May 12th, 2020
This organizer has requested to remain anonymous in their interview. They were hired as a “salt” by the UAW and were involved in grad student organizing from 2012 to 2016. In this interview, they describe their experience working under the recently elected AWDU party (Academic Workers for a Democratic Union) and the political culture within the UAW. They were interviewed by Frances Woo via Zoom.
Ok, so just get started, can you give a little information about what your involvement was with grad student organizing?
Sure. I was involved in UAW 2865 at UC Berkeley and I was an undergrad, so I was a tutor and like tutors are part of the grad student union as well, and they hired me as like a “salt” to try to organize the tutors because the tutors had essentially no union presence at all. And I was like friends with the activisty members of the union prior to this so they kind of encouraged me to become a tutor and do that part of the work. And so I got hired by them part time for a while, I think probably like one year. And that was it.
OK. Yeah. And I just want to know a little bit more about like the different contracts that were struck with the UC, because I recently got into contact with someone else at the UAW about acquiring the contract negotiations. And yeah, he was talking about, like, how there are different ones for tutors, postdocs and academic researchers. Do you know a little bit more about, like, why there was like individual contracts for each group?
The postdocs are a whole separate local. They’re 5810 and they are separate partly because they just do totally different work, like they’re, they don’t teach, or like it’s when they are doing the GSR (graduate student researchers) job, they are not teaching. I realize that many of the same people work as GSIs (graduate student instructors), but in the GSI role, they’re not teaching and they have a lot of different things that they would focus on because they’re actually generally making a lot of money. They’ll make like 80 or 90 thousand, especially in the hard sciences, and are seeing this more as a career stepping stone, so it’s just like a different realm. That’s my impression of why it’s a separate local. I think it’s also a separate local because they did not like the politics in UAW 2865. And like I know that they were separate locals prior to this, but I think there is a real division between the political climate in those two locals, and that’s probably part of why it stayed separate. UAW 2865, most of the leadership is very consistently from humanities, even though most grad students are in science and engineering, and the GSR union is much more representative of the that. For tutors, we had a separate contract because tutors generally worked only a couple hours a week and were undergrads, not grad students, and had different demands as well, like really wanted a flexible schedule, more so than wanting sick days, for example.
Ok, cool. And what made you want to get involved with, like, student organizing?
Well, I was a socialist already and thought it would be good, and I was working as a tutor already anyways, also, and I wanted to make my workplace better.
Was it like people reaching out to you involved?
Yes, I mean, I was already friends with a lot of the leadership of that local. So I was just kind of hearing about it as it happened. Yeah, they encouraged me. They’re like, you sure you should apply for this job.
OK, and so what exactly was your role as an organizer?
Technically, what I was supposed to do, just act as a “salt” like, sign up new members from the tutors, try to get there to be like some interest in joining the union, and maybe ideally, I think they were hoping like some sort of a movement of tutors demanding whatever thing they wanted.
Did you feel like there was a lot of involvement, like from the other tutors that you recruited and signed up?
Some. I was, they they hired, like three of me. The other two were in humanities and I was in math, and it wasn’t, like, I would say out of the three, it did the best job, and I’m not saying that to brag like that was not really disputed because I signed up actual members and the others didn’t. But it’s hard with the math majors because they weren’t really super interested in it for the pay; it was more like, “we want to do this experience. It looks good on our resume. We want flexible hours. We’re only working four hours a week anyways”. You wouldn’t necessarily do that job if you were just looking for money because there were jobs that would have much more regular hours that you could apply for. So the union, and the union approached things like the leadership from a way that really turned people off. So, for example, they were like really gung ho of like, tutors need to be paid more, and like, just would not hear the tutors did not care if they were paid more and that this was not a relevant demand or, “tutors need to be salaried so they have sick days!” and they didn’t want to be salaried or have sick days. We liked having flexible schedules. And you can’t have, like, sick days and flexible schedules because if you want to change your hours every week, it doesn’t, you see what I’m saying? Like, there’s not a good way to write that into a contract. And people were fine with that. And then they would, against my advice, do things like host a union pizza party and let the bosses come in. And so tutors would show up and their boss was at the union meeting they had showed up to, and so, unsurprisingly, they were terrified and never wanted to do anything related to that again.
Mm hmm. Yeah. So when you say that you gave them advice in regards to, like the, what the tutors wanted, did you guys like, did you meet with, like the upper members of the union about, and like discuss those issues?
Within my local, yes. The whole thing was just being planned at the Berkeley level.
Mm hmm. And so I know that you were organizing between 2012 and 2016 is that right?
No, I think it was. 2010? No, I’m sorry. Give me a sec. Yeah, that’s right, ok, yeah, you’re right, you’re right.
That’s okay, it was a long time ago.
I’m like, what year did I…? OK. Yes. That’s it. 2012 to 2016.
So I know you were working when AWDU, like the AWDU party was in power, so how did you feel, like it, like how did you feel working under them was?
