Rank-and-file Unionism at the University of Washington

Since at least the 1970s, internal union reform efforts in the US have focused on two issues—the inability of long-entrenched union leaderships to resist mounting attacks on workers, plus a recognition on the part of the most creative and militant rank-and-filers that in order to have any real chance of resisting those attacks, we have to question the seemingly prescribed limits of our struggles. Both of these things are happening right now at the University of Washington, where a rank-and-file caucus called UW Academic Workers for a Democratic University (UW-AWDU) is struggling to change the bylaws of their UAW local in order that the union become more genuinely run by and for the workers.

Pencil and fist

UW-AWDU began in 2014 when a group of rank-and-file members of UAW Local 4121, which represents over 4,000 student-workers at the University of Washington, met to discuss their dissatisfaction with the current leadership, some of whom have remained in place for anywhere between eight and twelve years. What UW-AWDU seeks is to make their union stronger, more ambitious, more democratic, and more connected to the social movements going on around it. They began by reaching out to over twenty student organizations to build “Reclaim UW,” a student-led coalition that fights for social and economic justice at the university. Working alongside student groups, UW-AWDU has expanded the idea of what a labor union exists to do, conducting teach-ins, radical history tours, and campaigns to support fired custodians, connecting with striking Seattle teachers, fighting for budget transparency, and contesting the UAW International Board’s effort to undemocratically nullify a California student-worker local’s resolution in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Their most impressive action to date was to disrupt a tony dinner party for the university’s Board of Regents (an august group that routinely violates the state’s open meetings law), demanding that the university, Seattle’s largest employer, honor the city’s $15 an hour minimum wage law. In case you were wondering whether direct action gets the goods, consider this sentence from the Seattle Times’ article on the “Reclaim the Regents” action:

The regents and UW police tried to wrest control of the meeting from the protesters but were shouted down by nearly 100 people packed into a lounge on the building’s first floor. After about 20 minutes, the regents fled to a downstairs dining room in the UW Club, leaving plates of uneaten appetizers on the table.

Within days, the university had announced an increase in wages to $11, and six months later announced a second increase that puts 5,500 workers, including student-workers, on track to receive the $15 minimum by 2017. This makes the University of Washington the first school in the country to agree to a $15 an hour wage for all workers, including student workers.

Having shown what a mobilized membership can achieve, UW-AWDU is now engaged in a fight to formalize a set of principles that would pave the way to a more transparent, democratic, and ultimately more militant and effective union. The changes they have proposed to the bylaws of their UAW local seek to:

  1. Institute term limits and shorter term lengths for elected leaders
  2. Tie union staff salaries to the median academic student employee wage
  3. Ensure that union leaders are active academic student employees
  4. Increase transparency of union staff positions and contact info
  5. Secure the right for union staff to collectively bargain in their own union

What these provisions all have in common is that they reduce the gap between union leaders and staff and the workers they represent. If adopted, they would establish an environment where workers do not passively await the outcome of opaque negotiations between inside players, but instead represent themselves and their interests. This is a recipe for a more engaged membership, one that feels it has a stake not just in the result of collective bargaining, but in how it is achieved and what the union ultimately exists to do. These efforts follow similar campaigns to democratize union locals at NYU, the University of Massachusetts, and the University of California, where AWDU and similar caucuses have won important battles aimed at creating stronger organizations that can fight not only for contract-to-contract bread and butter, but combat the root causes of the crisis in higher education that keeps us for the moment poor and demobilized. Only broad-based mobilizations of the kind imagined by UW-AWDU and its reform allies stand a chance of turning back the neoliberal tide and paving the way for the kind of university we—the faculty, students, and workers who make all this happen—want to see.

|| Click HERE to sign a letter to UAW Local 4121 members expressing your solidarity with UW-AWDU and support for their proposed bylaw changes.

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