University of California Victory: 10,000 Academic Student Employees Win Union Election

Carolina Bank

AFTER A SIXTEEN-year battle, the University of California was pressured by various methods this spring to recognize the eight academic student employee (ASE) unions. This is a momentous victory not only for ASEs but also for the labor movement: At the onset of the campaign, many people said we would never be able to organize such a transient labor force (a unit of 10,200 employees).

In the fall of 1998 we organized the first system-wide strike in the history of the campaign. As a result of the power of our membership, legislative pressure on UC, and support from many faculty members and undergraduates, the strike resulted in a forty-five day cooling off period in which the union and UC would talk about recognition.

When UC did not recognize the campus unions at the end of the talks, academic student employees threatened to resume the strike. In the meantime, the state Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) decided a pending legal case at UCLA, finding that academic student employees at UCLA had the right to bargain collectively.

With the threat of another strike overhead and the growing public discontent with UCs unreasonable position, the administration announced that it would not challenge the PERB ruling and would abide by the election results.

This case set the precedent for union representation elections on all campuses in the spring of 1999. Teaching assistants (TAs), readers and tutors on all campuses came out in record numbers to vote for their union. As of now all UC academic student employee unions have won their elections, and certification is pending.

As a system, 3,109 voted in favor of UAW representation, 1,423 voted against it. Overall there was a fifty-five percent turnout.

A Year In Retrospect

Although the year has ended in a tremendous victory, it was not accomplished without a battle; some campuses experienced rather fierce management anti-union campaigns.

At UC San Diego, the dean of the graduate division went into the science departments and organized against the union. At UCLA, Riverside, and Santa Barbara the chancellors sent letters to the academic community “informing” them of the vote and the potential harmful effects it would have.

In particular they used a “fair share” bill currently in the assembly to instill fear in the university community that all graduate students would have to pay dues or a “fair share” fee to the union. This was, of course, misleading because if the bill passes only employees in the bargaining unit would have to pay dues or fees.

Despite the negative publicity regarding unionization, academic student employees created a strong mandate in favor of collective bargaining.


In the past twenty years universities across the country have experienced an ever-increasing number of union organizing drives.

There are roughly sixteen recognized academic student employee (ASE) unions.1 These include University of Wisconsin at Madison (recognized in 1969), University of Michigan (1974), University of Oregon (1977), University of Florida (1982), University of Massachusetts, Amherst (1990), University of Kansas (1995), and the University of California, Berkeley (1995, acting instructors, readers and tutors only).2

In addition there are over thirty other campuses that are engaged in union drives. These include Yale, Cornell, New York University, and University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

The campaign at UC began in 1983 with Berkeley employees seeking unionization. Other UC schools soon followed, most recently being UC Irvine in 1998. After years of card drives, litigation, sit-ins, strikes (1989, 1996, 1998) and a legislative campaign (1997), campus unions won the right to have union representation elections.

The rise of unionizing activity can be explained by the changing nature of the university. One influential factor in that process is the universities’ corporatization.

What exactly is corporatization? As I understand it, corporatization is the process by which the university is changing from a paternalistic institution protected from the market to a modern corporate structure closely tied to the market, and adjusting itself to demands from the market.

Shifts and changes in the global economy as well as budget cuts have caused the modern university to rely less on funding from the state and more from other sources. Consequently we have seen a rise in private donations to universities. In many cases corporations have turned to public research institutions to invest in technology-based research that will make them more competitive in the global economy.

Because academic staff have the scarce resources (knowledge) to create and produce advanced technology, “academic labor becomes a commodity” to be bought and sold in the market. (Slaughter, Sheila and Larry L. Nelson. 1997. Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and the Entreprenurial University. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press; 114.) We are living in a world where bottom-line mentality is prominent; the university has not escaped this powerful force.

In turn, these changes in academia have affected the nature of teaching. At research universities, less emphasis is being placed on teaching, while more emphasis is placed on acquiring external funds for research (see Slaughter et al). This trend has led to the increased use of part-time labor (lecturers, adjuncts and teaching assistants) and a decrease in the number of full-time, tenured professors teaching classes.

