University of California strike reveals UAW in transition

A strike by 48,000 UAW members could jeopardize auto production. But while the impact of the strike on the industry will be indirect at best, it has far-reaching implications for the character and culture of the union.

The strikers will not be employed in the Midwest factories where the union has its roots, but in the 10-campus University of California system.

The strike, which began Monday, is one of the UAW’s largest in years and the largest to date in the US in 2022. The strike involves teaching assistants, researchers and others (picture below) outside the auto industry, who make up a growing proportion of UAW members, while the union has largely failed to organize new auto and parts plants, particularly in the South.

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Harley Shaiken, a labor movement expert who University of California-Berkeley, notes the shift within the UAW.

“I remember in 2019 there was a wildcat strike by one of the locals and I overheard a student asking another what the UAW stands for. The answer was ‘United Academic Workers’,” he says.

Some of the strikers have ties to the auto industry through their research into advanced technologies, including electric cars, which the UAW old guard has identified as a potential threat to union jobs.

UC-Berkeley operates the California Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology, which are leaders in research into intelligent transportation systems (picture below) since its inception in 1986. UC campuses in San Diego, Irvine, and Davis also conduct transportation-related research.

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The strikers include teaching assistants who interact directly with students; researchers employed by professors; and post-doctoral researchers (postdocs) working primarily in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields, where the intellectual property created has, according to observers, potentially immense value to the university, private companies, and society in general.

According to fairucnow.org, a website run by several UAW-affiliated bargaining units at UC, the strikers’ demands include “pay increases that reflect our value to the university”; improved time off for parents and carers and childcare support; “bridging funding” that allows researchers to be kept on critical research projects during funding gaps; allowances and incentives for public transport; and reimbursement of the cost of obtaining a US work visa to international scholars.

That The UC administration has proposed a 5-year contract with a 4% pay rise in the first year, followed by 3% pay rises in each of the following four years, according to the union. “In a year of 8.5% inflation, this amounts to an effective pay cut,” the union claims.

The university says in a statement: “These staff make valuable contributions to the university’s teaching and research mission, both part-time and full-time, and we believe our offerings, including fair pay, quality health, and family-friendly services, are fair, reasonable, and appropriate in response to the concerns the union.”

Meanwhile, the UAW top leadership’s response to the UC strike certainly evokes industrial America.

“Our union stands by our California members as they fight for fairness and a fair collective bargaining agreement. This strike is the largest in the nation, the largest of the year and the largest at an academic institution in history,” UAW President Ray Curry said in a statement from the union’s Detroit headquarters.

“We call on the University of California to end its wrongdoing and deal in good faith with its academic staff who do critical work every day,” Curry said.

Brandon Mancilla, a candidate on the reform-leaning UAW Members United list for directorate in Region 9A, where the union represents a significant number of academic workers, expects they will have a larger voice on union affairs in the future.

Academics backed the initiative, endorsed by union members in the fall of 2021, with one member and one vote, and they were clearly a force during last summer’s UAW constitutional convention.

But the UAW’s current leadership, tied to an older industrial model, appears ambivalent about changes in the union’s traditional worker culture, which is being pressured by the shift to electric vehicles that is bringing research funds to campuses.

Union activity at UC appears to have influenced the formation of workers’ unions at Silicon Valley companies like Apple, Meta and Google in recent months, where issues surrounding employment practices have resonated.

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