May 14th, 2020
Kavitha Lyengar is the current statewide president of the UAW and resides on the Executive Board with nine other people. She first took on leadership roles in the UAW in 2016 after several years of union membership. She ran for local campus leadership and then statewide leadership. In this interview, she describes what drew her to get involved, the inner workings of the UAW, and the union’s challenges and goals moving forward. She was interviewed by Frances Woo via Zoom.
So to start off, can you give a brief description about your position at the UAW?
Yeah, I am the statewide union president, so that means that I serve on an executive board with nine other people who were elected by members across the state. And I’m a grad student and a GSI at UC Berkeley.
Ok. So what made you first want to get involved with the UAW?
Yeah. So I got involved in 2016 when I felt like the left needed to build a lot more power to fight the forces against us. So that’s what made me get first involved. I was in my like second or third year of bad school by then.
When you say, like the forces against you, are you talking about, like, just the UC overall?
Yeah, the UC overall. But I think more importantly, in 2016, I was looking at kind of big right wing attacks on issues I care about, immigrants rights, women’s rights, economic inequality…seemed like it was going to vastly expand. And I think for us to kind of fight back against those conservative forces we need to have strong progressive institutions on the left that bring people together and to which we can have kind of real power. And so I yeah, that’s what made me first get involved, is that being involved in your union, I think is one of the most important things you can do to have kind of shared and big power.
When you first joined, were you like one of the general members of the organization?
Yeah. So, yeah, I joined my first day of grad school. I joined my union, but I wasn’t super involved or going to union meetings until,yeah, my second or third year. And then I, yeah, I started going to union membership meetings and then organizing committee meetings, and then I ran for local campus leadership before I ran for statewide leadership.
How do you feel like the overall, like, vibe of the community in terms of like being in meetings, like the people involved were?
Were? Yeah. So, I mean, right after the Trump election, a ton of people went to union meetings because we’re all, I think, looking for ways that we could come together and have kind of a way to collectivize our efforts. And since then, the unions kind of really grown over the last, now about four years, I can’t believe it’s 2020. Over the last four years, union membership has grown; a lot more stewards and leaders are involved in the union. And I think there’s a real sense among grad workers that when we come together, we can transform our working conditions. And I think we see a lot of that happening right now. We’ve seen that happen over the past few months. I think it’s a real testament to regrowing a union.
Yeah, definitely. So how do you kind of describe the UAW leadership crowd prior to, like you moving up in the ranks?
Yeah, I mean, I think there’s kind of lots of different philosophies for how graduate student unions should work and be run. I experienced a union that’s member-, that’s, that’s membership, whose membership declined for about a decade and who kind of levels of engagement were pretty low in my experience. And so, yeah, I feel like over the last few years, kind of everyone involved in the union has been really dedicated to rebuilding it and really building it up into a strong fighting union.
Yeah, definitely. Were there any changes that you like want to implement moving into your position as president?
Yeah, I mean, it’s really important to me that, like everyone knows they have a union and that they should be a part of it. And that being a part of it means not only kind of signing a membership card, that that’s a really important way for us to have collective power, but it means that there is like someone on the shop floor who identifies as a union leader, someone who is constantly talking with their friends about the union and is making sure that their friends are participating in union actions and efforts and kind of building that structure is kind of been on the top of my list of the most important things we can do, because, you know, to have a really strong and effective strike threat that can win the things we need, like an end to nonresident supplemental tuition, housing stipends, free public transit, which I think we need as part of a green new deal and abolishment of the title nine system as it currently exists. All these kind of really big, bold demands is going to take everyone coming together. And I think that takes building really serious and sustaining structures. So that’s kind of been one of my major priorities, is making sure we can build those structures. It’s also really important to me to get more international students involved in the union. It’s such a huge group of workers, are folks who come from abroad and face all kinds of discriminations in terms of visa, all kinds of discrimination in terms of tuition, like extra tuitions that folks have to pay simply based off of where they’re born. And I think it’s really important in order to fight those issues, to have lots of international students involved in the union to take those issues on. So those two have been really, those two issues have really been at the top of my mind, in addition to, I think, the third big one has been making sure that we have a real political presence in Sacramento. As you know, a public sector union, our boss’s boss’s boss is the governor of the state of California. And so it’s very, very important, particularly looking at COVID right now, that we have a strong coalition with other unions, both to fight on the shop floor, fight against the boss, but also to come together to make sure that the impacts of COVID aren’t on the backs of workers. And so making sure as a piece of that we have a plan in Sacramento to move bills effectively is very, very important.
