How University of California Workers Won the Biggest Higher-Ed Strike in US History

Two University of California union organizers argue the keys to their union pulling off the largest strike of 2022 were simple: an emphasis on majority participation, democratic decision-making, and building a representative structure across the UC system.

UCLA postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers march in Westwood to demand better wages, student housing, child care, and more during the strike at the University of California on December 1, 2022. (Sarah Reingewirtz / MediaNews Group / Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

In the United States, the percentage of workers who belong to a union has declined to an all-time low since the height of labor militancy in the 1930s. Despite this historic weakness, or perhaps because of it, the labor movement is experiencing a historic moment of dynamism and reform. After decades of wage stagnation, neoliberalism can no longer credibly claim to be delivering the goods. Workers are fighting back. And where union leaderships have been reluctant to lead the charge, workers have taken matters into their own hands.

Starting in the teachers’ unions in the early 2010s, with reform slates leading the first major strikes from Chicago and Los Angeles teachers in decades, and moving now to the Teamsters and United Auto Workers unions where, thanks to direct elections of top international union officers, reformers now occupy some of the top officer positions, the labor movement is embracing change.

But “change” and “reform” can mean many things. We need to look at what new leadership is actually doing to advance worker interests and organize in the twenty-first century context and evaluate if it’s effectively building power. Our union, UAW Local 2865, is a case study in which two very different versions of union reform movements have taken root in the last decade and led to very different material results for workers.

The first is the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU) that took power in 2011 after a failed attempt to vote down a contract. AWDU centered a small group of radicals willing to take militant action even without the active support of the majority. The peak of their efforts was a one-day strike in 2014 with at most 10 percent of worker participation, which led to a contract that was nearly identical to the one it replaced.

The second group has gone by a number of names but is essentially the leadership group that took the mantle from AWDU after the last 2865 contract was negotiated in 2018. Full disclosure: we belong to this latter leadership group, which most recently has taken the name Union MADE (Mass Action and Democratic Empowerment) and won thirty-nine out of fifty-three seats in the most recent 2865 vacancy election in April 2023. We are the group that created and executed a four-year plan to build power from our union’s historic low in 2018 and led a supermajority strike of 48,000 academic workers alongside three other UAW bargaining units at the University of California.

We learned a lot along the way, but the fundamental principles that made UAW Local 2865 successful in building for the 2022 strike was an emphasis on organizing for majority participation, democratic decision-making, and building a representative structure across nearly every department in the UC system.

Taking these concepts seriously required us to take some difficult positions when others would have been more politically expedient. During 2018 bargaining, we argued that the low level of participation in the union — when bargaining began, only 37 percent of eligible workers were members of the union — made a strike unstrategic. The Supreme Court’s Janus decision ending public sector agency fee collection (meaning that the union would automatically lose dues revenue from those workers who did not explicitly choose to become members) came down the day before the contract was set to expire.

A strike not supported by the majority of workers would not only be unsuccessful — it would polarize the workplace and make the eventual organizing of a majoritarian movement far more difficult, to say nothing of dwindling financial resources that the union needed to spend on an organizing program rather than legal fees and the other types of costs associated with even a small strike.

The old-guard AWDU camp has painted this pragmatism as taking “orders” from the corrupt Administration Caucus that at the time was in control of the international UAW. On the contrary, because we knew we could not rely on the international union to bail us out, as the international leadership at the time saw the higher education labor movement as its political enemy, we felt even more pressure to be financially responsible with members’ dues money.

So we argued to ratify the contract and make a plan to win big in 2022. And that’s what we did.

Organizing Wall-to-wall

The key to winning transformative changes in any industry lies in uniting workers across job titles, departments, and worksites — what’s known as organizing “wall-to-wall.” On their own, teaching assistants have some power over the University of California, but their influence is limited to the university’s teaching mission. Through its research mission, UC generates billions of dollars in grants and contract revenue — over $7 billion in 2022 alone.

