We here at Santa Cruz (G)SOC or the incipient Santa Cruz chapter of Academic Workers for a Democratic Union or whatever we are these days are still a little woozy from the UAW 2865 ratification vote that took place this past week, and we’re still digesting certain aspects of it. On our campus, the “no” side won 187-20, while statewide the “yes” side won 2421 –  1457. Clearly, we are disappointed with this outcome.

That said, a lot of positive things came out of this contested campaign.

  • The no vote galvanized people all around the state to build a bottom-up, democratic, fighting union worthy of the name, in solidarity with our students in university struggles. The campaign energized hundreds of TAs, readers, and tutors around the state who have felt disaffected from the union’s official line of march. We took significant strides to broaden and deepen our ties. The history of our local is strewn with former activists who got burnt out by the autocratic, pyramidal, and often bizarrely ineffective organizing style of our union officialdom’s central clique. In the past, those people have usually drifted away from labor politics and campus activism entirely. Now, we have begun to find each other to a degree which is both qualitatively and quantitatively significant. And we’re not going away.
  • Berkeley and Santa Cruz voters rejected the contract in droves, 79% and 90% respectively, with the greatest levels of turnout we’ve had for any union vote in over a decade. 58% of Irvine voters and 41% of Davis voters also voted against this contract. Statewide, election turnout was extraordinarily high, and this was reflective of the fact that people were engaged in a contentious, democratic discussion about the union for the first time in years.

There are things about this vote that leave a bitter taste in our mouths.

The elephant in the room (insert your own favorite hackneyed metaphor here) is the question of whether there was vote fraud in this election, and, more generally, whether the voting procedure was free, fair, and transparent. We should emphasize that this concern is not just the “sour grapes” of no vote campaigners; it’s being raised independently by rank-and-file members who were uninvolved in campaigning. There are at least four related concerns: 1) was there fraud, 2) was it enough to change the outcome, 3) what is the political, strategic efficacy of no-vote forces focusing on the question of fraud, and 4) were voting procedures free, fair, and transparent, and if not, how can we hold the officialdom’s feet to the fire, avoid their usual shenanigans with the bylaws, and get free, fair, and transparent procedures next time?

Our comrade at Club Jacobin lays out a well-argued case against fraud claims. I’d like to quote a blurb to entice you to read the post, but evidently too many people posted Wikileaks documents on Tumblr and it’s down for the day. Hopefully this post will resurface soon.

There were some irregularities and poor elections practices which make it hard to dismiss fraud claims easily.

  • The union’s Elections Committee decided, before the vote began, to tabulate day-by-day turnout figures for each campus and release these figures to all members of the Elections Committee. After the vote began on Monday, Elections chair Fawn Huisman unilaterally overruled this decision and refused to release these figures. (Elections committee members were shown a printed copy of these figures at the vote count Thursday night, but they were never provided with a copy to keep and examine.) So, particularly while the vote was ongoing, it was difficult to oversee the voting process on various campuses and take notice of unusual patterns.
  • Ballot boxes and voter rolls were not secure during non-voting hours. Voting regulations stated that, at the close of voting every day, every ballot box was to be signed in pen. At the vote count Thursday night, some boxes lacked these signatures. Perhaps more importantly, the ballot boxes were non-standard and non-secure. Some of them consisted of old shoe-boxes covered with several layers of paper and tape. One of them was made out of clear plastic on five sides. When this was brought to the attention of voting officials, they covered four sides of the box but left the bottom uncovered for another two days. The rule of having signatures on the top of the boxes was meant to provide security from the close of voting one day to the opening of voting the next day. But many of the boxes could have easily been opened from the bottom.
  • The informality of this process might have been sufficient for an uncontroversial election or in a context where free, fair, and transparent democratic procedures are long-standing and fairly universally acknowledged. Unfortunately, the situation in our union is a little more like Ronald Reagan’s infamous “trust, but verify.” This election was deeply contentious, and the democratic functioning of the union is far from universally acclaimed. Quite simply, we want broad participation in the union and we want our members to put faith in the outcome, we need to adopt procedures that all sides can agree are free and fair.
  • The vote-counting meeting was scheduled to commence at the union’s Los Angeles office at 10 PM. Elections committee members and member observers arrived from Berkeley and Santa Cruz in time to allow this meeting to begin on time (along with an observer from Irvine and an Elections Committee representative from Riverside). However, claiming that “it was taking too long to count the votes” at Southern California campuses, elections chair Fawn Huisman postponed the meeting until around midnight. During this time, leaders of the union from the Administration Caucus were holding a meeting or caucus at a nearby (but undisclosed) Travelodge. Meanwhile, the rest of us were standing around in a chilly parking lot or sitting in an entryway. In the best case scenario, this is reminiscent of the shitty “hurry up and wait” tactics the UC bargaining team used against our bargaining team. Though we don’t know which Travelodge they were using for their caucus, what they were doing, or why they had to spend our dues dollars to meet someplace other than the union office, we’re pained to observe that Travelodge is almost entirely a non-union hotel chain.
  • We’re proud of how we achieved record turnout at UC Berkeley and Santa Cruz: extensive volunteer power and a level of mobilization we haven’t seen for years. UC Santa Barbara can be a relatively well-oiled machine for a certain kind of turnout, but how did UCLA and UC San Diego turn out higher percentages of their unit than we did? Another comrade writes: “Union bureaucrats may not be able to organize themselves out of a paper bag when it comes to fighting the boss, but they are the absolute hands-down experts at doing one thing: keeping hold of their power.” Truer words have seldom been spoken, and this election is to some degree evidence of that. We know that they were extensively phone-banking, door-knocking in grad housing, and choke-pointing in public areas to turn out the vote at those three campuses. (They tried to do the same thing at UC Irvine, using several international staff, but the majority of grounded leaders on the campus were supporting the no vote, and international staff reportedly realized that their efforts were not succeeding and ramped them down.) (“Choke-pointing” basically consists of standing in an area with heavy foot traffic for a target audience, stopping them, talking with them, and convincing them to do something.) None of these tactics are legally questionable in terms of turning out the “yes” vote; “no” vote volunteers did phone-banking and talked with people in heavily trafficked areas as well. However, if our dues dollars were used to fund an unprecedented GOTV operation at San Diego and UCLA, perhaps this is something that ought to be disclosed to the membership. Otherwise, the turnout and vote percentages at these campuses look a bit suspect. (Note: the figures on the union website provide turnout percentages as a percentage of working academic student employees, but when viewed as a percentage of active members San Diego’s 662 voters represent a staggering percentage. The number of active members is lower than the number of working ASEs, since some ASEs are fee payers. Of course they got some fee payers signed up as new members as part of the GOTV drive.)

