Image: Grad wildcat strikers and the striking K7 Unit of AFSCME 3299 at the picket line (Santa Cruz, January 2020)

Part 2

This assessment of the strike, and our activity during it, in Part 1, follows from an orientation we have developed to labor organizing at UCSC since the wildcat strike of 2019-20. This is often misunderstood or misrepresented both within and outside our union. We are variously depicted as irresponsible adventurists and occasionally UAW stooges. It is worthwhile, therefore, to state a little more theoretically the orientation that we have developed through and since the wildcat, and which informed our approach to the 2022 strike, before turning to competing claims about this strike.

We have formed at UCSC a committed core of organizers who attend to all union and workplace matters on the campus, and who plan and coordinate campaigns and strikes, and who can, through a variety of means of our own making, operate entirely separately from UAW resources. We do not need their money, their lawyers, their advice, or their staff. However, we are not therefore independent of the union, or somehow external to it. We are the union at our campus. We will, as in the contract campaign, participate in statewide projects when we think they are salient; and completely ignore them when they are not, as in the “Fight for the Public” electoral campaign.

We have no expectation that a change of official union leadership statewide means anything significant, or at least that it will not change the basic terrain of struggle with the employer, especially without a more militant intercampus rank and file network. Equally, the organizing successes on our campus—at the level both of our concrete gains (e.g. housing and utility stipends and five-year guarantees, all won mid-contract) and our organizational structure—are no simple reflection of our own leadership. We’ve had to catch up with our coworkers on strategic points on several occasions, and can only claim to have at times facilitated the possibility of broad-based and militant action, ultimately waged and led by our coworkers themselves. Those union oppositionists who consider that the main problem on their campus is the union staff, share with those staff the central assumption that the relevant action happens at the level of the official leadership, rather than among the rank and file.

An available alternative is to start where we are, and with the small and committed group we have cohered. This small group seeks to identify the major issues facing workers and to formulate a demand and campaign that will address, modify, and possibly transform them. The organizing in such a campaign aspires to one fundamental condition—that the demand gets taken up by a far wider mass of workers, that it reaches a point whereby it is no longer the small group of organizers or activists who determine next steps. It is an aspiration (rather than a fear) that our campaigns unfold such that we are not in a position to call all the shots, because this will mean we have broken through the status quo of disengagement and internecine union conflict. This is, to be sure, no trivial task. Over a longer period, it is natural that people have flowed in and out of organizing projects, with participation often fluctuating dramatically. What we seek to develop, through the tides, is a steadily expanding and increasingly experienced core group, one that can carry and transmit the lessons from rounds of struggle, success, and failure. We aim to deepen the integration of our militant steward network into the life of departments, and to widen and consolidate our organizing relationships with other layers of the university’s workers, precarious as well as more secure.

This orientation has a definite history on our campus, developing most proximately out of the wildcat strike of 2019-20. The wildcat intervened in what was a demobilized and divisive organizing milieu at UC Santa Cruz.1 Upon reflection, what we did well, as a small group of “organizers,” was to foster, largely unknowingly, the present possibility of collective struggle by crafting a campaign that took, as its basis, the single most dismal and humiliating condition in workers’ lives. The COLA campaign to end rent burden addressed a wide mass of workers, articulated their single biggest problem with its solution, and synchronized attention and action in these terms.2

It was dozens of rank-and-file workers calling for strike action in December of 2019, and not our group. Our major contribution, beyond initiating the campaign, was to recognize and respond openly to a moment in which genuine worker militancy expressed itself—rather than attempt to redirect, delay, or otherwise manage it. It had little to do with our own leadership role in carving out the demand and initiating the campaign, and much more to do with catching up to the broad-based and synchronized anger and sentiment that urgent labor action was required. Understanding that we were in a position to offer something of a conduit was essential. As it happened, the initial assembly we called ended, quite unexpectedly, in several hundred workers on our small campus voting unanimously to embark upon a wildcat strike. This is not something we could claim to have achieved or organized. The wildcat then played out over many months, and into the pandemic, resulting in certain unilateral concessions by the employer, violent police interactions, the firing of nearly 100 workers, and the successful fight to win our jobs back by the end of summer.

This experience—and the organizational relationships that grew out of it—distinguishes us, we believe, from contending political tendencies within (and sometimes outside) our union. There are three, in particular, that merit attention. The first is the right wing of the international union, its local staff, and the officers in their orbit who occupy the official leadership of our local, even as they identify as militant socialists;3 the second is an oppositional anti-leadership tendency on several campuses, broadly supportive of our consolidation around the COLA demand and long-haul strike, but tactically intent on the elected leadership, calling for leadership recall campaigns, changes in union bylaws, and eventually a legal challenge to ratification; and, finally, a self-described ultra-left tendency, largely online, cohered around the moniker “AbolishUC” and tactically committed to “direct action,” such as dining hall takeovers and campus blockades. We bring in these latter two tendencies not because they exerted any real influence or contributed decisive action to the UC strike, but because they have the appearance of offering alternatives to the status quo of labor officialdom, while consistently failing to deliver. In our moment, where conventional approaches to labor politics have opened considerably, we see these political configurations that purport to offer either “democracy” or generalized insurrection as dead ends where they fail to establish a base among rank and file workers, or even seek to establish one.

