For a Rank and File Union

Organized labor functions on the idea that workers can win when they struggle together. A rank and file union is a union that empowers its members — the rank and file — to express the political will and strategy of the union as a whole. 

A Rank and File UAW 2865 would give autonomy to its campus chapters and allocate resources for them to self-organize around locally relevant issues, promoting participation in the struggles closest to the lives of student workers. The statewide apparatus would then strive to advance these struggles with its additional personnel, finances, and legal resources. The past year proves that the power of such struggles, like that over housing in Santa Cruz, will catalyze genuine participation across the state. 

A rank and file UAW 2865 cannot have paid staffers serve as elected officers. The strategic missteps of our statewide union last year at least partly flowed from having a small core of leadership who also occupy paid staff positions. These individuals will call themselves your “co-workers” while sometimes earning more than three times the average worker’s annual salary. Of course, it is fine that our union employs people and pays them well, but it is obviously wrong to permit only these people to make strategic decisions on behalf of all workers. Last spring, paid staffers on our union’s Bargaining Team comprised a full half of the votes against holding a strike authorization vote among the rank and file, and none of the votes for it. The final vote was 10-8 against, and the rank and file were not permitted to vote on launching a legally protected strike.

This situation entrenches a layer of union bureaucrats whose economic conditions are removed from the conditions of the rank and file. This layer tends to function in order to preserve itself, rather than the interests of union rank and file, typically by working in the interests of the boss (“we are not strike ready”). And it eventually comes to stand in for the union as a whole, such that “UAW 2865” is identified only with its leadership sycophants, to the benefit of the UC and this small cadre of well-paid staffers. 

In a rank and file union, staff input strictly serves members. It helps them articulate what they want and how to get it. Union staff facilitate the development of rank and file engagement at all levels of union activity, promoting the circulation of leadership positions and expertise among an expanding group of organizers. This prevents circumstances like those prevailing in statewide union meetings right now, where a small core of leaders possess all the information and resources, and doggedly fight down proposals that would limit their power — such as the separation of elected decision makers from staff positions.

The future Rank and File UAW 2865 will end this scandal and dissolve its bureaucrat layer. At the local level, it will give campuses financial and strategic autonomy, and allow campus leadership to contact its own members without censorship, a right they recently lost under the present union bureaucracy. At the statewide level, it will introduce ranked choice voting, bring transparency to staff hiring decisions, and solicit genuine input from campuses for statewide meetings. The recent history of UAW 2865 proves all too plainly that the power of a union comes from its rank and file, or not at all.