Members of the United Auto Workers local 2865 - the union representing teaching assistants, associate instructors and undergraduate tutors across the University of California system - went on strike for two days last week over working conditions and intimidation.
The first day, April 2, saw actions by a select few campuses - namely Berkeley, Santa Cruz and San Diego - as most mobilized to strike. The next day, nine UC teaching campuses participated.
UAW local 2865, the UC Student-Workers Union, which represents some 12,000 academic employees - the teaching student workers - hit the picket lines not in relation to ongoing contract negotiations but rather in response to unrelenting repression and the university's refusal to negotiate key working conditions.
Caroline McKusick, 24, a doctoral student in anthropology at UC Davis and the press contact for the union, said the "strike was related to a pattern of intimidation that's gone on throughout our bargaining process," epitomized by the forceful arrest of union organizer Josh Brahinsky at UC Santa Cruz. Workers at UCSC almost went on strike prior to the two-day system-wide affair when the campus continued employing tutors without including them in collective bargaining, thereby withholding benefits that other academic workers at the university receive.
The UC Student Association passed a resolution in support of activists at UCSC following the arrest and after decisions by the administration "to escalate a peaceful, lawful picket by importing riot police from UC Berkeley prior to the demonstrations." The university disseminated "conflicting messages to create confusion about what demonstrators could do to avoid arrest," keeping grads and undergrads "held for 10 hours on April 2 in County Jail," and committing vulgarisms ranging from "threats to international student's visa status who participate in union activity, to unlawful videoing, and calling legal strikes illegal," among other coordinated acts of quashing resistance, the resolution stated.
After the pepper spray incident, the UC administration here at Davis realized that there was value to having less visible forms of repression.
UC Davis police infamously pepper sprayed peaceful Occupy UC Davis protesters back in November 2011. Violence and repression at the university predated the Occupy crackdown, McKusick said, but it also influenced how power operated thereafter.
"After the pepper spray incident, the UC administration here at Davis realized that there was value to having less visible forms of repression, and they instituted several programs, such as the Freedom of Expression Team program," she said.
McKusick said the program involved sending students and staff from the university to monitor protests and gather information on activists to report back to the administration.
The Davis Faculty Association expressed "grave reservations" regarding the Freedom of Expression policy document for "paying lip service to the right of free expression," while failing "adequately to follow up and affirm those rights in a positive way in its subsequent articles," and offering a "disturbingly long litany of restrictions on free speech," an open letter from the DFA stated.
McKusick, who studies alternative press and media politics, said UC Davis has a long history of police surveillance, propagating false information, spying and monitoring of activists. The issues are not unique to Davis, though, she added.
UC Davis has a long history of police surveillance, propagating false information, spying and monitoring of activists.
"Outside of the bargaining room, they've been sending a clear message of hostility and threats," she said, pointing to UC's seeming "statewide campaign" against organized labor and dissent.
But, she said, overt intimidation is mixed with insidious tactics that quietly - but violently - militate against any activist militancy.
"This has kind of been the kind of thorn in the side of every social movement organizing project at Davis since the pepper spray," McKusick said. "They've expanded this program. They now have a police cadet academy for Davis undergraduate students to recruit them into the FET."
The surveillance now "tends to be invisibilized, but still present," she said. "Every activist knows it's there. And it serves to create a chilling effect for activism."
The university has also refused to seriously discuss key working condition issues in bargaining, she said, such as class size.
She said she was a teaching assistant for a course last quarter with 500 students, which is about the same number of student workers UAW local 2865 represents on her campus. Students in the course submitted a slew of assignments, but most were graded without opportunity for providing feedback, save for a few at the end, she said.
McKusick said being told to just grade faster is common.
It's not just that the possibilities for substantive grading are declining, "but also the qualitative experience of education becoming something mechanical, something roboticized that isn't about teaching the undergraduates something, but merely about some sort of exchange, of them doing a few assignments and us doing a bit of grading, and then we assign a grade at the end," she said. "To me, that's not what education is. Not between a pencil and a piece of paper and a keyboard and a gradebook app."
McKusick pointed to neoliberal polices manifest in higher education, especially at UC.
Neoliberal policies dispossess people "of social provisions," and "critical modes of agency," explained Henry Giroux, Global TV Network chair at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department. The neoliberal regime creates "zones of abandonment marked by deep inequalities in power, wealth and income," defined by "rapid disinvestment," "marked by endless spectacles of violence," with intensified "logics of containment, commodification, surveillance, militarization, cruelty and punishment," Giroux wrote about the hegemonic phenomenon.
McKusick said such trends are serious, but that there is a history of struggle that needs to be recuperated while simultaneously creating alternatives to the neoliberal paradigm.
"It's troubling what has happened through the neoliberaliztion of the university, but there have been walls around the universities before," she said. "There's been segregation and racism and all kinds of ways of excluding people from the spaces of the university. And the people have brought those walls down. So this isn't the first time this has happened, or the first time people have organized against it."
