Reflections on “the most radical university”: Santa Cruz student-worker organizing – April 14th 2005

Far rightwinger David Horowitz announced in 2007 that UC Santa Cruz was the most subversive school in America. Why? In 2005 and 2006, UCSC had a wealth of labor struggles, anti-war activity and other forms of radical activism. The Pentagon was caught spying on anti-war activists due to succesful shutdowns against military recruiters.

Labor struggles also were noticed throughout the country as AFSCME 3299, one of California’s biggest public sector unions engaged in the first ever statewide one day strike in 2005 (see Estamos Aqui film).

As activists gear up towards building for March 4, some have framed the success of the AFSCME strike simply due to it being a “mass action” and not “liberal” or “ultraleft.” The problem with such categories is it depoliticizes the actual history of the struggle and ignores a key battle that took place, the struggle against the trade-union bureaucracy and its ideology.

Student Worker Coalition for Justice (SWCJ) was a dynamic student group, with a few active workers (not nearly enough) that helped organize the one-day strike and debated out strategy for its success. An undergrad IWW student activist wrote a reflective analysis of the labor struggles that took place at UCSC in 2005. In it, he posits how we should understand the source of agency and the role of the trade-union bureaucracy in labor struggles. This piece should have some political use value for students and workers who are hitting themselves on the head with frustration due to the deep passivity of unions and their unwillingness to struggle against layoffs and budget cuts.


Reflections from Two Quarters of Organizing with the SWCJ

My aim is to express some of the critical reflections and analysis I have made of the organizing I was involved in with the Student & Worker Coalition for Justice over the course of the Winter and Spring quarters of 2005. By no means did I develop the ideas and analysis I am putting forward on my own. It is an analysis I arrived at with many of my SWCJ comrades, developed mostly in informal settings and casual conversations. My intention is to spark further collective analysis and greater political definition of the organization, as well as promote the idea that the Student Worker Coalition for Justice should create formal forums for this type of activity to occur.

A Debate of Tactics or Political Definition?

Leading up to the April 14th strike a debate within the Student Worker Coalition for Justice arose. It revolved around the following question: Should the emphasis and aim of the strike be to receive positive media coverage and “shame” the university or should it’s central emphasis and aim be to shut down the school through militant mass direct action, demonstrating the real power of the workers derived from their ability to withhold their labor? Some may not remember this debate in such sharp terms, or even recognize it as a debate of two conflicting tendencies, largely, because it was masked and softened by the terms with which it was framed, and because the two sides of the debate were never in overt opposition to one another. No one ever objected to mass direct action outright, but during these discussions the advocates of mass direct action were continually asked if our actions would remain “on message” and they were met with a defeatist attitude that implied that what they advocated was fantastical. Though masked and couched in civil language, the debate did occur. It was sharpest at the Sunday, April 10th meeting held at the AFSCME office specifically to address the forms of direct action the coalition would organize. Even after we had collectively decided to engage in mass direct action this decision came into question yet again at the Tuesday, April 12th meeting at Stevenson College.

On the surface this debate was about tactics, about the level of militancy the coalition was prepared to engage in, but the underlying question was a question of political definition and clarity of aims. The real debate revolved around the unasked question: What is the role of the Student & Worker Coalition for Justice? Are we to play a supportive role in which we offer the official union leadership our subordinate “solidarity,” or are we an independent entity with our own politics and our own aims (though they may intersect with the aims of the union leadership)? Is our course of action to be largely determined by the official leadership of the unions or do we aim to have a distinctly rank-and-file orientation and discover our own direction? These are not merely questions of semantics, but are questions that shape the real practice of the organization. The debate that emerged surrounding the tactics to be taken at the strike demonstrates SWCJ’s need for both political definition and a space for collective reflection, analysis, and political development.