What all three have in common, in their own way, is an ultimate aversion to an analysis and a politics rooted in rank and file activity. In their view “the union” is not a contradictory and janus-faced phenomenon, part structure and part movement, but identical to the formal leadership of the top brass. Rather than organizing closely with the base members of the union and other segments of workers at UC to maintain and deepen the strike, they tended to insist that the struggle depended on political action elsewhere. Rather than taking relationships to co-workers as the main object of political intervention, they turned variously to government, to an alteration of internal union channels, or to the action, real and hypothetical, of a small handful of like-minded radicals. It is probably this difference in how we thought about the union and the rank and file which explains why other tendencies so often struggled to understand our organizing, our strategic interventions, and our analysis. Sectarianism is also a key factor, endemic to small groups that presume their own correctness in the face of competing forces, and while we focus on its effects here, we hope not to indulge in it ourselves. What these groups ultimately missed was that “the rank and file” isn’t merely an identity or a slogan, or a specific layer of members within the union, but also the vehicle for genuine struggle within the workplace.

After surveying these three tendencies, we return to earth to consider the urgent strategic lessons of the researchers’ strike, and finish by highlighting moments of worker militancy and self-organization, universally elided in other accounts, for what they can tell us about the longer arc of labor organizing in the UC.

Competing Tendencies : Official Leadership, Anti Leadership, AbolishUC

For the official leadership, the rank and file are an unorganized mass, and it was their role to get workers “ready,” brick by brick. The intensity of criticism they received throughout the strike, according to them, merely reflects that the rank and file had not undergone quite enough “leadership development” or “bargaining education,” and perhaps that escalation happened too quickly; workers were not, in fact, “ready.” The source of worker frustrations during the strike ultimately stemmed, in this view, from misunderstanding and inexperience on the part of workers. If the statewide leadership was guilty of anything, according to this thinking, it was of “raising expectations” too high, or not doing enough “expectation management,” perhaps by moving back from our demands before the strike started, which, they believe, would have avoided all the unfortunate and strictly unnecessary intra-union discord. This, of course, entirely misses the fact that workers (and not staff) were in fact waging the strike, and only doing so because there was something genuinely worth struggling for. It is more likely that firmer “expectation management,” code for giving up our major demands sooner, would have managed to remove the teeth of the strike before it began.4

This group of officers and staff does, collectively, have experience running a large union local, but their experience with labor action is comparatively limited. Despite their internal organization and overall discipline, their lines of argument during the strike, and their ability to navigate strategic disputes, consistently failed to resonate on a wider basis. They subscribe to something like an aggregate and uniform theory of power wherein every worker represents an equivalent unit of leverage. Add them all up, they reason, and the employer is rendered powerless by the awesome sum total. This is why, on most campuses outside of UCSC, the largest coordinated activity across the state in the leadup to the strike was a card drive. For the official leaders, power flows automatically from a raw supermajority of membership whose only role, for the most part, is to sign up and wait for instructions about when to show up, and then reap the benefits. But there are, of course, real limitations to reducing all aspects of labor struggle to a membership graph.

Underlying this aggregate theory of power is the belief that our leverage is representational, that it is located in the symbolic and numerical unity (“48,000 strong!”) that we can display to our employer or the state, rather than the actual damage we, as workers, can inflict upon our boss. Implicit in this reasoning is the view that the true motor of change is not in labor action itself, but in what the threat of labor action might signal to the real power players located elsewhere. It is as though labor action is a bluff, and therefore less likely to be called if the threat appears larger. When it became clear, over the course of the first four weeks of the strike, that the official leadership had misjudged the willingness of the UC administration—itself a wing of the state with an increasingly executive outlook—to be moved by the magnitude of our threat, the task became one of appealing to the good will of California legislators. This concealed an understanding, fundamentally bankrupt, of the state as a bailout provider to unions—the exact reverse of its role today. This orientation to state government should be examined for what it implies for the prospect of labor struggle in the current context more generally: namely, conceiving of the state as a backstop, a mechanism to resolve and overcome the limits of struggle, rather than a terrain of struggle itself. But such an analysis is beyond the scope of this document.

For unionists of this stripe, who aspire to use the strength of the state to correct their own weakness, staking out ground in the labor movement is not particularly difficult at present. What is more interesting is the capacity of this particular leadership (in UAW2865) to render palatable what are essentially mainstream conceptions of staff-led labor organization to a wider array of self-described liberals, leftists, and democratic socialists. In other words, they have succeeded in giving a conventional approach a progressive, even radical gloss, which has allowed them to effectively present the contract we ratified as truly transformative while broadcasting a pseudo consensus that their strategy is cutting edge.5 While it may indeed appear innovative relative to a beleaguered labor orthodoxy of recent decades, it is hardly the creative catalyst these organizers believe it to be. If anything, this approach failed to deliver on the potential of our strike action last year.

In addition to their focus on Sacramento—the state capital—the official leadership’s approach to organizing partakes of a growing doxa that elevates common-sense activities into iron laws of organizing (or “Rules to Win By”). The one-on-one conversation, for instance, is presented as the singularly deep and painstaking work through which a set of self-identified organizers construct, brick by brick, a “structure” out of what they perceive as a formless mass of workers. After sufficient 1:1s, say 1,000 of them, you are ready to have a big rally, a 1:1000. You may then present images of your rally online and in the media, along with a supermajority strike vote to management, and promptly “win.” In the lead up to the recent strike, by contrast, we at UCSC emphasized small group organizing, at the levels of departments and labs, which permit the kinds of collective deliberation and decision-making that are impossible in direct conversations with “organizers’‘ or in large-scale rallies where virtually every minute is programmed. To put it succinctly, discussions about organizing and strike strategy requires a certain level of concrete assessment and organic response that 1:1s and mass rallies simply cannot facilitate.