Student researchers (SRs), graduate students who do scientific research primarily in laboratory settings, had originally been a part of unionization efforts in the 1980s and 1990s alongside teaching assistants. But a 1998 legal ruling affirmed UC’s long-standing anti-union position that SRs are students and not workers and thus denied student researchers the right to organize.

In 2017, organizing-focused UAW members succeeded in changing the law to recognize SRs as workers with the right to form a union. Finally, the way was clear for student researchers to form a union and bargain alongside teaching assistants.

Newly elected 2865 leaders immediately focused on building leadership networks in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) departments where the vast majority of SRs work. Leaders formed organizing committees (OCs) at the department, campus, and statewide levels to coordinate organizing efforts. These OCs were the engines of the unionization campaign and eventual strike, enabling new and experienced rank-and-file leaders to work together building participation and leadership in and across their worksites.

All told, over one thousand rank-and-file student researchers successfully organized at least one coworker to sign an authorization card to form a union. Many organized far more. In May 2021, a supermajority of SRs submitted union authorization cards to form Student Researchers United–UAW, delivering over 11,000 cards to the California Public Employment Relations Board.

But UC didn’t let go of its long-standing opposition to SR unionization easily. It ultimately took a supermajority strike threat to force UC to recognize the entire unit that SRs had petitioned for in December 2021. This was a rare victory in which graduate student fellows, whose research is controlled and directed by UC, were recognized as employees with equal rights to collectively bargain.

Interlude: The 2020 Wildcat Strike

In the nascent stages of this new organizing drive, teaching assistants at UC Santa Cruz launched a wildcat strike over low wages and high rent across UC. Wildcat organizers agitated for a cost-of-living adjustment; the demand at the time was for a monthly raise of $1,412, an increase that Santa Cruz organizers argued would bring workers on their campus to parity with workers at UC Riverside, where the cost of living was lower.

The demand was enormously galvanizing to workers across the state but suffered from the same drawbacks that made the 2014 AWDU-led strike weak: an emphasis on a militant minority over majority participation. Not only that, but strike activity was for the most part limited to one campus and only among teaching assistants.

The Santa Cruz wildcat strike drew on the same theory of mobilization as AWDU did during the 2014 contract campaign. Rather than committing to the hard work of one-to-one organizing and structure-building across all job titles and all campuses, organizers believed that militant action taken by a small minority — along with the articulation of a radical demand with populist appeal — would alone be enough to result in spontaneous self-organization capable of sustaining the strike and winning the demand.

In the end, the strike resulted in the termination of eighty strikers who held the line out of an initial action of about three hundred people, $600,000 in legal fees paid for by members’ dues, and a $2,500 yearly housing stipend that could be revoked at the university’s discretion and was given only to workers at UC Santa Cruz, home to just 6.7 percent of the statewide bargaining unit.

Although all eighty strikers were ultimately reinstated, the strike left many workers with a fear of retaliation for all strikes in general, and the limited participation in the wildcat led to little movement on its core demands. It was clear that a truly mass participation strike was necessary to win big gains.

High-Participation, Leader-Driven Escalation

Leading up to 2022, the four UAW bargaining units at UC (five thousand academic researchers, seven thousand postdocs, 17,000 student researchers, and 19,000 academic student employees) had strategically lined up their contracts and timed their organizing campaigns so that 48,000 UC academic workers across four bargaining units could bargain simultaneously alongside each other.

Workers held a series of statewide strategy meetings to discuss bargaining demands and plan escalation strategy. Like during the wildcat, rent burden would be at the center of the campaign, with a particular focus on raising the base wage for the lowest-paid workers. Workers also decided to engage in a series of escalating actions.

At UCLA, over four hundred workers occupied one of the busiest intersections in the country near the campus, resulting in the arrest of over two dozen union leaders. Workers on other campuses also participated in civil disobedience actions and rallied outside chancellor mansions to draw the contrast between our housing conditions and theirs.

In summer 2022, workers across UC ran departmental mini-campaigns connected to larger issues at the statewide bargaining table, demanding that department chairs and deans put an end to bullying by supervisors and expand rights for workers with disabilities. In one instance, workers won the reinstatement of a postdoc who had been unjustly terminated after raising concerns over data falsification and was facing the loss of her insurance and visa while eight months pregnant.

