Workers Reinvigorate Their Unions

For the U.S. labor movement, 2022 may have been the year when it all turned around. This is perhaps most true for the United Auto Workers (UAW), where, in December, 48,000 striking academic workers at the University of California (UC) won a landmark agreement and insurgent reformers running for international union leadership ousted much of the union’s entrenched leadership. 

The UC strike was not only the largest strike of the year but the largest strike ever by academic workers. For more than five weeks, graduate student instructors and researchers, postdoctoral researchers, and academic researchers in four separate bargaining units struck in coordination across all ten campuses of the UC — plus Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a federal government research facility. DSA members lent crucial aid, with 15 local chapters organizing strike support and DSA raising more than $26,500 for the union’s strike fund. 

Before the strike, the minimum starting salary for a graduate student instructor or researcher at UC was under $24,000, forcing 92% of graduate student employees to pay over 30% of their income to rent. Low pay and grueling schedules are endemic across academia, but living costs are especially high in California. All 48,000 striking workers reached settlements that, among other things, secured substantial pay increases of 20% to 80% by 2024. 

That 2022’s largest strike was mounted by academic employees reflects the current wave of unionization in higher education. At the same time that UC academic workers were walking picket lines, part-time faculty at the New School in New York City, represented by ACT-UAW Local 7902, waged the longest ever adjunct faculty strike, winning path-breaking gains after nearly a month. The six largest filings with the National Labor Relations Board for union elections in 2022 were all groups of graduate students: at MIT (UE), Yale (UNITE HERE), Northwestern (UE), Johns Hopkins (UE), Boston University (SEIU), and the University of Chicago (UE). The UC strike may serve to inspire more organizing in the sector. 

Meanwhile, in November, UAW members voted directly for the leaders of their international union for the first time. For decades, top officer spots have been chosen by convention delegates, a system that helped ensure that leaders from the same ruling caucus maintained control. UAW members changed that in a unionwide referendum. At the end of the day, 11% of eligible voters (400,000 current members and 600,000 retirees) cast ballots. Candidates running on the Members United slate, a group of reformers seeking to build a more aggressive UAW, won five spots on the union’s executive board. Two other contested positions — president and one regional directorship — went to a runoff election now underway as we go to press. If Members United candidates win the remaining two positions, the reform group will control half of the union’s leadership.

More militant leadership at the UAW could make 2023 even more of a ban-ner year for the labor movement than 2022. This year, contracts expire at the “Big Three” auto firms — General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis (former-ly Chrysler). There could be a nation-wide strike three times as large as last year’s UC walkout.

UAW activism is not the only place where workers are claiming their power. The Teamsters Union contract with United Parcel Service expires this summer, Starbucks and Amazon workers continue their struggles to unionize, teachers fight back against increasing restrictions, and more and more workers claim their rights. DSA members will be stand in solidarity with them.