It is not that 1:1s are anathema to gaining a hearing with otherwise unreachable workers, but that parlaying them into an abstract organizational primacy betrays a total lack of feel, imagination, and experience. In this particular case, the overwhelming emphasis on 1:1s betrays the strategy as (vertically) modular: the “rules” and the “structure” are set and known in advance, by the “organizer;” the “member” is either successfully “mobilized” or is not. Under this model, there is no deliberative space that might put into motion new relationships, strategies, or tactics; there is nothing to be learned. At no point are members linked with one another, independent of the organizer. What this model excludes from view is that such connections among workers do in fact exist and then unfold across the course of labor action, regardless of what the “organizer” does. In fact, these connections form the basis for collective struggle in the final analysis. As we saw on our campus through the power mapping and department OCs, there are numerous ways to make this the bedrock of the organizing “structure.”

For the oppositional, anti-leadership formation, the “rank and file” is largely an empty signifier. As a prospective slate of rank and file leaders, they understand themselves to be hemmed in by the undemocratic processes in the international UAW and the local. This tendency seems to suggest that the singular problem holding back our union is that we have a leadership that is amazingly effective at stifling militant, rank and file participation. While it is true that over-zealous union staffers and officers have consistently attempted to curtail organizing initiatives that are not preordained by official leadership, the anti-leadership tendency routinely overestimates the strength and capacity of these local leadership bodies, even attributing their own marginalization to union leadership directly.6 As a result, and rather than relying upon any particular organizing strategy to act as a pole of attraction for disaffected grad workers more generally, they tend to mobilize only those who share their felt sense of aggrievement with the state of leadership. Their campaigns for union election adhere almost entirely to promises of “democratizing” the union, an appeal that repeatedly fails to gain traction among the vast majority of workers.7

In many ways, this oppositional anti-leadership cohort exhibits a common reflex and habit of thinking that is shared among socialist groups and rank and file reform caucuses in the “trouble-making” wing of the labor movement to which we belong, making its interrogation all the more critical. This reflex tends to explain the defeat of our campaigns as being the outcome of “bad” and “anti-democratic” leadership rather than as a consequence of systemic disorganization among workers and employer reaction and reconsolidation. For example, rank and file reform groups like UAWD (Unite All Workers for Democracy), in which we have also participated, tend to reduce the scope of their activity to “democratizing” the union leadership and bylaws rather than combatting dynamics of subordination on the shopfloor. It is not so much that these efforts are bad but that they are unable to address the real source of our weakness. They may even be successful in winning low turnout elections, but in proposing to democratize unions from above, they will not, on their own, propel ordinary workers to gain the confidence they need in order to fight and win.8

Anti-democratic leadership is endemic in the labor movement, but how it is combatted matters. Workplace struggles exist, and are periodically brought to the foreground in moments marked by militant antagonism, such as that witnessed in the UC strike. Workplace leaders with organic ties to broad and deep segments of rank and file workers do emerge in such processes, as the wildcat strike at UCSC has demonstrated. But their capacity to exert and retain influence is not contingent upon winning elections, and may easily enough be inhibited by it. There is undoubtedly an impulse toward conservatism and bureaucratization at the top of labor unions today, as there has been throughout US history, but this process unfolds for verifiable reasons irreducible to personality type. In short, it is structural. The transformation of unions, therefore, is a more complicated task than winning union leadership positions. It is bound up with a whole sequence of activity among workers that points, in the first instance, toward a willingness to fight against the dictatorship of the employer. This must be the priority, and union elections a distant concern by comparison.

Finally, the AbolishUC grouping appears basically disdainful of the vast majority of rank and file workers, lamenting their apparent cowardice in abstaining from taking up demands such as police abolition and more directly confrontational tactics. The group sees itself as intervening in a series of salient debates on the question of capitalist crisis, revolutionary tactics, and the fruitlessness of hitherto existing organizational forms, chiefly those that presume a “working class identity” in the present. With theory so honed in the graduate seminar room, this grouping’s “practical” mode of intervention relies on the distribution of long-form pamphlets—attributed, anonymous, and under various pseudonyms.9 Concretely, their core prescription was for small groups of activists to find ways for the strike on campuses to ‘spill-over’ into a general struggle against capitalism itself through dramatic and spectacular tactical escalations. That they alone made this “call” was itself evidence of a more advanced radicalism.

Their analysis, like that appearing in a Brooklyn Rail post-mortem, argued that the strike was limited by an overly narrow focus on the withdrawal of labor to the occlusion of a wider range of more militant possibilities. The alternatives they offer are unspecified “barricades” at the picket line (it is unclear what this precisely means, or whether these occurred on any campus, or were even proposed anywhere other than online), and a set of scattered dining hall takeovers led mainly by undergraduates, mostly at UC Davis.10 The latter were a reprisal of a tactic deployed successfully during the wildcat strike at UCSC. To be clear, we would not rule out in advance the possibility of articulating this tactic to a broader strategy, but neither its advocates during the strike nor the author of the Brooklyn Rail piece published in its aftermath offer even initial steps in this direction. They certainly do not give any indication of how these tactics would effectuate the repudiation or abolition of the university as such. In the absence of this, the claim that a wider embrace of this tactic would have had a dramatic and radicalizing impact is strictly hypothetical. What seems undeniable is that the dining hall actions had little or no effect on the course of the strike as it actually occurred.