The question of what role the SWCJ should play in the labor struggles in which it is engaged is inherently bound up in the broader question of what the aims of the organization are. The political aims and principles of the organization shape the tactics, methods, and internal structure of the organization. How radical is the collective vision of the Student & Worker Coalition for Justice? Does the coalition aim simply to assist workers to sell their labor at a higher price than the boss will otherwise pay (which is the aim of the AFL and Change to Win Coalition) or does it call into question the entire system in which workers are forced to sell their labor (and time) to the boss in order to survive? If the coalition is interested in shifting the balance of power between the workers/students and the boss/administration in a more profound sense than the AFL-CIO, what types of analysis of the unions with which we work must be developed? That analysis should inform a different relationship with each separate union according to the particular characteristics of those unions. How will the organization’s relationship with UPTE, a classic craft union plagued with skilled worker elitism, a go-it-alone attitude, and a particularly reactionary local leadership, differ from our relationship with CUE, a struggling independent, democratic, member-run union? Where does the SWCJ essentially identify agency: in bureaucracy and PR campaigns or in the rank-and-file and collective direct action? How would that analysis affect the practice of our organization?

I certainly have opinions on all of these questions, as does everyone, but collectively we have never addressed them. There has been no forum created to ask these and other related questions. We are blessed and cursed at once. The reason that no such forum has been created is because the organization has been constantly engaged in action. It is certainly preferable to be engaged in action than in sterile, armchair revolutionary intellectual exercise, but there are certain pitfalls that come with being entirely action oriented. Political engagement generates a desire for practical political and intellectual development. When no formal forum for such activity is available people seek a space outside of the organization where they can find it (often sectarian left groups), it occurs informally, or it doesn’t occur at all. Though, I think it is a healthy practice to be engaged in this type of activity in separate leftist/revolutionary political organizations, it must also be present in popular organizations such as SWCJ. If there is no formal space for this type of development it is of no benefit to the collective; the collective gains no clarity of its aim and therefore no clarity in its course of action. To sharpen the collective analysis is to sharpen a tool with which to shape the practice of the organization. Key to good organizing is a practice of being diligently self-critical (while also being affirming). Self-critique allows for an organization to alter its course as necessary and generates adaptability. It allows for more effective strategy and organizational growth. That being said, I would like to explore the instances in which the absence of a space for collective critical reflection and the resulting absence of political clarity, have been a detriment to our organizing, and to explore how if these things were present in our organizing they may have altered our practice.

The AFSCME Strike

The side of the debate of tactics leading into the strike that supported what I will crudely call the PR campaign also offered the argument that militant mass direct action was a problematic route to take because of the privilege of students compared to workers. While I believe that this assessment is absolutely valid (there is less at risk for students being arrested or facing other forms of disciplinary actions than for workers, especially those with families) it also carried problematic undertones. With this argument there was an assumed, even an ascribed, handicap placed on the workers. There was an implication that if the students (assuming no workers were represented at our meetings, which was not the case) were to initiate militant action the workers would not engage. It was argued that this would constitute the cooptation of the workers’ struggle by the students. The advocates of mass direct action answered that if a space were opened for workers to engage in more militant tactics, they would seize the opportunity. Both sides of the debate were proven wrong.

During the strike the first instances of militancy were initiated by rank-and-file AFSCME members, not students. Long before the masses of students appeared at the base of campus I witnessed workers refusing to move for the construction trucks attempting to cross the picket line and even hitting the trucks with their signs. Early in the morning I was asked by a groundskeeper I will call “Rick” to gather a delegation of students to drive up to the construction sites on campus and directly confront the workers that had crossed the line. “Rick,” four other students, and I piled into my car and drove to the construction site. Upon our departure we were told by Max (the AFSCME organizer) that: “Only some of those guys are union so there’s probably nothing we can do. Your main mission is to find out whether they are union or not.” The reality was that all of the workers that had crossed the picket line were union; they all had a sanction to honor the picket line issued from the Central Labor Council. Our efforts resulted in the shut-down of construction for the day; had it not been for “Rick,” a rank-and-file AFSCME member, construction would have continued unchallenged.