I originally joined because I was friends with like all the AWDU members through other political organizing, so I came in being like OK, these are clearly, you know, the right people, and then they would just say really dumb sh** like, sorry, but for example, they would literally say, “we’re joining the union because we want to take the unions’ dues and use it to do political work”, like, political work unrelated to the union. For example, like supporting, there was a big Black Lives Matter movement at the time, and I was totally a fan of that and like participated a lot and helped to organize within Berkeley. But I didn’t think it was correct to join the union to take the dues and direct it over to something else. When a union in itself is like a social service, a service that stands up for workers and for all people to have rights and to just kind of see it as a cash cow and disregard the fact that the union in itself does good work by the fact of giving workers rights I thought was really wrong, and that really turned me off. And they really would say, like, “we’re gonna take this money; we’re going to spend it on our activism stuff!”. And then, so that was my first bad taste, then they framed some guy for sexual assault, like, I cannot tell you 100 percent that it was a frame, but they would brag about the fact that they had framed it. Like this was not a, you know, under the table type of thing. This one girl said she got an email from someone who said that this guy had raped her 10 years in the past. She wouldn’t show the email to anyone. She would not disclose any further information about it. It was incredibly convenient because it was against someone who they had just decided that they didn’t like and wanted to get rid of, and so it was just extremely suspicious. And then ,just like shot down anyone who said stuff like “you don’t believe women. This is clearly, you need to believe in women 100 percent of the time, even if, like, we’re not even seeing the accusation”. So that seems super shady. And then they had this idea, like “militant minority” strategy of, “we’re gonna organize with other people who have political views similar to us”. And like, I’m a socialist as well, right, but I don’t think we should only organize other socialists in a union, because the great thing about a union and its power is that everyone’s interests as workers is united behind this organization, right, and so the goal of the organization should be to get all those people to see that, right, and to fight for these rights together, and instead, they would just kind of discard anyone who wasn’t super politically aligned with them, of like, “oh you’re-“, generally was like you’re racist and sexist, but really, it was just anyone with different political orientations, or who didn’t know things like they, they were the type where if you say “you guys” like to a bunch of girls, you would get like shut out forever, which discarded anyone who didn’t happen to have essentially a really powerful humanities education. And so they only had representation from select few humanities departments and weren’t interested in changing this, like. At Berkeley in particular, almost half of grad students are in electrical engineering. They had one rep and gave him no support. In the hard sciences, most of the departments which are bigger individually than all of the humanities combined, most had no representatives and they weren’t interested in changing it because they knew those representatives would not have the same political views as them. So they would rather have no representation at all, which I would get if we were a political party, but we’re not. We’re a union and we’re supposed to represent all workers and hear workers and hear what workers want, and so, yeah, I think that led to things like having a pizza party that led to tutors getting fired because they didn’t care about handling the actual work of a union. They were just interested in like having a rally or building a movement, and this side of thing, not that I’m against building a movement, but unions have a special power that’s separate, you know.
Yeah. Yeah, I didn’t know that-, so the tutors got fired after that, the pizza party event?
Yeah. Some got fired under different pretenses of like, oh, you know, we just, we don’t want you anymore, and one, I didn’t tell the union because he didn’t have papers, and he got fired because they were afraid that the bo-, my boss was afraid that the union would find out that they were hiring someone who didn’t have papers which we’re not supposed to do. And so, I don’t remember the exact details of this. He went to the pizza party. They didn’t like him any more because they thought he was pro union. They fired him and, like, rehired him two semesters later or something, but it just led to there being no trust in the union. Like, you wouldn’t go to a union event if, after the first one, people are fired, right?
Yeah. Would you say there was also like a lack of communication between, like the union, like, hierarchy and the other people that were involved?
Yes. Between the union hierarchy and its actual members, they really communicated only with a minority of people who they thought agreed with them politically. For example, they declared a strike, and like, I think I remember calculating, it was like five percent of grad students went on strike. And they didn’t mind that, because they hadn’t reached out or organized at all for the strike to even happen in entire departments. So their friends turned out from like anthropology or whatever, like those five departments, but like, there was no strike at all in chemistry, for example. And that was super regular, like some, a lot of people in the hard sciences didn’t even know they were in a union.
Yeah. So, also you mentioned that you were an undergrad, so I’m just curious as to what the organizing process was like while also being a full time student.
It was stressful, like getting hired by them was shockingly easy. I kept telling them, like, because I was getting paid more than I had ever been paid before, which was cool, like union jobs pay well, you know. I think I was making like 24 dollars an hour and my previous job had been like 8. And so I was like, hey, you should have like things you want me to do, but they were so intent on kind of following, you know, their own politics, which I respect, but they took it to an extreme of like, you don’t have to do the work, it’s fine if you have no results. And it kept being fine if we had no results. And like, like I told you, they hired three copies of me to do this tutoring “salt” job, and the other two never recruited a member. Like, they gave these people like thousands of dollars, and like, I like them. We were friends. I’m not saying this to say that they were bad, but just to say that this was really ineffective work. And then it was stressful because when I realized that I did not agree with what AWDU was doing, and I was the only one on campus in the leadership who thought so, so all my friends stopped talking to me, and they were all like 10 years older than me, and so it was just extremely intimidating.