While the AbolishUC tendency failed, in our estimation, to advance the struggle in any tactical sense, they can be said to have promoted, more than any other group, the contract campaign’s “cops off campus” demand. In early 2020, wildcat strikers and solidaristic students at UC Santa Cruz were surveilled, beaten, and arrested on our picket line, with some workers sustaining prolonged injuries. This was not the first or last incident of excessive police force in the UC, but in the context of nationwide rebellions after the police murder of George Floyd a few months later, it opened a channel towards the demand to defund the UC Police Department (UCPD), already organically linked to the COLA demand in the ubiquitous slogan, “Cops off Campus, COLA in my Bank Account.” In May 2020, unionists on our campus sought to integrate the Cops Off Campus (CoC) demand into a labor strategy capable of realizing it, initially campaigning within our union local to launch a strike vote on the basis of our Unfair Labor Practice charges against the UC’s disciplining of the wildcat strike, including its stunning show of police force. This was a truly remarkable opening, a moment of considerable political possibility, in which we could have waged a direct struggle over the UC’s monstrous police force (UCPD officers were subsequently seen on Oakland’s streets during the George Floyd uprisings) in the context of a nationwide reckoning with racial police violence. Our bargaining team of that time, entrusted with the power to issue strike votes, narrowly voted against taking action based on failed “structure tests,” and, in the new context of pandemic isolation, we were unable to shift the ground beneath them.

In the demobilized and demoralized pandemic months that followed, we sought to articulate a labor strategy adequate to the CoC demand. This did not appeal, however, to those most activated by the demand to end UC policing, nor was it taken up, during the worst months of the pandemic, by wider circles of workers.11 This, in our view, forfeited the practical action necessary to expel UCPD from our workplace in advance, and the distance that AbolishUC maintained from anything approximating “the unions” meant that those most committed to breathing life into this campaign were absent, and at times even derisive, from the outset. Even though we put a bargaining proposal to UC to remove cops from UC campuses, it was never pursued with any force at the table or, more importantly, on the ground. While it would be simple to chalk this up reflexively to the backwardness of “the union” or “the workers,” as is the tendency in AbolishUC, it signals instead an organizing failure on behalf of those committed to this demand, ourselves included.

Very recently, this anti-policing demand has taken on a renewed relevance, as workers at UC San Diego were jailed overnight, and are now being brought up on felony charges, by UCPD, supposedly for writing messages in sidewalk chalk calling on the University to honor the 2022 contract. We will, this fall, once again have the opportunity to strike against UCPD, given the flagrant ULPs at hand. But it will take concerted and committed rank and file action for this next sequence to develop anything like the necessary militancy to combat the cops on our campuses. Any grouping within UC that concedes, in advance, that “the backward union” or “the backward workers” will fall short of a genuine struggle over UCPD only contributes to producing precisely that outcome. We should, instead, consider this an opening.

In contrast to these three tendencies, as we lay out in Part 1 of this retrospective, we saw our role as facilitating the synchronization of workers’ grievances in a powerful and relevant campaign, and providing the space for collective action behind a strategy adequate to the demand. In our estimation, this is basically the upper limit to what any group of organizers or activists in the UC can hope to achieve in the short term. This is because a durable tradition of militant organization rooted in the actual structure of the workplace (i.e. its departments and labs) on a statewide basis has yet to materialize. If such a thing is to gain a foothold on our campuses, it will come through new forms of concerted action that rank and file workers propose, debate, and carry out in response to the real grievances they encounter in their daily lives. The UC strike must be seen as the starting point for identifying where the concrete openings are presently and evaluating their prospects for future organizing. These commitments demand a certain humility and the attitude that workers, acting collectively, know more and know better than any groupuscule.

Strategy and Self-Organization in the Researcher Strike

To our knowledge, there is no comparable strike in U.S. history waged by academic researchers—those workers whose funding is connected not to instruction but to research, and largely in STEM fields. Throughout the history of our local, researchers have been described in somewhat derisive terms, however. This is a section of workers who were said to possess not only an incapacity for organization but a propensity toward identifying with the institution and employer more generally. But in some important respects, and despite voting to accept the contract in larger numbers than ASEs, segments of this layer of academic workers used the strike to undertake militant action that, in many cases, directly corresponded to their labs and worksites. That the unit of workers most associated with conservatism and with apparently the least leverage in their work stoppage produced, in some small pockets, the most confrontational tactics in this strike, has not been widely appreciated. This fact, however, contains genuine insights into the character of labor struggle in higher ed.

To grasp the trajectory of the researcher strike at UC, it is important to understand the sequence of events that led up to it. Up until 2021, student researchers at UC, legally defined as students rather than employees, were not unionized. With the passage of SB 201 in 2018, the prospects for unionizing researchers improved considerably, and UAW set out to organize the 17,000 researchers in the UC system. Once the campaign was public, and UC refused to recognize the unit voluntarily, organizers responded by launching a strike authorization vote. At this point, researchers began to express concerns about taking labor action, including questions about maintaining live animals and sensitive biological samples, sabotaging their own dissertation research, and navigating the thorny enmeshment that researchers have with supervisors. However, when UC granted recognition to researchers voluntarily, seemingly in response to the strike threat, it meant that debate about what precise form strike action would take was postponed. In fact, the official leadership of the union had decided internally that it was not ready to strike at this time, but was saved from having to announce its delayed plans by UC’s sudden recognition. As it turned out, an adequate strike strategy was still wanting nearly one year later when researchers set out on strike in November 2022 alongside instructors.

