LaborNotes February 1993

"Graduate Student Employees Still Fighting
Uphill Battle After University of California Strike"

by Nathan Newman

On November 19, the 1,200 members of the Association of Graduate Student Employees (AGSE/UAW) at the University of California-Berkeley began a strike for permanent union recognition. They substantially shut down teaching on campus for the rest of the semester.

Over 70% of classrooms were empty in the first weeks of the strike, while others were often half-filled at best (except in a few hard science departments like chemistry and engineering where few employees struck). In those first weeks of the strike, well over two-thirds of undergraduates stayed off campus in support of their instructors.

Within a week of AGSE's walk-out, UC-Santa Cruz's Graduate Student Employees Association (GSEA/UAW) began a parallel strike on their campus.

Unfortunately, the nine-campus UC system-wide administration preferred union-busting to bargaining. Despite the obvious impact of the removal of graduate student labor, the UC President's Office continued to maintain that AGSE members were not legitimate employees who deserved a contract.

In the week before the strike began, the AGSE Executive Board had thought they had the makings of a deal with the Berkeley administration; instead, the President's office stepped in, ended all serious negotiations, and as the strike wore on, took back even the partial concessions granted to AGSE after a two-day walk-out in 1989.

With no resolution of the strike in sight, undergraduates began crossing the picket lines in the week before final exams. With threats of reprisals against strikers and with some professors scabbing in place of graduate student employees, the picket lines weakened and some AGSE members crossed the line to grade finals. In the end, around 10% of grades at UC-Berkeley were issued as "in progress" due to the strike, mostly in the humanities and social sciences.


With semester-to-semester appointments, the AGSE strike ended in January with the hiring of the spring semester appointees, who will now have to vote on where to go from here.

Within AGSE/UAW, strong criticism was leveled against the Executive Board on three points: undemocratic, over-centralized leadership, a lack of community outreach, and a narrow organizing strategy that ignored issues of diversity and the California state budget crisis that could have broadened support for AGSE.

The strike itself was started with no debate on alternative tactics, goals, or timelines. No serious outreach was made to local community organizations or unions; AGSE failed even to affiliate with the Central Labor Council. And with over $500 million of budget cuts to the university in the last few years and a doubling of student fees, it was inevitable that undergraduate students would refuse to sacrifice their own grades for a union strike that was so conspicuously silent on issues of concern to them.

With the largest disruption of the UC system since the Vietnam War, the AGSE and GSEA strikes cannot be called complete defeats, but they are setbacks. With a more inclusive vision of who has a stake in conditions in the UC system, graduate student unionism can build on the lessons of this strike.

[Nathan Newman is a member of AGSE/UAW and a former AGSE Executive Board member.]