Turnover is a constant challenge in academic worker unions: one-third of the UAW 2865 unit turns over every academic year. But union leaders used the strong union orientation rights bargained in 2018 to ensure that every new worker in fall 2022 received a peer-led union orientation on the stakes of the contract campaign. Workers were immediately brought into the fight. UC-UAW also engaged in several other tactics to quickly bring workers up to speed on bargaining: open bargaining sessions in which any member could attend, publicly available bargaining trackers with every union and management proposal on each issue, and a comprehensive Fair UC Now website with summaries of proposals and numerous worker-to-worker communications.

Given that UAW 2865’s last strike vote in 2014 had just 15 percent participation statewide, we wanted to ensure that the vote this time represented a credible strike threat: supermajority participation driven by organic leaders in every lab and department. The strategic question was how to achieve this level of participation with such a broad and varied group of workers spread across multiple campuses.

UAW 2865 had tried strike pledges as a “structure test” in the past, but they fell flat. Too many leaders didn’t see the strike pledge as inspiring and motivating. There was some truth to the critique of union leadership offered by wildcat organizers at UC Santa Cruz that constant structure tests amounted to a “SurveyMonkey” union that did not inspire action through confrontation with the boss. We needed to facilitate a powerful collective experience for leaders to decide the next steps of the campaign and commit to each other to do whatever it takes to win.

Through discussions in the Statewide Organizing Committee, we landed on the idea of holding mass membership meetings at every campus, where workers would decide, en masse, on calling strike votes across the four UAW bargaining units. We focused our turnout efforts on getting organic leaders who had the relationships to move their coworkers to participate. The mass meetings were a resounding success: thousands of workers organized what were then UAW’s largest-ever rallies and collectively decided to call a strike vote, laying the groundwork for a supermajority participation vote: 36,558 total votes cast (76 percent of all workers) with 97.53 percent voting yes to authorize their Bargaining Teams to call a strike if circumstances justified.

Winning Big and Lessons for the Future

All these things were necessary to launch a strike that was both the largest strike of 2022 and the largest ever in the history of higher education. By organizing across all disciplines and job titles, intentionally recruiting leaders in every department, coordinating closely across bargaining units, and helping 17,000 student researchers form a new union, we were able to build a leader-driven structure that spanned nearly all instructional and research operations of the university.

When workers finally walked off the job on November 14, research and teaching came to a standstill. Classrooms and labs were left nearly deserted except for the thousands of workers marching on the picket lines. We spent four years building a structure capable of causing major disruption to the operations of the university because we knew this was the only way to win against a ruthless employer like the University of California.

And our strategy worked: after six weeks on strike, workers won groundbreaking new contracts with unheard-of wage increases, standard-setting protections against abusive conduct, eight weeks of medical and parental leave, and many other protections necessary to make the University of California a more equitable and accessible institution.

A contingent of activists, aligned with the strategy behind the 2020 wildcat, was strongly and very vocally critical of our gains during the strike, and in fact engaged in a very public effort to vote down the contract, often labeling opponents of their vision of an activist minority–driven union “business unionists” committed to a narrow, conservative vision of unionism. These same activists often opposed measures to build the massive strike that ultimately moved the UC to concede. Nonetheless, our contract wins far exceeded what was achieved by any previous strike action among academic workers at UC, vastly outpacing gains made by the activist minority model.

This structure-and-majority-building focus is the UAW 2865 reform we believe the rest of the labor movement should take from. As reformers gain power in more and more unions, we must evaluate not just rhetoric but the content of the reforms they implement, and whether those reforms build power for working people. While leaders across the four bargaining units maximized our strike power by coordinating across job titles, a history of uneven organizing and separate institutional structures prevented us from realizing our full power as a unified workforce. The next stage for UAW 2865 is to maintain the power academic workers have built in the face of university revanchism and attempts to renege on the contracts they agreed to and continue to plan for the next contract campaign as one union for academic workers. It will be another test, but we have the blueprint for success.