It bears reiterating that researchers face a more immediate and personalized prospect of retaliation than do instructors. They often work directly for a member of faculty (a PI) in a specific lab, to which they have been recruited and which funds their research. The separation between “work” and “research” that obtains among grad instructors—who teach in the morning, fish during the afternoon, and research in the evening—is far less clear or common among researchers.12 As a result, researchers are subject, vis-a-vis direct supervision, much more intensely to the disciplinary authority of our employer, as well as to less formal retaliation and harassment, which is in many ways harder to overcome than official and explicit disciplinary action. The labor process in these labs, moreover, do not align with one another, meaning that a strike at any given time will affect various labs in drastically different ways This relative isolation and asynchronicity during the 2022 strike, moreover, found its reflection in the pervasive sense among many researchers that their work stoppage contained no real leverage, and that it was harming their own research considerably more than the employer. In our assessment, this latter factor was more fundamental in the steady attrition of striking researchers than their greater exposure to discipline.

Student researchers were repeatedly and authoritatively told by conservative unionists that they would forfeit their ULP legal protections if they engaged in what was called a “partial strike”— striking some calculated portion of their work, rather than all of it—even though no one could discover a single precedent where this clause was the grounds for an effective firing of striking workers. This advice, combined with the higher personal stakes of their work stoppage, worked towards the exclusion of any middle ground between a total work stoppage and working as normal.13 Researchers were unable to overcome, on any meaningful scale, these barriers to considering how striking certain aspects of their job would affect the University and themselves in different ways, and therefore did not, on the whole, develop collective assessments of where their concrete power and leverage lay in the workplace, and where strike action would inflict only self-harm. Even if we can be sure that individual researchers made these assessments for themselves, and at the level of certain well-organized departments, the only explicit and collective strategy on offer was all or nothing.

Such questions can be harmlessly ignored if we assume a one-week strike. But as days and weeks ran on and the total work stoppage elicited nothing from the University, this approach tended to lead workers towards doubting that the strike was a vehicle for achieving very much of anything, or towards taking refuge in the hope of the instructional strike winning the day for all. As rank and file SR leaders sought to cohere a new strategy on the fly, one tailored to the actual situation in the lab and in the existing context of a drawn-out strike, they were lambasted by union staff for irresponsibly exposing workers to retaliation and even firing by leading them into an unlawful “partial strike,” unsanctioned by legal counsel. Staff organizers had largely adopted a puritanical attitude to the SR strike dressed up in a moralizing celebration of total commitment to the ritual of the cause, no matter the effects on the boss or the worker, and without ever assessing the likelihood or even the possibility of the administration targeting “partial strikers.” Entering data at home into a private spreadsheet for one’s research progress became morally equivalent to crossing the picket line, a kind of taboo activity that would annul the spiritual protections of labor law.14

This speaks not, as some are inclined to believe, to an inherent conservatism of these workers, largely in STEM fields, but to a vacuous strike strategy based upon fear aimed at the segment of grad workers that most needed a coherent one. Weeks into the strike, with little by way of alternatives, and facing retaliation from actual supervisors, it is no surprise that some SRs began abandoning the official line on “how to strike” and exploring other possibilities, or otherwise returning to work. Of course, many did so quietly, on and off the picket line, preferring to find ways to contribute through a subtractive combination of struck work and professional obligation, while others discovered more tenable means to strike in concert with grad workers elsewhere. That this activity never cohered into an explicit tendency and strategy to win explains, more than anything else, the rapid deflation in confidence and direction among striking SRs.

We must admit that there remain serious and unresolved questions about how to wage a stronger strike among researchers, who lack the synchronous deadlines and points of leverage of their coworkers employed as instructors. But we stand no chance of making the necessary progress if we confine ourselves to the fine lines of labor law, and rule out “partial strikes” as such and in advance. What seems to be a prerequisite is a far more minute understanding of the timelines and labor process of specific labs at different points of the year, and a targeted approach to the withdrawal of labor that maximizes its impact, identifies those with the most at stake, and mobilizes pre-emptively to defend them.

Since researchers face direct and personalized retaliation, and suffer greater setbacks to their own research, it is essential that we find clear and concrete ways to conceive, execute, and measure the damage they can inflict on the boss ahead of any future researcher strike.15 It is very difficult to imagine overcoming the scale of retaliation and personal sacrifice entailed in researcher strikes without a collective sense that it is, in fact, effectively hurting the boss, and strike strategy for researchers must attend to this question. We consider it quite likely this necessity led certain pockets of researchers in the 2022 strike to devise militant tactics of their own.

Worker Militancy and Self-Organization

It was precisely in such moments of strategic confusion and uncertainty during the UC strike that we witnessed significant instances of worker militancy that developed organically among workers, entirely outside the purview and beyond the control of the official staff and leadership. Indeed, the development of self-confidence among groups of rank and file workers acting independently during the strike forms part of the patterns and patchworks of worker initiative that has, in fact, played a decisive role in the outcomes of worker-led struggle at UC since at least 2019.16 We refer, most immediately, to a sophisticated program of interfering with construction works and deliveries at UCLA and UC Berkeley during the recent strike, which drew upon earlier episodes of student and worker self-organization in our workplace, characterized by more urgent, direct, and combative action than those dreamt up by our lawyered-up union locals.