This in turn has led to a decreased quality of life for academics, as they are forced to teach an increasing number of classes for a decreasing salary. Furthermore, as a result of the increased focus on the bottom line, there has been a decrease in the quality of education, particularly as it pertains to class size and student-to-faculty ratios.

There are countless stories of TAs in the sciences being told that they should focus less on teaching and preparing for a section and should spend more time in the lab doing research. In places like UCLA, Berkeley and San Diego, much of this research is corporate sponsored.

In essence, UC is sending the message that research (especially corporate-sponsored research) is more important than teaching, even though UC’s mission requires equal weight paid to teaching and research.

This message has a deleterious effect on education at UC, as many TAs feel that they cannot dedicate as much to undergraduate education as they would like. Undergraduates, on the other hand, receive the message that they are too unimportant for professors to spend time on them, and thus have less of a vested interest in knowledge and learning.

Corporate mentality has crept into all areas of university life, as exemplified by undergraduates who view themselves as customers buying a product (degree) that will help them achieve success. At the University of California at Riverside, students attend many of their classes in a movie theater, a location that is not conducive to teaching because of the immobility of the seats and the distance between the speaker and the students.

Until recently Irvine was in a similar situation, with classes also being taught in a cinema. It is sometimes said that these are transitional phases, but UC Riverside has leased space in the movie theater for the next thirty years, which is hardly transitional.

At UCLA and Berkeley, students must endure ever-increasing class sizes and professors who have less and less time to help them. These are just a few examples of life in a modern research university.

As academic student employees have come to realize the tenuousness of their positions in academia and the need for unions, unions have also become increasingly interested in organizing this group of workers. At this time, when both labor and the academic sector have realized that a strong union movement is necessary, there has been a flurry of organizing drives at universities across the United States.

Future Prospects

The battle at UC has only begun; bargaining a contract is the next step in the process. Although President Atkinson has publicly stated he will abide by the decision academic student employees have made to unionize, and hopes to have a productive relationship with the UAW, this is yet to be seen.

Bargaining issues include wages, hours, benefits, working conditions and employee rights. Preliminary work will be done over the summer (making demands public, setting ground rules, etc.), with more intensive bargaining beginning in September.

All campuses have elected bargaining teams, and are anxious to begin the process. Because elections were held at eight campuses, there are eight bargaining units and teams. Each unit will have its own contract, with the possibility of some coordination system-wide.

In addition to bargaining, this fall campus units will have to engage in serious discussions about local structure, local autonomy and union democracy.3 Locals will have to elect an executive board, as well as make important strategic and financial decisions.

Besides the above-mentioned activities, organizing will continue. It is my contention that organizing should be at the heart of all campaigns. It is what has made us successful, and what will continue to make us successful.

Every quarter, each of the campus unions talk to a majority of the academic student employees in their bargaining unit. Organizing has been the best way of reaching out to our membership and discussing their concerns. It has also served to make the union visible to the university community. It is imperative to the movement that we maintain and expand the level of organizing that we have had in the past.

In sum, it has been quite a year for academic student employees at the University of California. From a strike in the fall to recognition in the spring, academic student employees have had to fight several battles, endure ongoing frustrations, and finally, after sixteen years, taste victory. We look forward to the challenges of bargaining as well as the challenges of building a vibrant, democratic union.


  1. Most academic student employee unions include teaching assistants, readers, and tutors. There are also some that represent research assistants. UC unions will only represent teaching assistants, readers and tutors.
  2. Berkeley won their representation election for TAs in April 1999.
  3. As stated in the UAW constitution, forty-eight percent of union dues will go to the international, with the rest remaining at the local level. There are several existing options available in terms of local structure. At the University of Massachusetts, Amherst the ASE union merged with an already existing local. Other units choose to have several locals. Finally, some units choose to become one local. There are benefits and consequences for each of these structures, including concerns that regard the financial viability of the local, accountability to members, union democracy and access.
    1. ATC 82, September-October 1999