Bargaining Practices Exclude Members

Jared Sexton is a doctoral candidate in comparative ethnic studies at UC Berkeley and a member of AGSE/UAW. Respond to him at [email protected]

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On Friday, a group of students accompanied Frank Wilderson to the emergency Graduate Student Instructor contract bargaining session between AGSE/UAW and the University of California. The group consisted of three union-member graduate students. In addition, several concerned undergraduates, who apparently had heard of the troubles in their GSI's union, showed up on the scene. As well, a reporting team from The Daily Californian was there to observe. Upon arriving at the conference center at 20th and Franklin streets in downtown Oakland, the small group found that the graduate union bargaining representatives from the nine campuses had locked themselves in a room.

When Wilderson knocked, identified himself and asked to be let in so that he might review the documents in question (i.e. the university's comprehensive contract proposal) and, further, to participate in deliberations as per his duties as an elected bargainer, he was told that he would not be able to enter the room. (All this amidst the laughter of those inside.)

He tried several times to explain that the bargaining team(s) had no legal and constitutional (the union's constitution) right to bar him from participation as his status was still active. Only a recall vote from the membership would change this. Be reminded that at last December's general meeting, all in attendance reaffirmed their desire to see Wilderson continue serving. Only more laughter.

Despite this blatant violation of the bylaws and the obvious disrespect for the membership's mandate, the door remained locked and those inside continued with their (rather lively) discussion. When Wilderson had no luck at the door, several union members, myself included, tried our hands, requesting to speak to our elected bargainers outside of the caucus room. Those in attendance should remember that our bargainers, at least Maria Rosales and Liz Schirmer, told us at last December's general meeting that members could approach them with questions at any time. The bargainers and UAW representatives inside simply laughed at our request.

The undergraduates then gave it a try, asking for statements on the situation, some explanation of what appeared to be a clear breach of organizational protocol and basic political ethics. Hearty laughter and some chuckling this time.

We waited for about an hour and a half outside the meeting room door (from around 9:15 a.m. to approximatley 11a.m.). After that span of time, the door opened and without any words, without as much as a glance in our direction, everyone in the room headed in a straight line to the parking garage and to their cars, apparently to reconvene at an undisclosed location. Our group walked alongside the representatives from UC Berkeley asking for an explanation, demanding Wilderson be included with the others. All of us were dodged and avoided; none of us got a word from anyone. That is, except one accusation from a bargainer from another campus that we were "working for management."

Noting that Tanya Mahn from the UAW was the leading coordinator of the morning's course of events, two of the undergraduates pursued questions with her as she and other bargainers entered her car and began to pull away. As one undergraduate crossed in front of the car to speak to the person in the passenger side window, Mahn began pulling forward and bumped the student in the knees. Shocked that she'd drive into his body, the student stopped and offered some choice words to the driver. Unruffled, Mahn proceeded to bump the student again, pushing him backward with the car, as he was clearly not going to move at this point. He was joined by a second undergraduate who was then also bumped repeatedly.

Seeing this, I went ahead and informed the driver that she was in fact committing a felony (deliberately driving a car at a pedestrian, however slow, is considered assault with a deadly weapon ... ask the cops). Despite repeated warnings from all of us that she was endangering these students, the push forward continued. Finally, at the request of her other passengers, who were by now visibly concerned at what was happening, Mahn stopped the car. I stepped behind the car at this point to prevent them from leaving the scene while we awaited the conference center security. The security team took reports from both sides, then called in the police who did the same. After more than an hour of explanation from all parties (during which time Mahn denied any knowledge that Wilderson was a member of the union, let alone an elected representative), the situation was over and the car was allowed to proceed. The two undergraduates filed a police report alleging assault with a deadly weapon. The charges will be followed up by the District Attorney.

At this point, we all have no idea about the general direction of negotiations (whether they happened, if they did what tentative agreements were reached, etc.). No one suspects that any word will be offered to either Wilderson or the general membership until the process is, for all intents and purposes, finished. At this point, (at least theoretically) a membership meeting must be called for ratification. It seems that members are in dire need of an honest discussion not only about the content of the contract, but, perhaps just as importantly, about the means by which it has been secured thus far.

One point of clarification to end this update, Mahn and others on the bargaining team and the executive board claim that there is a clear division of labor between bargainers who sit at the local or campus-wide table and those that sit at the state or system-wide table and never shall the two meet. In other words, Wilderson and the other local bargainers should only deal with local issues while Rosales and Schirmer (the statewide people) should only deal with system wide issues. This supposed line of demarcation is absolutely spurious. This can be proved in two ways.

First, there are clear, documented instances in which local bargainers from other campuses (e.g. UC Santa Barbara) attended and participated in state-wide sessions earlier last fall. Beyond this, on several occasions Rosales and Schirmer enthusiastically invited Wilderson to attend statewide sessions. However, he was unable to do so due only to travel expenses and teaching workload. So it is clear from both examples that there is no barrier to attendance and participation for Wilderson or any other local bargainer at statewide sessions.

Second, at most of the local bargaining sessions here at UC Berkeley where Wilderson and other local bargainers represented the UC Berkeley chapter of AGSE/UAW, Rosales and Schirmer (as the designated state-wide representatives) were in attendance and participated in caucuses. It's clearly recorded in the minutes. We can assume this is the case at every campus. So not only do local bargainers attend statewide sessions, but the reverse happens as well. The infamous "policy" (i.e. the bargainer division of labor) is permeable in both directions. In other words, there are no provisions or prohibitions against any bargainers attending any bargaining session that anyone can point to, not in print and not in practice.

So, it seems that those on our bargaining team who knowingly excluded Wilderson from participation and ridiculed concerned union members and the undergraduates directly affected by our working conditions may have undermined the very validity of the contract negotiations. I mean this not only in terms of membership trust and accountability, and the clear violation of our union's bylaws. There is also a possibility that they may have broken the labor laws that regulate such activities by deliberately excluding a representative with a right to access relevant information and proceedings. If this is the case, in addition to demonstrating that they are weak-willed, top-down bargainers, they may even have rendered these last crucial meetings moot in any legal and binding sense.

Why would anyone go to such great lengths? It probably has nothing to do with the nearly $2 million in annual union dues that UAW will collect once the ink dries on our brand new, flimsy contracts - the sour fruits of an otherwise noble 17-year struggle.


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