California has become a hot spot for labor action, helping to lead the way in a nationwide resurgence of the labor movement. YDSA members have been closely involved in this development.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2023 Print Issue, which can be found here.
Sunny California conjures countless diverse and beautiful, yet just as often haunting images to the mind of any American. Few places on Earth put the beauty, bounty, and misery of our world on such vivid display as the Golden State. Yet while it may be hard for the rest of the country to see past its image of Californians as blue-haired college kids obsessed with critical race theory, for the past five years or so its been the hottest battleground of the American class war. Far from some socialist paradise, 178 billionaires call California home – in the same state with the largest homeless population in the country. Amidst both rags and riches, California’s workers and billionaires are jostling for power in the 6th largest economy in the world – and the workers are making awe-inspiring strides.
The Los Angeles Teachers 2019 strike began to turn the tide in the war on public education that the Right and centrist neoliberals have waged across the United States for decades – and sparked a flame in California’s left-wing that has raged ever since. In the next two years, Bernie won the California Democratic Primary in a landslide and Student Researchers United (SRU) at the University of California won the largest new union filing in the United States in over a decade. Building off the momentum of the SRU win, UAW locals across the UC system ran the largest strike of academic workers in American history – doubling paid time off for graduate student workers and winning a $10,000 raise for the lowest paid graduate students. Just months later came the gargantuan, 60,000 worker strong SEIU-UTLA solidarity strike across the LA Unified School District (LAUSD) – a strike that won a breathtaking 30% raise for the 25,000 workers in the SEIU unit.
The growing momentum of California’s labor movement – specifically in the education sector – has become impossible to ignore. The passage of the Picket Line Protection Bill in the California State Assembly is a stunning testament to the newfound political capital of labor – a development made possible only by the growing power of our movement to create massive problems for the state government and capitalist class by shutting down some of the largest educational systems in the country, such as LAUSD and UC. The flip-side of this is that our bosses now take the threat of a revived labor movement much more seriously. At UC San Diego, three union activists have been brought up on bogus charges of conspiracy and vandalism, including $12,000 in property damage, for using washable chalk and markers to call attention to the UC’s blatant refusal to implement the contract they signed last December.
The stakes for Californian socialists have never been higher. The coming years will be decisive in whether we can consolidate and build upon our gains, or whether reactionary forces will break our burgeoning movement. To meet the moment, we have to simultaneously maintain the upward trajectory of organized labor militancy, while also establishing a foothold in the state government to mitigate the inevitable right-wing backlash – a task that members of YDSA in California are strategically placed to meet.
In the UC system in particular, YDSA organizers have been at the forefront of raising expectations and raising hell. Grace McGee and Luca Dhagat wrote in a previous article in The Activist about how “YDSA chapters are uniquely situated to support strikes in a way that goes beyond just bringing students out to a picket line” and went on to describe their chapter’s experience organizing a solidarity letter and rally with thousands of signatures and participants respectively. The UC strike provided a unique opportunity for YDSA chapters across California to coordinate around a shared project. Chapter leaders from across the UC system met regularly to coordinate solidarity actions and support for the striking academic workers.
YDSA organizers have been deeply involved in organizing academic workers for years in the lead-up to the historic UC Strike, including in the formation of SRU. Yet while YDSA chapters and organizers have played an active role in UC labor organizing for some time, the cross-chapter and campus collaboration in this organizing has been remarkably limited, primarily due to both limited capacity, and to a lack of viable statewide organizing projects to facilitate such collaboration. But the inevitable anti-labor onslaught coming from the UC administration – and the nascent efforts to organize undergraduate dining hall workers at UCSB – provide UC YDSA chapters an excellent opportunity to right the course with a compelling and highly urgent campaign to advance workers’ rights in the UC system. Following the trail blazed by other cross-campus YDSA campaigns – such as the wildly-successful organizing for the New Deal for CUNY Bill in New York – YDSA chapters across UC have the potential to lay the foundation for independent political action statewide.