The needs of 18,000 people were decided by a fraction thereof when a September vote for the United Auto Workers Local 2865 (UAW 2865) labor contract saw low turnout. The vote ratified a four-year contract for teaching assistants and student workers at the UC that did not contain any of the top priorities union members bargained for, and may have been the result of a skewed election.
Two months later, 49 UAW members decided to challenge the validity of the September vote. They cited low voter turnout and the union board’s dismissal of opposing opinions, but in December the executive board determined itself innocent of all accusations.
“There have been many active political conversations determining what we can do. I think many of us have the idea that we can’t just give up because they’ve done this terrible thing,” said Shannon Ikebe, appellate and twice former member of the UAW executive board. “The appeal is an attempt to ostensibly [fix] the contract, but it also always has meaning, political meaning, with many active members saying it is absolutely not OK and should never happen again.”
The contract was ratified to the dissent of almost half of its participating membership. Only about 2,300 members voted, a little over one-ninth of the total working body represented by the union, and the ratification passed with a 52 percent majority.
Appellates argued that because the poll took place during the summer, when most student workers are on vacation and away from campuses, the results were not in fact an accurate measure of the will of the workers.
Alli Carlisle, the recording secretary for the UAW executive board, said the board’s choice to ratify despite low voter turnout was in the best interest of the union.
“A good union leader spends their time making sure every worker has access to their union, listens to what those workers need and builds solidarity so that all workers fight back together,” said Carlisle in an email. “Union democracy comes from organizing members, not trying to overturn majority votes or writing long articles on the internet about why the other caucus is bad.”
Appellates are expected to respond with an official document outlining whether or not they will be filing for a legal appeal by Friday. If they choose to go through with the process, they would take it all the way to Detroit to the international UAW headquarters, but for now must wait until April to see the results of the appeal.
Nine chairs are on the election committee, but six were vacant at the start of the campaign and two of the remaining members resigned before voting took place. Their responsibilities were taken on by board members. Committee members are democratically elected, and their responsibilities include verifying the eligibility of candidates, organizing and supervising election proceedings and counting ballots. Their impartiality is essential to union function, Ikebe said.
Additionally, appellates drew on evidence that the board pushed to obstruct the “no to ratification” campaign and directed paid staff to lobby for the “yes” vote at the same time. Because the board formally endorsed the new contract, some UAW members suggested their involvement on the elections committee constituted a conflict of interest.
Alli Carlisle, the recording secretary for the UAW executive board, says despite these conditions, the results of the vote reflected the majority will of the membership.
“I organize in the field every week, and I talk to hundreds of members every quarter. Anyone who does that has a good sense of where the membership is,” said Carlisle
in an email. “The outcome of the vote was not surprising, because […] nowhere near a majority of membership was interested in going on strike for an imagined better contract.”
Marcelo Mendez, UAW head steward for UC Santa Cruz, said because UCSC has the highest number of dissidents out of the rest of the campuses, this was a blow to morale. Mendez said union members felt their autonomy and decision-making ability within the organization were disregarded by the board.
“The executive board finds itself in a precarious situation, not having the support of rank and file organizers after settling for a contract that amounts to a wage cut due to inflation,” said Mendez. “[They] are speaking with language that is rather technical.
That’s fine for handling legal affairs, but this is political — UC workers against the boss.”
The board pleads innocent to all of these charges — citing Robert’s Rules,
UAW bylaws, emails, Robo-Text numbers and the voting history of the organization over the years. The board also rejected the remedies proposed by the appellates, but asserted there could be improvements to communications within the union bureaucracy.
Appellates argue that the issue runs deeper than communication.
“The efforts to transform the union to get back to a more democratic, grassroots, bottom up model have to happen other ways as well,” said Shannon Ikebe, appellate and signer. “That’s the conversation we have to continue –– this is absolutely the beginning and not the end.”