When students turned out in the hundreds to support the strike and flooded into the intersection, the workers again showed their willingness and enthusiasm to engage in militant action. They joined us in the streets at the base of campus, they made speeches on our bullhorn, and when, having recognized the overwhelming number of people engaged in the direct action, we spontaneously decided to have half the crowd march to the west entrance and completely shut down the campus the workers were there too. I can’t help but return to the question of where the SWCJ essentially identifies agency: in bureaucracy and PR campaigns or in the rank-and-file and collective direct action? Perhaps, had this question been asked before April 14th we would have had a better assessment of what the workers are ultimately capable of.

There was one very important detail of the occupation of the campus entrances that was never formally discussed as a collective: the director of AFSCME local 3299 attempted to subdue the action. He approached SWCJ members asking, “You look like a leader, can you shut down this action in 15 minutes so our members have a positive experience?” He paternalistically attempted to define a “positive experience” for the rank-and-file despite the fact that the majority of the rank-and-file were overjoyed by the way that the events of the day unfolded, confirmed both through their participation and their words. The organization as a collective was not adequately prepared for this conflict, as there had been no serious collective analysis of the unions with which we were working and we had no theoretical basis to assess the situation. What most astounds me is that when we were told that we had “fifteen minutes until the police would begin arresting people” we actually considered clearing the streets. Had we had greater collective understanding of the politics of the AFL and business/service unionism (the concept that workers pay union dues in exchange for certain services provided by the union, rather than the idea that a union is the fighting body of workers taking collective action in their common interest – a conceptualization of unionism that results in the abstraction of “the union” that is separate and apart from the workers themselves) we would have been in a better position to react to the situation. Had we thoroughly discussed the conflict of interests that exists between the union bureaucracy, whose economic interests are bound up with the “legitimacy” of the union as defined by the bourgeoisie, and the rank-and-file, who must assault the legalistic parameters of struggle that are designed by the bourgeoisie specifically to regulate and stifle their power, we would have been better equipped to deal with the situation. Had we discussed were the bureaucracy identifies agency in relation to where our organization identifies agency we would have had an upper hand. Had we a better understanding of local 3299 beyond our immediate experience in Santa Cruz (which had always been positive), we would have had perspective with which to view our predicament. As a collective we had none of this, and as a result we almost extinguished the very fire that we had worked for months to build.

The strike became much more than the sum total of our organizing efforts, it took on a life of its own, spontaneous and generating growth; it breathed life into all who were present. By any measure the strike was a success in its own right just for the degree to which it empowered and inspired all of its participants. The contract was settled within a week of the strike. Surprisingly, though, the details of the contract were never discussed at length. In fact, I am embarrassed to say how little I know about its actual outcome. We were boasting of the success of the strike, yet we never had a critical discussion of what concrete gains were made for the workers.

Our Experience with UPTE

Though UPTE had been renegotiating their contract at the same time that CUE and AFSCME were, no relationship between SWCJ and UPTE had been established until well into the spring quarter. The AFSCME contract had been settled and the SWCJ was well aware that CUE and UPTE might strike soon after. The organization decided to organize a labor forum to get the word out about the success that AFSCME had had as a result of the strike, further empowering those students that had participated, and to raise awareness about the continuing struggles of CUE and UPTE. Because it was necessary to hold the forum as soon as possible, the working-group that took on the task of organizing the event was working under clear time restraints. Because there was no existing relationship between the SWCJ and UPTE, the organizers deferred to the official leadership of UPTE. Had the SWCJ had an explicit rank-and-file orientation born out of a collectively defined politics, this may not have occurred. What resulted should serve as a lesson to us all.

Phil, the president of the UPTE local, showed up to a forum that we had organized having never made an effort to build a relationship with our organization and gave us a mandate: “I implore of you, do not take over the entrance of campus again; do not engage in civil disobedience.” We were insulted; we were outraged, and rightly so. The forum he chose to make this demand of us is what insulted me most. He had not come to one of our meetings and said, “I think we may have some tactical differences, let’s talk about them.” He made a public decree at an event to which we invited him. This was only the beginning of the offences of UPTE.

