YDSA at the Forefront of UC Strike Solidarity
Student workers in the University of California system participated in a strike for over a month. YDSA members were crucial in the largest academic worker strike in US history.
Academic workers on University of California campuses had been waging a fight for a union since the 1980’s. Decades of union busting and even a court ruling that made it illegal for academic workers at the UCs to form a union made an academic worker’s union seem like just a pipe dream.
This all changed when UC academic workers, having to risk their lives without any support or hazard pay, launched a stunning campaign of shop floor organizing during the peak of the pandemic. Threatening to strike, they won the union that student workers had been fighting for decades to win.
Yet, their fight was by no means over. Academic workers continued to face horrid working conditions, with rent burden and meager pay leading to the vast majority of workers putting over a third of their paychecks towards rent alone. Problems with bullying and harassment from administrators, especially against international students and those with disabilities, went completely unaddressed.
Despite being forced to recognize the union the previous year, UC administrators refused to negotiate in good faith. In response, 48,000 academic workers launched the biggest higher education strike in US history.
Organizing strike solidarity
Over the course of the strike, UC Berkeley YDSA led the effort to organize strike solidarity among students on our campus. We were one of the few campus groups to organize undergrads to join the picket line. This gave many students their first experience with a strike and what it means to stand in solidarity with workers on strike.
After consulting with union organizers, YDSA created a letter of solidarity and began circulating it to the student body. With nearly 20,000 signatures, we’ve used this list to spread information about the strike to students, like what not crossing the picket line means, YDSA strike solidarity art builds, and information about union rallies.
Although this was extremely important work that formed the basis of our strike solidarity efforts, YDSA chapters are uniquely situated to support strikes in a way that goes beyond just bringing students out to a picket line. Many of the issues that were brought to light by this historic strike are part of a broader and deliberate policy of austerity that is affecting every single student, from the rising cost of tuition and housing, to the underpaying of academic workers, and the cutting of student services. If we can center this perspective in the work we do, we can build a student movement that will continue beyond strikes and labor actions.
Cal YDSA’s Undergraduate Solidarity rally
We wanted the first week of the strike to end with a strong show of support from the entire student body. We began planning an undergraduate student rally that we hoped would help show that the struggle our academic workers are waging was also a fight for the well-being of all students, academic workers or not.
Nearly three thousand students came to listen to hear from speakers of different campus organizations. Each of our speakers connected student issues and issues from their own communities to the strike itself. Bears for Palestine – the premier Palestinian student organization on campus – and the League of Filipino Students connected the struggle of academic workers and students to international struggles for workers’ rights and self determination. Both speakers also highlighted the important role the international working class has played in anti-colonial struggles in their respective nations.
A graduate student academic worker of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local-2865 also spoke on how the strike is a fight against the system of austerity enforced onto our universities that is at the root of the exploitation of academic workers. The rally was an impressive show of force from Berkeley’s student body, showing UC administrators that students stand with their academic workers.
The rally was also much more than just a demonstration of solidarity, it represented the unique role that YDSA chapters can play in this strike, especially when it comes to mobilizing students. We portrayed the strike as part of a fight against high tuition, budget cuts, the commodification of our education as all part of the larger system of neoliberal austerity politics in our universities that is also responsible for the exploitation of academic workers. This is a way to show all students, particularly undergrads, that the strike is directly tied to their own material conditions as well.
There are also few undergraduate student organizations beyond YDSA chapters that have been actively working to support the strike’s efforts. We’ve been able to build our reputation on campus by showing out to picket lines and sharing strike information as the campus organization that students can join to get involved with supporting the strike or just labor work in general. Through work like the undergraduate solidarity rally, we’ve been able to form important connections with UAW-2865, as well as countless union organizers.
The strike can be a moment of important growth for the student socialist movement if UC YDSA chapters take the lead in actively organizing for strike solidarity in the future. With interest and enthusiasm in the strike already very high among students, and with this being the first labor action that many first-years will have seen, it’s an opportunity to bring in a new generation of members whose first experience with student politics was a militant academic workers strike.