“Has anyone here ever been part of a union before?” No hands go up.
“Does anyone here think they’ll be in a union after they graduate?” Still no hands.
“How about this: who thinks they’ll someday be on the other side of a negotiating table from a union?” Finally, hands go up, along with a smattering of laughter.
My first act as a Head Steward for United Auto Workers Local 2865—which represents 12,000 academic workers across the UC system—was making a membership pitch to business school students. It wasn’t particularly successful, but I was optimistic about the broader project of union-building nonetheless. Our union felt like the most vibrant social movement on campus, fighting for public education and a preparing to negotiate a fair contract. Compared to my previous forays with activist groups, the union seemed remarkably well-run and non-dysfunctional. I was even excited about going through departments knocking on doors, a chance to confront my phobia of pushing strangers into political action.
My enthusiasm didn’t last long. I found the apathy of my fellow graduate students disturbing and disheartening. After all, for once I wasn’t trying to get people to help the animals or save the planet, but just to take a few simple actions to benefit their own bottom-line. And, as it turned out, the union wasn’t quite as harmonious as I thought. The endless internecine bickering between different union caucuses—taking place as the real foe, the university, prepared to screw us massively in contract negotiations—was off putting. And, of course, I was wickedly depressed. In August of this year, I resigned from my post as Head Steward without completing my term. I’m not sure if, in those seven months, I convinced a single person to sign a membership card.
That was the end of my time as a union organizer but not, as it turned out, the end of my involvement in the union. My decision in October to leave Berkeley meant abruptly dropping my position as a Graduate Student Instructor, which in turn was covering my fees for the semester. Technically, I was legally entitled to two weeks of paid leave, which would just barely put me over the threshold at which the university was obligated to pay my tuition. But none of the administrators I talked to mentioned this fact. A few weeks later, a bill arrived: $7,500—full tuition, without even partial remission to compensate for the five weeks I had actually worked.
I had no energy or willpower for a fight against the UC bureaucratic juggernaut, and reluctantly resigned myself to draining my savings to pay the bill. But a steward in our department asked if he could look into the situation, and I acquiesced. I wish I could say I was an active participant in the process that followed, but in truth, I did virtually nothing. On the other hand, a union activist—one with whom I hadn’t exchanged more than a few words with in months—held who-knows-how-many meetings with the administration. Eventually, the department caved and my bill vanished.
Being me, I of course feel slightly guilty about this favorable outcome. Couldn’t that money have gone to something better? But I guess that’s why we have unions: to fight for us, as workers, when we can’t or won’t fight for ourselves. I joined UAW 2865 because it fought for grand causes like re-funding public education or reducing income inequality. In the end, though, solidarity for me has a less sexy, but no less important, meaning.