On these very large campuses (UCLA and UC Berkeley), picketers were organized into several locations, which tended to be separated by academic discipline and job category, sometimes exhibiting quite different characters, appearances, and perspectives. Pickets nearby buildings housing STEM departments, for instance, were composed of STEM workers, and therefore a preponderance of researchers. On some of these pickets workers began building connections with other unionized workers (delivery drivers, sanitation workers, builders) on nearby construction sites and points of delivery. They were able to form, in consultation with these workers, strategically located pickets at specified times, and sometimes 24 hours a day, that successfully inflicted hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses to the UC, chiefly in terms of delayed building projects and canceled deliveries. These pickets were sometimes in defiance of union leadership, who worried that these actions would leave the local vulnerable to potential litigation. In one instance, computer scientists organized to halt construction of their department’s new building at UC Berkeley. In another, molecular and cell biologists turned away urgent deliveries, grinding lab work to a halt. Certainly, any group of striking workers might have sought to affect delivery or construction, regardless of their specific work location. But when this was attempted at UCSC by workers in other divisions (such as the humanities and social sciences), the tactic was met with extreme frustration and subsequently abandoned, causing more problems for the strike than the University. The stake that researchers had in their own labs and buildings, not to mention their knowledge of targets, delivery times, and locations, was crucial to the success of those actions elsewhere.

Participants in these blockades report, moreover, that members of their departments and pickets voted “no” on the ratification vote in far higher proportions than researchers elsewhere. Why should this have been the case? Such instances of worker self-organization, militancy, and new and concrete links of solidarity are especially valuable in the context of a long-haul strike, where developments can slow, days often feel repetitive, and patience and resolve may start to wear thin. These acts, when more widely coordinated, have a certain motivational quality that bolsters the momentum of the strike as a whole, where direct actions and daily escalations bearing concrete effects are crucial to keep striking workers activated, while reiterating that the prospects for winning are both definite and achievable. They also have a contagious quality, as organizers at UCLA wrote up their strategy and instructed workers elsewhere on how they might adapt it to their own campuses. Such self-activity and expansion of organizational capacity is the lifeblood of the union as such, demonstrating not simply a willingness to win but also to fight. The delivery blockades at UCB and UCLA crucially propelled the strike forward in early weeks, and came to shape something like a repertoire of strategic direct action throughout the strike.

This activity, and in precisely this way, resembles (and maybe reprises) the role of the wildcat strike at UC Santa Cruz in 2019, when workers, mid-contract, staged a grading strike, followed by a full work stoppage and several campus closures. Contrary to recent narrative accounts, more opportunistic than strategic, the wildcat strike at UCSC contributed to honing a theory of strike power that would inform how the 2022 systemwide UC strike would play out, namely, that the strike would need to be open-ended to mean anything.17 The wildcat, most obviously, also furnished the demand that would singularly occupy center stage in the contract fight itself: COLA. We do not need a full account of the wildcat for our present purposes, nor do we wish to relitigate claims about whether it was bad or good, important or irresponsible. It is a fact that it happened, and that we stand to learn from it. The simplistic opposition between the wildcat strike and the 2022 UC strike (one good, one bad; one legal, one “illegal”)—a “tale of two strikes”—is a woefully inadequate basis for reflection, and for critical thought generally.

The nature of the 2019-20 COLA campaign to end rent burden, not only pried open the necessity of collective action but also established the strike weapon as the only plausible means to achieve the demand. That the recent strike carried the same demand as the wildcat was itself remarkable—the plight of grad workers came to be framed, nearly ubiquitously, in terms of rent burden. But that the UC strike was open-ended, and that it witnessed the kinds of militant activity at LA and Berkeley—UC’s flagship campuses—above all, is a testament not merely to the demand itself, but to just how far workers at UCSC carried that fight in 2019-20, and the sedimentation of strategic and tactical insights among UC workers statewide in its aftermath.

The effects of the wildcat were also not confined to grad workers in the UC. It is worth recalling that the massive AFSCME Local 3299, after several years of stalled negotiations and ineffectual one-day strikes, won its current contact in the context of the UCSC wildcat. After the announcement of our grade withholding action in December 2019, and in the electrified environment that it induced on campus, the K7 skilled workers’ unit of 3299 at Santa Cruz launched an indefinite strike of their own. As they were going out, more or less independently from their parent local, we donated all of our newly formed strike fund to their cause. Over the course of K7’s walkout, the nature of AFSCME demonstrations on our campus changed markedly. While it is not unusual to see marches and “informational pickets” led by staffers and paid undergrad interns, it is far rarer for groups of rank and file AFSCME workers to lead them. When talk of a K7 strike began to circulate, graduate workers actively sought out opportunities to forge contacts with them. As we understood it, the prospect of an indefinite K7 walkout would serve not only to escalate the grading strike, but to compound our respective leverage, if both groups successfully struck together. The relationships we established during this period resulted in important acts of solidarity from grad workers and undergraduate students who phoned in hundreds of “urgent” maintenance requests to highlight and maximize the effects of the strike, while attempting to inhibit the work of scab contractors in other ways.

The K7 unit went on to win their contract ahead of the wider local, undoubtedly due to the militancy of their strike.18 However, more important than their success at the bargaining table is the model for cross-unit organizing that their strike set into motion. In determining strategy and escalation collaboratively with grad workers and students, K7 workers made strides towards concretely linking the struggles of academic and non academic workers.19 This history, not widely known, is especially worthwhile as AFSCME’s contract nears expiry, and in such a short contract cycle for UAW. This is all the more important given UC’s hyper-aggressive approach to forestalling contract negotiations, which seeks to exhaust the roughly 35 distinct bargaining units whose contract timelines are staggered and whose memberships remain siloed across the UC and within individual campuses. In the context of the recent upsurge in academic worker struggles, the possibility of deepening ties with non-academic workers in higher-ed remains a crucial task.