The university pitches itself as an institution bereft of labor, "as something more approaching leisure," McKusick said, adding that that discourse inverts reality.
"There's been segregation and racism and all kinds of ways of excluding people from the spaces of the university. And the people have brought those walls down."
"Our lives as graduate students are increasingly dominated by work as our classes get larger and as the demand of low-wage work in the university gets more intense - it becomes harder to think of graduate school as a vocation or of the university as arrested from the rest of the world," she said. "And we see that when our friends and colleagues go out and get jobs, most of them end up working in very similar low-wage academic working positions, teaching part time, being adjuncts. And I think one of the great struggles of our contract campaign has been to think through what it means to see ourselves as workers instead of as consumers of the commodified university leisure experience."
Other activists throughout UC and elsewhere cite the neoliberal turn toward financialization and assail the university's push for privatized institutional autonomy by championing increased tuition and fees - while keeping wages for academic labor low - as less restricted capital compared with state funds. The argument suggests constant high-cost construction at the expense of wages that temporarily addresses surplus absorption problems while enabling university investment and accumulation while students accrue more debt.
The median indebtedness for someone who took out loans to get a graduate degree in 2012 stood at $57,600, a March 2014 New American Foundation report found.
Monies from student tuition and fees at UC significantly exceeded state educational, financing and capital appropriations for the university, according to the latest University of California financial report.
Peter Taylor, executive vice president and CFO at UC, said in a statement included in the report that a few years ago "UC set out to direct $500 million over five years to teaching and research by investing in system-wide efficiency projects."
McKusick, who studies alternative press and media politics, said Taylor's idea of efficiency comports well with the neoliberal ethic, but not so well with the education needed for a vibrant democracy.
"What he means by efficiency is not prioritizing research and education," she said. "It means a mode of thinking where research and education are the only place where money can be economized, while administrative salaries and construction are not subject to this kind of oversight."
At UC Berkeley, where she received her undergraduate degree, she said the university spent millions of dollars to hire an outside consultant firm to help improve efficiency.
It served "as a cloak for cutting educational and research resources under the guise of some kind of measured goals of efficiency," she said. "It was far from it."
There's a concerted push toward pursuing "more student loan-based tuition money," throughout higher education and at UC in particular, McKusick said.
Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi introduced a 2020 initiative in 2011 to expand enrollment at UC Davis.
McKusick criticized the plan, which she said seeks to attract and thereby extract more money from international students who pay more tuition, adding to an already vicious cycle explained in part by Robert Meister, president of the Council of UC Faculty Associations, in his "They Pledged Your Tuition" analysis.
"They use the idea that there's a funding shortfall from the state, which there is, to justify redirecting funds to people who already have enough away from people who don't have enough," she said.
Concurrently, there has been a 369 percent increase in the number of full-time non-faculty jobs - including many managerial and finance-related positions - between 1975 and 2011, according to a recent salary report from the American Association of University Professors. In contrast, the number of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty increased by just 23 percent in about the same period of time, the report found.
Graduate employee positions have increased by about 123 percent, according to the report, but workers know that stagnant wages have also increasingly become an issue.
UAW local 2865 secured two percent raises for student workers for three years in its last contract agreement with the Regents of the University of California.
McKusick said workers like her have actually been losing wages over the last ten years, however, due to inflation, which is why the union is focusing on a more adequate compensation package during negotiations now.
"At the bargaining table our main focus is getting a compensation package that will make sure our members are not as poor as they are right now," she said.
The strike, replete with plenty of "teach-outs" and relationship building, is part of the process of addressing the broader neoliberal agenda resulting in those poverty-level wages, McKusick said.
"Our main focus is getting a compensation package that will make sure our members are not as poor as they are right now."
More critically and from outside, the strike was called a "publicity stunt," staged by the UAW surrounding contractual negotiations "so limited that they are an insult to the graduate student workers," many of whom "were never even informed by their union that they were going on strike."
McKusick said those perspectives are misinformed.
"We've been struggling for this contract for a really long time," she said. "And far from having insults to the grad student worker populace, we have pushed for all demands that people have been asking for. We started the contract initiation process with the survey of our members to find out what were the most pressing issues when we come to the bargaining table."
She cited the "bottom-up structure," sharing of leadership roles and growth of grassroots activism to democratize union structures through a continual process of dialogue, surveys and participatory decision-making.
Augmenting that process, the recent strike constituted a rupture from which new experiences and effects flowed for students and teachers alike, she said.
"I think the strikes and the moments of actions this year have been some of the moments when I've really connected with other people in the university beyond the kind of feudalistic hierarchy of an academic department - in really beautiful ways," McKusick said. "And not just that. I've connected to a lot of my students in ways that I think constitute true education far beyond the reified academic requirements that I'm supposed to be teaching them. I'm teaching them something about the real world as I've experienced it. And to give them a taste of the relations that structure the world that they live in, which they might not be conscious of."
She referred to the recent strike as just an early part of a larger, longer struggle.
"I'm hopeful and optimistic that after this contract campaign people will fight in even more radical ways," she said.