it’s, it’s pretty easy to get people to cross the picket line, unfortunately. So, so that was, yeah, that’s a tactical difference, but they made it sound as if there’s like a call from Detroit, from the head office to our bargaining leaders being like, you have to bargain this way, you know? And that wasn’t the case. Then the other like, hundred pound gorilla in the room right now, you know, from where we sit today is that the leaders of the UAW for our region, like so the people that I had to deal with in the International, like literally those people are going to jail right now.
Oh, for what?
Like, like f***ing the most egregious, like just corruption, greed, stealing from the union, like, the guy who was the deputy regional director. So, you know, UAW has these regions that are very powerful in the union, like in terms of the structure. So like the guy who was the number two guy in that region when I was active eventually became president of the UAW, which when I saw that happen, I was like, that’s not good, because it’s like the you know, it’s like the D-team, you know like, it wasn’t the B-team or the C-team of the leadership. It was like, oh, my God. So, yeah, Gary Jones. So he’s going to jail, and the thing was like, we knew they were terrible. We knew they were awful, and we never, but we also knew that the way the labor movement worked was you, if you have a fight, you have to g-, you have to win, or you die. It’s Game of Thrones, basically. So, so we just sort of like, you know, go along to get along, didn’t do them any favors or anything, but like, didn’t challenge them. So, but like, it wasn’t that hard if you were an AWDU activist to, like, see who these people were, see that we weren’t fighting them. Find pictures of us together at conferences and be like, look, they’re all the same. So they were able to paint us as, like an, like an example of bad, corrupt union leadership when it, when the fact was, like we were very aware of what was going on and how terrible they were and wanted to get rid of them, but we knew that to, you don’t get rid of them with a blog post. So that was the difference.
And also, I know you touched on this a little bit earlier, so when you were coming up in the organization, you kind of mentioned how there were like trainings with the people involved? So can you explain a little bit more about that process, and like the overall culture of people, like before AWDU and all that?
Right. So our culture was that we, if you were an officer of any kind, so a steward, the head steward, campus unit chair or secretary or whatever, or on the executive board, so a statewide officer that you were expected to go out and sign up members for hours a week. And it was like, you had, if you were paid, if you were in one of the paid positions, then it was like 60 percent of your time. If you were unpaid, it was still like our, our kind of like goal was like if you were a steward, you do six hours a week. If you were head steward you’d do ten hours, maybe a little off on those numbers, but there was, you know, that was the goal and the expectation. And that’s a lot. And it’s totally hard work. It’s not fun. It’s not like sitting in a meeting of people who all already agree. It’s having to have frustrating conversations with people making dumb reasons for not joining the union and, and having to like, play along, not just beat them in the argument because if you don’t get their card, you don’t get them to join if you just beat them in the argument. That’s, you know, it’s just like electoral organizing, lots of different kinds of organizing where, like you can, you can prove that the other person is wrong, but you didn’t get them to come over and vote for your guy, so it didn’t, it’s just waste time. So, anyway, so the culture was like, in that sense, kind of militaristic with a very clear hierarchy and a very clear set of responsibilities, and I think that was, it was the problem. I think the culture was too militaristic, but it came out of, it was developed by people who had come out of this existential fight for recognition. They knew what the university was capable of. They knew that the university was capable of, like manipulating GSA, or grad, or like dissident groups in the union and so forth to destroy our bargaining power. So it was a kind of tough, very tough minded approach, but anyway, but the culture was like, if you just, if you wanted to be a, get involved in the union, like, then, a more experienced organizer would meet up with you and go around with you in your department or somewhere and sign up members, and that was your first introduction. It was not a meeting. It was not like a PowerPoint about the labor movement. It was like, let’s go sign up people for the union. So, and then it was like, the trainings that we would have would be about how to better sign people up or how to do this, how to, and then, of course, like all the, and then grievance handling was a really big deal. So, you know, it’s, the union is responsible for representing anyone in the bargaining unit, so even nonmembers. You don’t have to be a member representing them in any kind of dispute with their supervisors. So that was a big part of who was handling grievances. And then we saw grievances, as, you know, not like a bureaucratic silly thing, but it’s like a, like a place where militancy and organizing could happen, because ult-, so here is another division that I found really interesting that would come up all the time, was like, and when it came to grievances, in a, in any grievance procedure, the grievance, the person making filing a grievance has to put their name on it, has to file it, has to be there. The union is just a platform, like it provides somebody there with you to give you advice, to speak on your behalf. It helps you fill out the paperwork, all of that. But like the worker has to stand up for themselves. And they always, the other AWDU always wanted to put things in the contract that would like not require a grievant to do that. So they’d be fixed, sort of magically and bureaucratically, that someone could go and say, “I have a workload problem”, and not have to confront their f****ing professor or supervisor. And it would just be fixed by the union behind the scenes, and that’s, what? You’re the militant radicals, but you want to protect people from having to, like, look their boss in the eye and saying there’s problem? Like, what is this? And it was really clear to us that it was like, these are all people who are best friends with their Marxist scholar advisors, and like, they don’t want to have to have those uncomfortable conversations, you know, and like whereas, like our rank and file, our, like the bulk of our members, were like, not the academic rock stars that were like kissing everybody’s ass. So our view was much more that they were workers. And in this scenario, they’re workers talking to their boss as equals. It’s not personal. It’s not because they hate their boss. It’s not an emotional thing. It’s just, there’s a violation of the contract and we’re going to fix it. So, so gri-, so training people to go out and aggressively find grievances, talk to people, ask people the right kinds of questions to find out if there is a grievance, and also convince people to take the action and file the grievance. That was a big part of the skill set that we tried to get our leaders.