Soon enough they reared the ugly head of skilled worker elitism demanding that we not refer to UPTE members as “workers” but rather as “staff,” further separating themselves from the other university workers with whom they had failed to make any genuine effort to collaborate with in joint struggle. After the initial offense that occurred at the labor forum the official UPTE leadership began attending our meetings, always demonstrating an attitude that they were there to give us directives that we should then carry out. The relationship was entirely one directional; there was no exchange. Then we discovered that Phil had met with the Santa Cruz Chief of Police and representatives of the University behind closed doors and assured them that if the students engaged in any form of direct action he would be the first to let them know. If that wasn’t enough he got a sound permit for the base of campus that expired a mere 30 minutes after the scheduled student speak-out and assured both the police and the administration that the speak-out would end at that time.

And what was the overwhelming response of the SWCJ to this outrageous behavior? The response was, “Fuck Phil and Fuck UPTE!” Immediately the organizing of the SWCJ became less consistent. No doubt there was a degree of burn out following the immense amounts of energy we put into organizing for the AFSCME strike, but I firmly believe that our organizing became sloppy because there was a collective sense that UPTE was disrespecting our organization and undermining our efforts. Tasks that people committed to were not carried out. People were so demoralized that they were reluctant to announce the strike in their classes. Members of SWCJ were debating whether they should go to class on the day of the strike. The point is that our frustrations and disillusionment about UPTE found no other expression than irresponsible organizing carried out reluctantly out of a sense of obligation.

The day of the strike, however, our frustrations found expression in new forms. When invited to the microphone as a representative of AFSCME, Julian called out the UPTE bureaucracy for the joke of a strike they were running. When we all became aware of the deal Phil had made with the administration and the police to shut down our speak-out, we finally became fed up enough to meet and discuss our frustrations collectively. We had all been talking about these things informally as they unfolded, but we had never yet stopped to address them in a formal setting as a group. When we did meet we decided that we would not be shut up and that we would continue our speak-out on our bullhorn if Phil cut the sound. We decided to form a delegation to confront Phil and Linda about their deceptive and offensive behavior. And we decided to find a solid rank-and-file member of UPTE to speak during our speak-out. All of these things were carried out promptly. We found a way forward, but how may our course of action have been different if we had collectively developed an analysis of craft unionism and business/service unionism? How might our practice have been different if our organization had an explicit rank-and-file orientation? How might we have behaved if we viewed our organization as a potential resource for the rank-and-file of UPTE to challenge its reactionary bureaucracy and culture?

Concretely it would have been difficult to produce drastically different results when we were forced to start from scratch with respect to UPTE and had such little time to build for the strike, but with greater political clarity and a space for collective analysis we may have approached the situation differently. Rather than the negative response of irresponsible organizing and deep demoralization, we could have found positive expression of our frustrations through challenging the UPTE bureaucracy and seeking to tap into the rank-and-file of the union.

CUE, Democratic Unionism, and the Belated Strike

Like our relationship with AFSCME, we had a positive relationship with CUE based on our positive interactions at the local level. Though based on the concrete experience of the SWCJ, our perspective was narrow and limited. As we were unprepared for the indirect conflict between the rank-and-file and the bureaucracy that occurred the day of the AFSCME strike, we were similarly unprepared for the frustrations we eventually had with CUE as they struggled to coordinate their strike at the state-wide level. In both cases a narrow perspective based on local realities and a lack of knowledge about the larger organizations made us less equipped to deal with situations as they arrived.

CUE is an independent, democratic member-run union with a particular and significant history. CUE was formed out of a drive launched by rank-and-file clericals to decertify from AFSCME because they had generated their own organizing process before AFSCME’s presence in the university and when AFSCME did begin their organizing drives they excluded these self-organized clericals from the process and didn’t prioritize the organizing of clericals. This history is relevant, and yet we have never discussed it as an organization.