These are troubling questions, and we hope to pursue them to some extent – if not to cast doubt on the legitimacy of these results, then at least to ensure a much more free, fair, transparent, and trustworthy process for next time. We don’t think it’s fair to our members’ sense of disillusionment and distrust to let this issue drop entirely, though we also refuse to fall into the trap of becoming conspiracy theorists or a “sour grapes” opposition.

So, where to from here? We’ll be meeting and discussing these questions extensively in the coming days and weeks. A comrade at Irvine poses the same question:

There has been some muttering on the interstices about a decertification campaign.  I can understand folks frustration about the process, but that is a dangerously bad idea…. So as you might guess, I think the way forward is through the TDU model.  We need to create and develop a reform organization within the union itself.  We can use this to challenge the leadership in the upcoming elections, through a reform slate.  We can use this structure to produce a new set of activists dedicated to a stronger, more participatory vision of the union.  Most significantly, we can use this as a way to put ourselves in a position where we have activists overlooking the elections for all the campuses, as well as having a more militant voice on all the campuses.  After all, whatever the reason, the absence of such forces on most of the campuses led to the passing of the contract.  We need to capture the remaining energy from the vote no campaign, and use it to create the long term structures needed to work towards a more democratic and participatory union.  There is an interesting example of this structure in Washington.  (Here is their blog.  Additionally, there is a organization in Berkeley.)  We need to recognize that we need structure and resources to transform this small revolt into something that crosses at least the majority, if not all campuses…. Additionally, it would give us a venue to produce a coherent counter-vision to the current business union model of the UAW, a vision that would challenge the logic of privatization that lets the top administration get millions of dollars in bonuses, while workers’ salaries are cut and tuition goes up.  When the union accepts the logic of the ‘crisis’, it legitimates the consolidation of class power that occurs under the name of ‘crisis.’

Well-said. Our friends in Berkeley AWaDU put the entire experience in perspective.

The NO vote was truly a grassroots campaign, organized completely on volunteer time. It was strongest at Berkeley and Santa Cruz because these are campuses where activists have been working for months and years to raise awareness about union issues. At every other campus, people organizing for a NO vote were coming together for the first time in the extremely difficult task of opposing elected union officials and staff to say, “No! You are not representing our interests.” At those campuses, information about voting no was circulated in a very short amount of time, through friends and departmental listserves, and was up against the means and authority of union officials and paid staff who spent all day organizing yes votes. Given all this, it is not hard to imagine that the NO vote was even closer to winning than the numbers suggest. Clearly the message for a stronger, more militant union and a union run more openly and democratically, where the members are in change–this message is resonating on all campuses. This contract campaign may be over but our work is succeeding and will continue.

There will understandably be some disillusionment and retrenching as well. Unity is thing to be forged in struggle, not something we can assume as an inert, static entity, and an honest, healthy unity is one moment in a broader process that includes contradiction and and controversy, alienation from the process, and mourning the possibilities lost. Nevertheless, we look forward to working more with others we’ve met in this struggle.