Mm hmm. Would you say there was a lot of, like, mentorship, like when you would have, like an experienced person going around with an inexperienced person?
Yeah, it was pretty, it was programs. I mean, it was like, an intentional thing. People would be assigned to work with new people.
Did you see, like, a breakdown in this, like, sort of community structure once like people started, like, getting solidified in their own factions?
Well, yeah. I mean, basically from the contract, you know, the big fight that we had over ratifying the contract, to the leadership elections where we got smoked, like that period of time, we didn’t, the program was done because everything was factional. So everything we did, they were counter organizing. Everything was like, you know, it was all through that prism. It sucked. So from, basically our, that old really like organizing focused, professionalized, militarized kind of, discipline was already breaking down and it was just becoming a big, just the internal fight. And then by the time, like I remember talking to people like a year or two after, and it was like, even some ba-, like, people hadn’t heard of our database. And I was like, well, it’s in the database, right? And they’re like database, what? And I’m like, don’t you have it on your walk sheets? And they’re like, what are walk sheets? So, we spent a bunch of resources creating this database and of course, fighting with the university to get the membership, you know, correctly and in the right format, get the list of workers, but basically, we have this database so that, you know, every quarter, the list of workers pops into our database, it matches up the people that are already members, highlights the people that are not, and then, there’s a, you know, all these interfaces for organizers to go and find information about where those workers are, where their offices, or their office hours, if they have them, when their section times are, put it in there, and then you could print out a list for your day. And it was like, you know, Frances Woo is holding office hours at, you know, in the grad tower at 10:00 a.m., and then Daraka gets, finishes his section, his discussion section in music at blah, blah. And so you’re, you just go down and have those conversations and talk to those people, right, so it was like, and then put in what the response was and everything so that your supervisor in the union, like your head, your lead, could look at that and see how you do, but that, so it was disciplined. There was accountability. You could be fired if you weren’t doing it right. All of those things. AWDU people wanted none of that kind of sh**, like any kind of like oversight and discipline was, you know, bureaucratic and reactionary and authoritarian. And I don’t think they used that database ever. They really went to a model of, it was like, have department meetings, get meetings together, meetings, meetings, meetings in departments, have people sit and talk. And it was like, yeah. One of the things I’ve learned in the left is there’s too many f****ing meetings and we fetishize them.
And so after the AWDU elections happened, how long do you stay on with the UAW? Were you still a part of-
Oh, no. I was out. I mean, my, I was, yeah. I mean, I, I paid my dues. I was a member, but until I finished, until I graduated, but the, but in terms of leadership, I didn’t have any position.
Did you see any. I mean, besides them, like not using the database and like not having the same sort of like organized, like going out and talking to the people and things like that, did you see them implement any new kind of like guidelines for members or like what was, what did they do sort of as they took over, aside from just like-
What I saw, yeah, the things I saw were, so there was the BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sactions) thing. There was the creation of a bunch of committees like the Social Justice Committee or like anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-oppression, that’s what they called, anti-oppression committee, yeah, a lot of committees, which is fine. And again, I, I’m self-critical looking back that we didn’t provide nearly enough space for people to do just kind of creative political things, and we made that too much of a zero sum with the organization. We should have said, yes, go do those things, but you have to work. So that was a mistake. And then, but, but it seemed like it just was all that, was just all meetings, issues not related to bargaining. And then the other thing that they did right was, which was good, like in the next bargaining camp-, campaign with the next contract negotiations, right, they really emphasized like trans rights and bathroom access, justice and things like that. And that is, the way that they emphasized it in the bargaining campaign was different than we would have for sure because we wouldn’t have, yeah, it was weird how they kind of signaled to the university that that was the number one priority when the university wasn’t really that opposed to it. So it was, I, the way they leveraged it seemed, seemed like it was very much about the internal politics of wanting to signal that certain issues were important to the union, but that was more about their own internal audience.