And what would you say are some of the biggest struggles that you face trying to like get people together and organize?
I mean, I think the biggest hurdle has been just the fact that there was kind of years without structures in the union that really touched everyone’s lives. And so I think just like moving from a place where someone, like doesn’t know about the union hasn’t heard about it, no one and none of their friends know about it and none of their friends have known about it for years, has really kind of built a culture where people really don’t think of it as kind of the air they breathe or something that really matters in a daily material way. And so I think is one of the biggest obstacles is kind of rebuilding from a place of not knowing. Because I think a lot of us come to organizing because it’s, you know, part of the air we breathe for whatever reason. That’s because of the way we were raised or our ideological predilections. But it’s like something that we just think of as a common sense. And I think building that for people in places where it hasn’t been for years is really, has been quite a challenge. And then I think, you know, the other big challenge is that the University of California doesn’t want to treat us the way we deserve. Right. Like that is the other major, major, major challenge is the boss. The question is like, how do you transform the conditions of power to make the, cause the boss to care?
So right now, what are the kind of best methods are you using to kind of like, re-engage people and like we stimulate their culture of caring about the union and knowing about the organization?
Yeah. I mean, I think there’s a variety of tactics we take. I mean, running campaigns about issues that people care about I think is super, super important. And I mean, people are diverse. People care about a lot of different things. So I think it matters quite a bit to have campaigns running on housing stipends and housing issues. I mean, that’s a shared issue that clearly runs across the grad student workforce. But I also have a, we have a committee addressing issues of sexual violence and sexual harassment at the university. We have an international students committee that’s really working on these visa issues I was talking about, um, working on having kind of projects and programs that are really addressing all of those issues I think is really important so we have a way of talking to our co-workers that’s really grounded in something that folks care about. And then, you know, like raising the visibility of the union is always very, very important. And so making sure people kind of know it and see it, but I think kind of at root, the most important thing is identifying people who folks have relationships with because it’s all based on real relationships. That’s what organizing is, and so making sure that there are people who people have real relationships with, who identify and care about the union and identifying those people through kind of different issue campaigns and bringing folks into our kind of broader plan to win, I think is the whole game.
And how have you kind of seen the member engagement increase or just overall shift as your time as president?
Yeah, I mean, I think we’ve seen member engagement increase in a lot of ways. I think we’ve seen at least like and my experience at Berkeley is the most kind of specific, but I mean, over the past few years, I’ve seen more members involved and engaging in union democracy than I have in years. And, you know, we’ve seen member engagement increase in votes and in elections in the union. We’ve seen membership engagement increase in terms of like departmental engagement. We have people who identify as the union in their department and talk with their co-workers who come to union meetings regularly. And I mean, I think the kind of whole COLA movement, while really, you know, the union didn’t, um, organize the wildcat parts of it, I think is really a testament to grad workers coming together and kind of realizing our place as workers in the university and I don’t think that happens without a strong union existing and without kind of a presence of a union that helps people to think through our relationship with the employer as workers, not just as students.
Yeah, definitely, um, and so, yeah, can you give a little more in-depth information on, like, how the union is kind of working through both like the COLA movement and also COVID?