The experience with CUE was one of waiting, of anticipation. The Santa Cruz local was ready to strike soon after the AFSCME strike and, in fact, had desired to strike with UPTE on the same date, as members of CUE had reported to the coalition. This did not happen and then we entered a period of continual postponement and speculation. This generated frustration amongst the students especially as the potential strike date was pushed into finals week, and then, ultimately, into the week after the UCSC quarter ended. This frustration developed devoid of any collective historical or structural perspective, however. What was occurring was a failure to coordinate at the state-wide level. When CUE was formed they had decided that they wanted to have autonomy at the local level. This was a reflection of their rejection of the uniform and undemocratic organizing methods they experienced with AFSCME and the democracy they desired to have in their own union. The structure that CUE created, however, makes state-wide coordination of something as large as a strike difficult. When CUE did eventually strike local autonomy was further demonstrated as the strike lasted between one and three days depending on the local. Because UC Santa Cruz was out of school during the strike, the SWCJ used the opportunity to network with unionists and students at various universities around the state. My personal experience at the UCLA strike was empowering and exciting as about 200 people, mostly workers, stormed the building that houses the chancellor’s office and demanded a meeting with him, which occurred after the building was occupied again the next day. But the point is that we, as an organization, should have had knowledge of CUE’s history and structure to deepen our understanding of their struggle to coordinate across the state. Members of the SWCJ should be developing collectively through formal discussions about the labor movement and the contradictions that exist within it. We should be thinking critically about our political values (such as union democracy) and addressing the question of how to create cohesion of radical theory and practice.

Looking to the Future

Today the labor movement continues to be divided by trade, weakening the strength of workers to command power within their industry and make greater gains for everyone. The organizing efforts of AFSCME, CUE, and SWCJ over the last year or so, has provided an example of genuine solidarity amongst workers from different trades and between students and workers. We have developed a practice of real collaboration, and have strengthened the cause of labor in doing so. Greater levels of tactical unity amongst the various unions in their continuing struggles will create greater power. Following the signing of the AFSCME contract it was never acknowledged in a formal forum that it was, in fact, strategic for the administration to settle with AFSCME. AFSCME was the most mobilized union and because AFSCME members are the lowest paid workers they were the easiest union to generate popular support for. AFSCME is also the union with the most restrictive language regarding the right to honor picket lines. By settling with AFSCME the administration was able to undercut the deep levels of solidarity that had been fostered. CUE and UPTE are still in negotiations (and CUE is now negotiating two contracts). If the unions were to achieve a level of tactical unity such as a simultaneous strike their power would increase dramatically. The Student & Worker Coalition for Justice must begin to ask how this sort of thing can occur, to ask how we can build workers’ and student power. To reach the level of coordination and solidarity that I am suggesting will only occur through pressure from the base. The question then, becomes how to build rank-and-file organization to the degree that is necessary to forge such a practice.

If the Student Worker Coalition for Justice strives to create student and worker power it must become a sustainable organization, it must become not only a body from which collective action is generated, but strive also to establish deep relationships and an infrastructure for student and workers’ power. It must find a way to survive the loss of many of its militants, an inevitability as it is made up largely of students. Greater rank-and-file worker participation is essential to the group’s development and growth. Developed militant workers will be able to contribute more consistent and lasting knowledge and skills gained through struggle. If greater worker participation is an aim of the coalition, we must re-examine some of our practices. We must also make efforts to deconstruct the perception that SWCJ is a student group. Our current practice in some ways reinforces that perception, primarily through the language we sometimes use at meetings and elsewhere. This perception is also reinforced by our lack of political clarity and self-definition. The day of the UPTE strike when confronted by the delegates we elected to discuss the offensive behavior of the union leadership, Phil and Linda expressed their belief that our organization was basically there to do what they directed us to do, and this was after they had attended at least three of our meetings. In their eyes our organization was entirely subservient. Our lack of political definition must have contributed to this misconception.

The organization we have built in Santa Cruz is vibrant and dynamic, militant and committed. It is time to begin to ask the difficult questions and frame our work in a broader social, political, and economic context. It is time to provide the means for the political and intellectual development of our members. It is time to engage in collective critical analysis and reflection of our work to forge a more effective practice. All of these things will nurture the growth of our organization as we move forward in the struggle for a new world.