Interesting. OK. So I think those are a majority of my questions. What, in your opinion, was the strongest action taken by the UAW in the fight for grad students’ rights overall?
Well, I mean, I really feel like the most fundamental victory is just the existence of the union itself, and the fact that there’s some, something intervened to, to make rational and legal and, and visible, like, this power relationship between academic student employees and the university. And if you, I mean I think the, just you just talk to anybody who was in graduate school before unionization and, or talk to people that are in graduate school in unio-, in places without a union, you just, you know, the, the, the abuse is incredible. And the, you know, go get my dry cleaning, you know, go-, they become like little peons and serfs for their, their professor masters, and that’s like not right. So just being able to bargain over working conditions, being able to talk about working conditions as working conditions and not just the lumps you take to become an academic and the dues you take to be a good scholar, but you’d say, like no, this is exploitation. You’re exploiting my labor and treating it terribly. So just that fundamental change in the relationship, I think is the most important thing.
Yeah, changing the narrative, yeah.
And also, what is your opinion on the current COLA movements that are happening right now?
You know, I don’t have a strong opinion about it. It’s it’s confusing and concerning to me in that, like, it seems like another wave, like the current leadership is being flanked by the left and attacked. And so, you know, my immediate-, having my trauma and my experience, my immediate sympathy is with the leadership of the union. Like, I don’t, I just don’t understand. I’ve been meaning to, like, talk to people that are closer to it and get a…but here’s what I think is weird. I think that it’s weird that the smallest campus took unilateral action and was like negotiating on its own, which like totally undermines all the other campuses. I think that doing it outside of the union process instead of, hey, let’s build for a COLA for everyone in the next round of negotiations is pretty telling, and a problem. Also, I don’t think those people should be fired, obviously, and also I think that people should get raises. I mean, it’s like absurd. I know full, you know, very well how low the wages are. But, like, I-, why not go, like, build the union and do it through the union? This, like the, the instinct, and the fact that it came from Santa Cruz, which has always had this toxic leftish, leftier than thou culture, like, made me skeptical. But again, I’m, I haven’t drilled down. I could be totally off base.
Yeah. And I was also wondering if you had any access to the previous UAW contracts, like the-
Well, that’s a good question. I mean, there do you, are they not on the web? Well, I guess they wouldn’t put the old ones on the website.
Yeah. It’s only the twenty eighteen to twenty twenty two up there right now.
Have you asked the union?
Yeah, and, well one of them-, they put me in contact with you, and then several other people-
Who at the union put you put you in contact with me?
I think it was ** Yeah. He just let me know that you would have a lot more information like-
I don’t think I know that person. But anyway.
But the other people that I’ve contacted, only a couple of gotten back to me and they said that they don’t have access, or like they can’t locate all the old ones.
So the people that you should talk to to try to locate them, I mean, they’re definitely at the, the statewide office, like, for sure. So you could be a little more aggressive with them and just be like, hey, I’m just looking for old copies. I’ll reimburse you for, for postage or whatever. I just want old copies of the contract. They have them. They’re in a drawer there, a hundred percent. So, and then, why don’t you call…He will be very careful with what he says to you because he’s international staff. I’ll give you his email address so. So I think it’s ** He’s an international rep. And he knows where everything’s buried. Mm hmm. But like I said, you probably won’t want to talk on the record about his thoughts about these things. But if you have factual things, I’d like the contract. When was the first contract ratified? When did the U. All of those things we’ll be happy to answer and and point you in the right direction so you can tell him that I recommended him.
But all those things are public. So the contract is a public document because we’re public employees. You know, as part of the bargaining process, in fact, like there’s this thing you have to go through. It’s like a ceremony of sunshining, where like both sides have to come with their their proposals to a public place and sit there. So any member of the public can come and look at them because it’s tax dollars. It’s a public agency. So like they have the right to know. It’s weird, but you have, they, they shouldn’t be able to block you from it.
Ok. Perfect. So those were all of my questions. Was there anything else you’d like to add to the interview?
No. They were really good questions and sounds like you’re off to a good start in terms of piecing together the timeline. I’ll talk to a couple other people. I mean, I don’t know what your methodology is for finding interviews. If you’re using, like a snowball method and you want recommendations for me. I’m happy to talk to people and find out if it’s OK to share their contact with you and share it if you want.
Yeah, definitely. That be great.
OK, yeah. Because I’m still friends with a whole bunch of my cohort, of people, both from Santa Barbara and statewide.
Mm hmm. Yeah, that’d be great. Thank you so much.
OK. No problem.
And also, are you OK with going on record with things that were said during the interview?
Everything I said is on the record.
OK. OK. Perfect. All right. Well, have a great rest of your week, and thank you for meeting with me!
My pleasure. Stay safe.
**Name has been edited out for anonymity