Yeah, yeah, totally. So our union has, the university filed legal charges against the union for supposedly organizing the wildcat strikes. And we have filed legal charges against them for failing to bargain with the union over cost of living issues and for unlawfully disciplining folks at Santa Cruz who were on a wildcat strike. So, you know, our union has fought for decades on cost of living issues. This is, you know, one of the reasons our union was founded in the 90s was because we hadn’t seen wage increases in years. Past living issues have been, you know, a big issue from the very, very beginning of our union. And just, you know, during our last round of bargaining, we tried to bargain over housing stipends and the university said housing stipends are student issue, not a worker issue. And that’s been really core to our nig problem in our union for a long time, is that the university likes to treat as students, not as workers. That’s how the university is justifying giving folks housing stipends at other campuses. They’re saying, oh, these, we did this for you as a student, not as a worker so we’re not going to do it through the union contract. And I mean, all of us in the union know that it’s better for it to be in a union contract. It meansbyou have rights; it means you have protections; it means that it can’t be unilaterally taken away from you. That’s why we want a union. And so there’s a really big issue with the university’s kind of position on this, that this is, my god it’s dark, that this is just a student issue. And so our kind of relationship with the kind of cost of living issues is, you know, run deep in our unions’ DNA for a long time, and right now is taking the shape of union members organizing around an unfair labor practice strike authorization vote, because given the university’s unlawful behavior, union members can decide to go on strike together. And because of the university’s failure to follow the law to bargain with the union about these cost of living issues rather than unilaterally implementing changes that we have no protections over. That’s something that’s, you know, an ongoing effort. And, you know, the kind of timelines and all the kind of plans around that totally transformed because of COVID. So the COVID-19 pandemic, you know, is bringing forth the worst economic recession I’ve seen in my lifetime. I was here, you know, have like…This is worse than 2008. And it’s, the unemployment rates are worse than the New Deal era, you know, or the Great Depression era. This is like really, really bad. And we’ve been working in coalition with other organizations across the state, across the UC, across the country, to call for no austerity, right, in the face of this crisis. We need to have fully funded public institutions. We need free health care. We need paid leaves. We need housing. We need to cancel rent. We need like, all like, it’s really laying bare all the ways in which our system is brok- is broken already. And it’s, like we need free child care, like all these problems that were like, problems before are just exacerbated now. And so I’m really looking forward to the opportunity this affords us to work together with organizations to get more bud-, bigger budgets from the state and from the federal government, to get more research funding, to tax the wealthy, to redistribute wealth in the state of California so it goes to the people who need it, so it goes to public institutions. And I think that’s really one of the major goals and opportunities we have right now, is to come together across all sectors and identities of the working class to really take on the like, right wing corporate forces that, you know, got me involved in my union in the first place.
Yeah, definitely. And can you tell a little bit more about how, like, communication is going right now, like across other collaborating organizations, but also like within the UAW in terms of like the executive board with the other members? And things like that.
Yeah. Yeah. So I’ll start from the shop floor and move up. So, you know, we have stewards in every department talking with their coworkers all the time about what’s going on. We’ve been having phone banks every day for a variety of reasons, to just like be in touch, check in with how things are going, make sure people are doing well, see if they’re having any workplace issues, and let them know about these broader efforts that we’re engaged in on a variety of levels. There’s also, you know, union meetings that happen on each campus every month, things like monthly membership meetings, committee meetings, et cetera. Our statewide leadership, in addition to our executive board, there are elected leaders from each campus who sit on joint council, that group just met last month or last month to talk about kind of how to orient our organizing efforts amidst COVID and these broader fights we find ourselves in the middle of now. And then we also have e-board that meets monthly to talk through our orientation and how we are collaborating with other organizations. I and a few other e-board members have been really involved in the UC Unions Coalition that meets every week or has been meeting every week now given COVID to talk about our shared orientation around demands of the UC, demands of the state of California, and demands of the federal government. So we’re talking about how to collaborate on federal funding like the Cares Act, but in the next stimulus round, making sure there’s lots of money for universities to get research funding, working with the state budget to make sure that the cuts to UC aren’t as deep as the state want. The latest projections I’ve seen are they’re looking