2 responses to “Reflections on “the most radical university”: Santa Cruz student-worker organizing – April 14th 2005

  1. What an outstanding piece! I’m going to recommend that we use this in our study groups here in Seattle. This underscores the importance of moving beyond a “student- labor alliance” politics. What happens on most campuses is student groups rally support for union struggles and then sometimes union return the favor, for example by supporting student group’s calls for divestment from sweatshop produced apparel. This is all well and good but it contributes to some of the problems this article articulates. Often union bureaucrats expect students to be subordinate shock troops for their own initiatives. They are asked to act either as secretarial functionaries or as cannon fodder for spectacular actions. When students refuse to do that they are then accused of “dominating” workers. Students guilt about their own class privilege is then used to demobilize them. They are told that the union bureaucracy represents workers and if they try to directly interact with the rank and file they will be taking up too much space and will somehow lead the workers astray. This stance overlooks some key factors – the fact that many students are working class themselves, and the fact that workers are not passive, foolish people who will be easily lead astray by people half their age! Also, the student- labor alliance model assumes that “student’s issues” and “workers issues” are somehow separate so that if students get involved in workers struggles it is only out of moral commitment or charity. But when it comes to fighting budget cuts, there is no easy separation between workers and students issues – we are fighting the same administrations that are trying to privatize our universities and bust our unions! So to fight the cuts, what we need is exactly what this piece calls for: campus organizations that consist of both students and rank and file workers. Students and workers need to be accountable to each other, not to the union bureaucracy. The workers ARE the union and what they decide the bureaucracy should be forced to do, and students should consistently side with the rank and file if a conflict ever emerged between them and the bureaucracy. The only way to do this in an accountable and democratic way is to work towards organizational formations that bring rank and file workers and students together in common strategizing and decision making.

    We are trying to do this in Seattle as we build International Workers and Student for Justice, a group of rank and file workers and students that emerged out of struggles initiated by AFSCME custodians at University of Washington. IWSJ is open not only to students and workers on campus but also to off campus workers which will also helped stabilize the group when students graduate and move on.

    I agree that in order to do this, groups need to engage in collective study and theoretical development so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Thank you to the author of this piece for writing this up, it helps us clarify some of the dynamics we might expect if strikes break out here as well.

  2. no dejes de luchar

    There are a number of inaccuracies and contradictions in this analysis. First for the most obvious factual error:

    “AFSCME 3299 … engaged in the first ever statewide one day strike in 2005”

    This is not even close to true. AFSCME was not the first UC union to go on a statewide strike. On Dec. 1, 1998, the UAW (representing 12,000 UC employees) went on an open-ended strike on the eve of finals, which was resolved on Dec. 6. Two years later, in 2000, the UAW went on a statewide one-day strike during their contract negotiations. And three years after that, on October 3, 2003, the UAW again went on a one-day strike during contract negotiations.

    As for the contradictions, the author complains that the UPTE president went to a SWCJ event and publicly “made demands” of SWCJ without approaching SWCJ in a comradely fashion (“the forum he chose to make this demand of us is what insulted me most”). Yet, later on, the author boasts that UPTE was publicly “called out” DURING THEIR STRIKE during an open-mic session. In other words, UPTE has an obligation to be comradely toward SWCJ despite any disagreements, but it SWCJ disagrees with UPTE, it’s justified in scabbing on an UPTE strike (debating whether to cross a picket line and then publicly undermining a union while it’s on strike).

    Both of these errors — the factual error regarding the history of union militancy at UC and the political error of holding UPTE to a standard SWCJ does not hold itself to — seem born out of arrogance. The entire tone of this essay is that SWCJ knows better (even when it doesn’t know what happened 2 years prior) and that only it can criticize labor (but heaven forbid, if a labor leader criticizes SWCJ, that’s “insulting”).

    How about a little revolutionary humility, comrades?

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