Conclusion: The Upsurge in Higher Ed Labor

We are witnessing an upsurge of labor action, whose character is increasingly militant, in the higher education sector today. Dozens of new unions have formed in the past few years and significant and protracted strikes have unfolded at UC, Columbia University, the University of Michigan, and Temple University in the US, to say nothing of the strikes in the UCU system in the UK. Rank and file workers are taking aim at university administrations in right-to-work states and demonstrating that bypassing the legislative agendas of labor officials in “blue states” is a real option. Durable connections have been built by a wide array of workers who have drawn momentum, strategy, and tactics from one another. It is principally in this spirit that we have composed these reflections on the UC strike, for an audience that, we hope, reaches beyond our existing contacts.

It is perhaps worth stating clearly the singularly important and general lesson that we have taken from our experience. This is to reorient strategy and tactics back to the workers themselves at every moment. This means ignoring, or at least significantly de-emphasizing, the activity of those various sects of self-identified “organizers” and “activists,” from official leadership and staff on one side to the various iterations of sectarian opposition, on the other. It also means cultivating and preserving a certain degree of humility. It is not us “organizers” (nor certainly “the union,” narrowly conceived in terms of staff or officers) who are in a position to do anything decisive in struggles such as these. Those claims made in the name of workers (that they are “not ready,” or “duped by leadership,” or in need of “leadership development”) more likely reflect the insecurity and ungroundedness of their makers, and especially their lack of connection with rank and file workers beyond routinized phone banks, 1-1s, and rap sheets. They can in no way, therefore, serve as a basis for action adequate to the task of confronting the forces arrayed against us inside and outside higher ed. We hope that the organizing history we have offered here offers some insights into a viable alternative, one that seeks to learn from struggle and adapt itself to the existing context, prioritizing the power we wield as workers and the relationships necessary to wield it effectively.

The higher ed labor upsurge comes, no doubt, in the face of deteriorating working and living conditions, surging tuitions and rents, and the erosion of historical forms of worker control and autonomy at the university, affecting even the class of tenured professors who were, until relatively recently, thought to be insulated. This includes naked assaults on academic freedom by politicians and administrators, where the “war on woke” in Florida is only the latest and starkest example. Yet the upsurge cannot be conceived only in defensive terms, as an effort to hold onto the vestiges of a fading golden age. Its participants must stake out ground, not only to beat back racist, transphobic, and anti-worker forces wherever they exist, but to envision and deliver a new and entirely better system of education led by the workers who make the university run. But just as we argue that the meaning of the UC strike will be determined only by what happens next, the broader labor upsurge in higher ed does not, as yet, have any unified vision or criteria for success. Without taking leave from the severity of our obstacles or the deep resources of our enemies, an urgent task before troublemakers and socialists in the higher ed labor movement is to articulate the recent struggles and victories into a vision of the university worth fighting for, and a strategy adequate to winning it.

  1. Before this time, the dynamics at UC Santa Cruz, while containing significant local elements, were not fundamentally different from other UC campuses, and likely comparable to many unionized workplaces across the country today. The organizing milieu was politically muted, characterized by low turnout to campus meetings, various scattered and short-lived political campaigns, and a small but consistent group of organizers with axes to grind internally. The union, despite the perpetual electronic pleading of its official leadership, was more or less irrelevant to workers’ lives. 

  2. COLA, in our context, was the demand for annual adjustments in our salaries such that the median rent in Santa Cruz never exceeded 30% of our income, the threshold for “rent burden” among housing sociologists. It is typical for workers on our campus to spend more than half their income on rent. 

  3. We should note that, while objectively these UAW leaders were aligned with the previous Curry administration in the UAW international, abstaining from a vote to increase strike pay at the 2022 UAW Convention while affirming support for Curry’s 2022-2023 presidential campaign, they do consider themselves socialists at the forefront of the labor movement in California, and as outspoken members of DSA, actively make claims on labor politics more generally. Indeed, some are paper members of UAWD, the reform caucus

  4. Indeed the matter of whether to bargain over our wage demands during the summer, when most workers disengage from the university, was a major point of contention on the bargaining team. At that time, and despite arguments from those BT members who were also on staff with UAW, a majority of the team decided that we ought not engage in bargaining with the employer over major demands while members were relatively disengaged. 

  5. From one analysis, “When the proposal was ratified, we knew that it was the direct result of the simultaneously symbolic and material pressure we applied through nonviolent civil disobedience and high-participation picketing. It was a strategy that took many sleepless weeks of organizing, activated thousands of members, and captured the incredible momentum of our movement.” It is perhaps worth noting that the official leadership was not always or straightforwardly successful in firming up its socialist bonafides through the strike, with at least one prominent figure expelled from his DSA caucus in the strikes’ aftermath. 

  6. For the record, we think this question shifts considerably when you look at the UAW International, which has historically been quite effective at repressing internal dissent. Despite some clear differences in orientation articulated at the very top of the UAW, with the election of new officials from the Members United slate in the International Executive Board earlier this year, what exactly a rank and file upsurge in the UAW might mean is still an open question. 

  7. This can be glimpsed in the UAW2865 vacancy elections at the end of April, 2023, which took place in the aftermath of the systemwide strike where engagement in the union was at an all time high, and where most of the “rank and file” caucus grouping ran on a merely oppositional basis, and lost. 