at 10 percent budget cuts to the UC from its usual, from, in terms of its state funding, you know, like only, a vast, vast minority of the UC’s funding, like five to 10 percent comes from the state in the first place, but that’s going to be cut by 10 percent, supposedly. And so figuring out how we, you know, have a joint effort to push back against that, and then also really have a united front before the employer who, you know, historically, last time there was a recession, the cuts came on the workers’ backs, and that’s unacceptable. And that’s not the way we, it should go at all. And so we’ve been coordinating at that level. And then also working through coalitions with community and labor organizations across the state for kind of really bold demands around housing and full employment and health care and making sure that we have a shared strategy around like schools and communities first in the medium term, that we need to have a plan that surround reforming Prop 13 and taxing the wealthy so that we can fund things like our public schools with the moneys they deserve and having plans around the Rental Affordability Act so we can have the rent control we need so that the landlords don’t just get wealthier. So we’ve been talking about collaborating on those efforts and also organizing efforts around kind of shared corporate targets. And then we’re also, you know, in conversation nationally with academic worker unions across higher education institutions in the UAW, because the UAW represents eighty thousand academic workers across the nation. And then in conversation with workers who aren’t necessarily just academic workers, but other higher education workers at different universities about how we can have a national strategy around fighting austerity. But like that, all of that stuff only matters if the people at the gr-, on the like shop floor are participating and engaged in it, so that’s why it’s really important that we are building those structures I was talking about and having conversations with people every day to get people engaged in this fight. And so we’re currently talking about launching a big petition around not only our cost of living issues, but what it would take to have a really kind of just recovery and that that would include addressing our cost of living issues, making sure people aren’t laid off, making sure international workers don’t face xenophobia that is unmerited.
In terms of resources, how is it like organizing like these different levels of, like collaborations and organizing with, within the UAW, and also like all these outside organizations as well?
What do you mean by resources? Like how do we, like, divide energy between all of this stuff? Because like. Yeah. Yeah, totally. Right. Like the questions, like priorities and time and how we can do all these things.
I mean, like I said, the most important stuff is the shop floor organizing and so that’s where I think most people spend their time and effort. And there is a, kind of, smaller group of us between the executive board and the joint council who are part of these more like statewide national conversations and finding ways for our union to usefully plug in. But really, all that stuff is only meaningful if union members are really engaged and involved. So that’s where the vast majority difference time is being spent.
Yeah, definitely. Um, yeah. Well, those are all of my questions. Do you have any questions for me?
No, no, not at all. Yeah, I. Well, I guess like. So what else are you. Yeah. What are the other kind of moving parts for your like trying to do a deep dive on the history of grad student organizing? So the way we were kind of like structuring it is we basically are going to like old newspaper articles and we also got access to the old UAW contracts so that we can kind of like point out like what advances that grad’s in organizing has made in terms of like contractual efforts and also interviewing, like old UAW members or grad students for their perspectives on, like, the fight. And also just like the inner workings of the UAW. So seeing how it’s like progressed at the years and like, well, parts of it kind of worked. What did it do that the overall, like, presentation of the information that we find is like a mix of providing a blueprint for future leaders, but also like recognizing that, like we have done all this work already, especially because organizing is definitely hard work and it’s super easy to get discouraged. But especially because, like for students that only go to school for like four years, it’s really hard to see like a super tangible change within that amount of time. So, yeah, just kind of like showing students that, like, it can be done. Like this is how much this is how far we’ve come. There’s so, so much more that we have to do. But we can get there, you know. Yeah. Have you been really good article that I like to show people? The history of our union is that S.F. Gate article about our recognition strike when we first formed our union. Six thousand out of nine thousand teachers going on strike together to win our right to unionize. And I find that to be a really kind of useful historical perspective on kind of like that type of power we have to build to really like the University of California.
Yeah, I’ll double check it out. Yeah. Yeah. Well, thank you so much for meeting with me. And I if you like, I can send you an email and the articles up so you can check it out. Also, are you okay with being quoted in some parts of the article?
Yeah, yeah. That would be totally great. OK, perfect. Well, I hope you have a great day. Thank you. Meeting with me. Absolutely. Wants to be nice. Thank you. Bye bye.