Yeah. Yeah, definitely. So in regards to, like the community would you say it was like, pretty like isolating, and like political in people’s ideologies?
I’m sorry, can you answer that question a bit more?
So, like when you were working with people within the union and like recruiting people, because I know that you mentioned that a lot of people have a really strong political ideologies and kind of wanted to associate with the people that have the same views, so would you say it was pretty isolating in that way for other people?
Yes, definitely. Like, for example, I recruited a bunch of physics majors to turn out to one of their rallies and they came and they were excited at the beginning and then some of the leadership decided that they were going to, like, yell at the dean and throw trash at his office or whatever, which I’m not actually opposed to, like whatever, he’s a horrible dean, but it was just a bad move because it turned off all of these people that I had brought. And they didn’t care, because if you’re gonna get turned off by that, then you’re clearly a bad person and don’t deserve to be in the union. So in that sense, they were self isolating because occasionally someone outside of their political bubble would show up, but they would just get turned off like purposefully and shut down.
And were the protests that they held, like, did they correspond with the larger, like UC wide protests or were they individualized to Berkeley’s campus?
This one was specific to Berkeley, I believe. I mean, it was a ballot our dean, sorry give me a sec to try remember. OK, I’m not, like totally sure about this, but unless they coordinated something across Deans, which is possible, I think it was just at Berkeley, which is weird because they did do a lot of things campus by campus with no coordination.
So outside of like union contract timelines and stuff.
Yeah. Like lots of political organizing outside of union contracts and not unrelated always, but not using the union as a power source other than a list to turn out members to a rally.
And so since you were involved with the UAW from 2012 to 2016, what would you say was, like, the biggest, if any, like changes between that time period within like the UAW?
AWDU collapsed right when I was leaving. Like, their membership rate had just sunk and sunk and sunk, and they were doing nothing to recruit new members because they didn’t care if they did, so that changed, and then a whole bunch of other groups like them kind of sprung up across different campuses. So when I joined, it was like AWDU had just risen to power, and then when I was leaving, they were pretty much done. I think that was the main change.
Was there a new group that came into place?
Oh, there’s like a million different ones. I don’t remember the names of them. In Berkeley, it’s still AWDU people, I believe, or at least like AWDU friendly people. In San Diego, it’s like Power or something, I forget. It’s a lot of groups that are politically like AWDU, and some of them are weirder, like the Santa Barb-, no the Santa Cruz people are extremely like ultra left. Like the COLA thing they just did was an unauthorized strike that they did not consult the rest of the locals if they even wanted to do this or not, if we were willing to pay their legal fees when they did this, like if anyone else thought that was a good move. They just kind of went and did it anyways, and that’s like a continuation of AWDU type group over there, and then some are a little bit more reasonable now.
Are these AWDO-, AWDU type groups, like, organized, separate from the UAW or just like super left factions of the UAW?
Do you mean like if they have an official stance within-, like, can you clarify that question? I’m sorry.
Like, were they officially working with and like under the UAW or was it more of, like, like sort of a club organization, like outside organization?
Yeah, more club. Like, if you go to those meetings, I can’t guarantee because I haven’t been for a long time, but my experience was that you would see as many people who were not union members as who were even in the local. It was kind of like, a political organization that was infiltrating the union, is more how I would characterize, at least AWDU. And they hate UAW Internationals. They would definitely not call themselves like a faction of UAW
Ok, cool. So I thought I’ve gone through pretty much most of my questions, but the last thing I want to ask about was during 2014. I know there were protests like across UC campuses, and I know that there are 20 students that were arrested at UCSC, and I was wondering if that had any effect on, like organizing at Berkeley.
Do you mean the protest against the fee hike or the Black Lives Matter protest? Because they kind of overlapped timeline, timeline wise.
The fee hike.
OK. Those protests, even though they led to more arrests in Santa Cruz, actually started at Berkeley, and we did a ton of work for that, and I would not have called that union related. That was like a whole separate group. It began in Berkeley with something called the Public Education Coalition, which was an activist group that had many AWDU members. That’s where I knew them from previously. I did a ton of work at Berkeley for that, actually, and we organized that with mostly undergrad students since it was a fee hike that mostly affected undergrads, and then the union kind of came and was like yay, this is vaguely related to our contract, but I would not call that primarily a union campaign, the fee hike movement.
Ok. Well, I think those are all my questions. Are you okay with being cited and quoted on the website, which rather prefer being anonymous or is anonymous an option because of some I would love?
Yeah, yeah, definitely. Oh, yes, that would be great because they all hate me from back then and I kind of know that.
Yeah. I want to make sure that you can speak freely. Great. And so since this is like a quarter long project, our article will probably be up like towards the end of this quarter. But I can send you an email so you can check it out after. Do you have anything else that you would like to add?
No. Thank you so much for taking the time to like hear that story.
Thank you for talking with me.
Have a good day.