  8. The lead-up to the wildcat strike at UCSC in 2019-20 is of relevance here. It is commonplace, in confused narrations of that strike, where this period before the strike is considered at all, to present it as a backlash to the capitulation of summer 2018, when the union leadership quietly shook hands with the boss over a status-quo contract, and members at Santa Cruz voted largely against ratification. Almost never mentioned, however, is the abysmal turnout in that same ratification vote at Santa Cruz, and, for that matter, every other campus in the UC system. Yet this is by far the more relevant number, offering an image of a rank and file completely disengaged from union affairs instead of the comforting fantasy of a labor bureaucracy dampening the democratic expression of its workers. The 2018 contact drama, for all its subsequent rehearsals, never got beyond a dispute between small and insular groups. It cannot, as a result, explain the remarkable rank and file upsurge of COLA in 2019-20, which also saw 15 departments at UC Berkeley organize and vote to join the wildcat against the pleading of the local union leadership. It is also, for this reason, impossible to compare this episode with the ratification of the 2022 contract. 

  9. An “anthology” of their work can be found here: 

  10. Effort was made by the AbolishUC grouping to draw in undergraduate students who were not a part of our union into the fight. This was in part due to their invocation of the figure of the working class undergraduate as a potentially more subversive force on campus, or a kind of destitute figure in university life—one that was being left behind in our mobilization around seemingly economic demands like COLA. While we take issue with this characterization, we recognize the key role that undergraduates played in earlier waves of the UC student and worker fight, which was a real source of strength we largely lack today, connections lost in pandemic isolation. Emphasis on building fighting undergraduate groups who could, in close coordination with workers, put on strategic direct actions, and generally mobilize student support at the picket line, is badly needed today. In the past these groups gave body to the claim that working conditions are learning conditions. In participating in prior UC strikes, students developed a skill set, analysis, and tangible connections amongst the campus body that undergraduate radicals could later reactivate for fights against austerity and tuition hikes. The anti-organizational reflex of the “ultra-left” in the intervening years meant that they eschewed the path taken by Autonomous Students (AS) in the 2012-2015 cycle, but those of us around universities might reconsider the lessons from that experience now. 

  11. Labor organizers involved in the 2019-20 wildcat strike participated significantly in the UC-wide Cops off Campus organizing meetings held during the summer and fall of 2020. However, there was, by and large, little general interest among other Cops off Campus organizers—mainly faculty—in the proposal to form a labor coalition that would take labor action to bring about the end of policing on campus. Cops off Campus organizers focused most of their energies on teach-ins and other forms of political education that fizzled out during the 2020-21 academic year. 

  12. While PIs should never be equated with the administrative class of the university, they do, through their project-based research and work in the university, suffer the same indistinction as grad researchers who work under them. By comparison, the research projects of those faculty who regularly perform teaching instruction, and the grads who work as their teaching assistants, are undertaken more or less independently of the courses they teach. It is not difficult to see why a given member of faculty is more likely to be disturbed by a work stoppage that directly affects her multi-year research project than one that affects her intro to sociology course one fall term, especially as she may go home and continue her research in the evening without undermining the strike in any very meaningful way. 

  13. There was no comparable expectation that grads working as classroom instructors similarly cease their personal research. 

  14. This approach to the researcher strike, oriented to superficial readings of labor law, not only stood in for an actual strategic assessment of the workplace, but actively fought attempts to do so. And yet we remember that the University enjoyed the legal right to dock all of our pay for the entire period of the strike. It turned out, however, that the administration was either unable to identify whose pay to withhold and to carry it out (although when our staff’s advice was to fill out the University’s attestation forms, the faculty union took the opposite position), or unwilling to take this escalatory step due to the strength of our position. To think, then, that they would have been able and willing to specify SRs undertaking “partial” strikes for retaliation is fanciful at best. At the time of writing, they have still not shown that they are able to distinguish striking and non-striking workers. 

  15. This must, of course, surpass the failed “peak power” and “48k strong” approach, where success is achieved simply by larger numbers at the start of the strike. We discussed this approach in Part 1

  16. While a fuller account of the cycle of struggles within the UC from 2009 to 2015—most often framed in the context of anti-austerity where opposition to university mandated tuition and fee hikes as well as attendant staff cuts were generalized—is not possible here, it should be noted that displays of solidarity between student and campus workers generated a whole set of political openings, even as solidarity at the level of tactics remained somewhat circumscribed. 

  17. Recent examples at Columbia and the University of Michigan, have likewise demonstrated the validity of the “long-haul” strike through gains wrested from their employers. For more on this strike, see 

  18. Shortly after, in the same month, all night negotiations secured the tentative agreement for all of 3299 in the hours before a UC Regents meeting in San Francisco, where both wildcat strikers and 3299 workers and student supporters were preparing to picket. 

  19. The relationships we forged with K7, although significant, ultimately remain underdeveloped. While we were able, in the context of an active fight, to collaborate, in the aftermath of K7’s contract settlement and the onerous stipulations UC imposed regarding “sympathy” actions, we failed to institutionalize our links in any meaningful way. This is not to say that such institutionalization is impossible, but that it has as yet proven tenuous. 


Jack Davies

Jack Davies is a grad worker in the History of Consciousness department at UC Santa Cruz, and Unit Chair of UAW 2865 on that campus. He served on the bargaining term during the last contract campaign.

Sarah Mason

Sarah Mason is a grad worker in the Sociology department at UC Santa Cruz, and a head steward of UAW 2865. She served as an alternate on the bargaining term during the last contract campaign.