The Biggest Labor Victory of 2021

Lessons from Student Researchers United’s massive win.

From Kellogg’s to John Deere, and Amazon to Starbucks, 2021 has seen some of the highest-profile labor victories in years. We have seen headlines blowing up about ‘Striketober,’ as we’ve taken to calling the recent upswing in labor militancy. But, while buzz around the labor movement is a welcomed change, we shouldn’t let our moment in the spotlight blind us to realities on the ground. The road to revitalizing the labor movement, along with socialist politics in the United States, is long. There is a lot of work to be done. Jane McAlevey called Student Researchers United’s (SRU) successful campaign to unionize graduate student researchers across the University of California system “the largest organizing win of the year.” 

Winning SRU was no easy victory, but it was a big one. At 17,000 graduate student researchers (GSRs) strong, UAW President Ray Curry described SRU as “the largest [union] of student employees in US history” and UC Berkeley GSR Tanzil Chowdhury asserted that SRU is “the single biggest new union filing in any industry, definitely this year if not this decade.” In fact, the UC’s recognition of SRU alone raised the number of workers represented by unions in the United States by about 0.1%. That’s a significant victory for a single campaign. We will have to replicate it dozens of times if we’re going to win socialism. Here are some important lessons we need to take from Student Researchers United. 

Decades in the Making

They say Rome wasn’t built in a day; it wasn’t torn down in one either. Many people on the left today tend to have a romanticized view of spontaneous action, as if one day the ghost of Karl Marx will suddenly possess millions of American workers in strategic industries, call a general strike, and we’ll all be living in a socialist utopia by sundown. The belief that one day the revolution will just happen leads to ill-fated ventures like the General Strike planned on TikTok last October. (Spoiler Alert: it didn’t happen). Historically, revolutions have always been decades, if not centuries in the making. 

Capitalism will not be overthrown in a day, or even in the four month period in which Tik Tok users thought they could put together a general strike. As socialists, we know that the key to overthrowing capitalism is the working class because only workers have both the power and material interest to destroy the system.  With a powerful and militant labor movement in this country, coupled with strong social movements and a mass socialist political organization, we could put things like a general strike and mass redistribution of wealth onto the agenda. Creating those conditions will not simply happen overnight; Student Researchers United is an example of what building that kind of power looks like.  

SRU is the product of decades of organizing. Graduate student researchers in the UC system first voted to form a union in the 90s, along with their teaching assistant (TA) comrades. When the UC challenged the formation of the union, they argued that TAs and GSRs are students, not employees, and therefore had no right to unionize. The irony of this is that graduate students spend far more of their time conducting research or teaching than they do in class; work that is essential to the operation of any university and that they’re paid to do. 

The California labor board ruled that while TAs and other academic student employees had the right to form a union, GSRs did not. It wasn’t until 2017 that GSRs were able to win a change in the law that gave them the legal right to form a union and begin their organizing drive. The key here is that GSRs never stopped organizing. When the authorities told them that unionizing was against their arbitrary rules, organizers didn’t go home: they organized to change the rules of the game. 

It’s Class Struggle, Not Class Snuggle

The heading above is from Jane McAlevey, a veteran labor organizer whose book No Shortcuts; Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age has been gaining popularity in the left for the past couple of years, including in YDSA.  The organizing model McAlevey proposes –  called “Whole Worker Organizing” – was essential to our victory. 

What’s the number one rule of organizing? Only the workers have the power to win. No one can do it for them.

SRU has been a campaign of, by, and for its worker base from the beginning. When the UC first refused to recognize the democratic decision of GSRs to form a union, SRU was at a crossroads. We could have left the matter to the legal system, a process that would have taken months and resulted in a decision we may or may not have agreed with. That would have left GSRs without the benefits of a union contract for the interim. Worse perhaps, we could have cut a backroom deal with UC, denying some GSRs benefits in order to have the union recognized immediately. 

However, SRU chose class struggle instead. We fought to ensure that every GSR would benefit from our contract. When the UC refused to recognize our union, we organized a massive strike authorization vote (SAV). 10,622 of the 17,000 total GSRs voted to go on strike, over 62%. Faced with the threat of a supermajority strike, UC conceded and recognized SRU in its entirety. GSRs fought to organize their coworkers and wield power, and we won a stunning victory because of that. 

YDSA Can Lead The Way

Something else that makes the SRU campaign unique is the substantial role a number of longtime organizers in YDSA played in the campaign. Cyn Huang – Co-Chair of YDSA’s National Coordinating Committee – was on staff, and organized throughout the strike authorization vote. Ahmed Akhtar, member of UC San Diego YDSA, worked as a TA and GSR periodically during the campaign and organized his coworkers. Aya Konishi, also from UC San Diego YDSA, was on staff for the campaign before becoming a PhD student at UCLA, where she began organizing as a GSR herself. I’ve been on staff at UC Santa Barbara since June 2021, organizing throughout SRU’s fight for recognition and SAV, and have been Co-Chair of UCSB YDSA for nearly two years.

These examples prove YDSA’s capacity to recruit and train lifelong socialist organizers – young socialists who are radicalized and trained in YDSA and go on to use their organizing skills and experience to organize the broader working class. The only way workers have power is through taking action collectively, but most workers who participate in collective action are not necessarily organizers. In order for a victory like SRU’s supermajority strike authorization vote to be possible, there has to be a layer of worker-leaders and organizers who are equipped to handle the hundreds or thousands of difficult conversations that will be involved. The SRU campaign demonstrates that organizers trained in YDSA are more than capable of meeting the challenge. 

By focusing on cultivating lifelong socialist organizers, YDSA can magnify the effects of our organizing thousands of times over. Each successfully developed organizer can have tens of thousands of organizing conversations over the course of their lifetime. If we worked to concentrate these organizers in strategic industries, perhaps through a rank-and-file pipeline, we can magnify our organizing even further. It’s a long-term strategy, but revolutions don’t happen overnight. Until we once again have a mass and militant labor movement in this country we simply have to acknowledge that we are in it for the long haul. In the meantime, we can take heart in the fact that Student Researchers United proves revitalizing the labor movement is possible. It will be one of many more victories to come.