Rebuilding the Socialist Labor Strategy: Lessons from the UC Strike

Members of the DSA Santa Cruz Labor Working Group reflect on the recent strike at the University of California.

In light of an increasingly active and militant labor movement, the question of DSA’s strategy and role in the movement presents itself with greater urgency. DSA Santa Cruz’s Labor Working Group offers this analysis as an attempt to pose crucial strategic questions and offer guiding principles we believe can provide a path forward. As a chapter with many members who were active in both the 2019-20 University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) wildcat strike and the recent 2022 contract fight at the University of California (UC), we had a front row seat to the ways DSA’s imprecise labor strategy has been an obstacle to growing militant rank-and-file union movements capable of challenging the bosses. It is crucial that socialists clarify how we relate to rank-and-file militancy and how we understand effective strike strategy, in general, and in our own unions. The recent contract fight and extended strike at the UC is a critical juncture to deepen DSA’s position on these questions.

Presently, DSA doesn’t have a labor strategy. The 2021 DSA convention passed a labor resolution that side-stepped advancing strategic choices. Authored by representatives from different caucuses and tendencies, the 2021 patchwork resolution had a little something for everyone. It recommitted DSA to prioritizing labor but went on to affirm virtually every possible orientation towards the labor movement as a “top priority.” The resolution passed with overwhelming support by delegates who agreed on little else but found their preferred tactics represented in this pastiche resolution. Among the “priorities” of the resolution were passing the PRO Act, supporting shop floor organizing at Amazon, advancing new organizing drives, strengthening EWOC, supporting “rank-and-file” strategy, creating industry and sector networks, building power in the south, supporting chapters in mapping their own labor networks, prioritizing working with Black and brown workers, strike solidarity, and promoting an internal organizing campaign to get DSAers to join unions. These are laudable projects, and we should aim for a strategy that encompasses many tactics. But what is notable about the DSA’s current labor orientation is its inability to prioritize a specific militant, socialist strategy for workers.

This is a problem in DSA as a whole, but the stakes of this strategic incoherence are higher for labor because of its centrality to building proletarian organization. In high-stakes fights, such as the 2022 UC strike, all sides of any issue can claim to represent the DSA position. DSA members made up an important part of both leadership and the more militant rank-and-file of the 2022 UC-UAW fight. DSAers were prominent on the union’s executive board, including the UAW 2865 president, on the bargaining team, on the staff, and among the ordinary strikers on the picket. DSAers advocated for both YES and NO positions on the tentative agreement and simultaneously argued for the “long-haul” grade strike strategy as well as flashy direct actions. DSAers, at times, pushed for open bargaining and, at others, for closed “mediation” with the boss. Some DSAers argued that the strike had passed “peak power,” while some argued against the concept of “peak power” itself (instead arguing for a power-analysis centered on the boss’s weaknesses). In other words, on virtually every controversy that came up during the campaign, DSAers found themselves on all sides of the fight–to the point that the disputes within UC-UAW were simultaneously disputes within DSA, and conversely that the UAW contract fight dramatized the core strategic questions that have remained in suspension within DSA since least the last convention.

A Little Background 

Core organizers at UC Santa Cruz sought to foster a strategy based on patience, resilience, and principled commitment to our demands. This strategy became known as the “long-haul strike.” Workers come to learn the power that we possess: building up greater trust and solidarity such that we continue collectively withholding our labor until our demands are met. Academia is not an industry in which striking for a few days or even two weeks necessarily causes intense disruption to the boss. It is only through the gradual accumulation of incomplete work and grading deadlines that the power of withholding labor makes itself felt in this sector. Because of high levels of specialization within academic fields, graduate worker labor is difficult to replace. In our analysis, if workers in this sector are able to commit to an extended strike, the university will make concessions to our demands to continue operating normally. This is not to suggest that the strategy of this strike or the lessons learned through its course are exclusive to the kinds of intellectual labor that Teaching Assistants (TAs) and Student Researchers perform. Rather, against perspectives that propose that a mere demonstration of power through a strike authorization vote or short symbolic actions are sufficient, we propose that workers in various industries should consider the action of striking itself, often in the long-haul, as a potent force with the capacity to change the balance of power between themselves and the boss.

In contrast to the “long-haul” perspective, the union’s statewide leadership appeared to enter the strike with the expectation that it would be resolved quickly. They assumed that a decisive strike authorization vote and the threat of a labor stoppage would foment fear and panic within the UC administration, resulting in quick concessions. This positioned the exercise of power through the strike itself as secondary to the demonstration of power through the vote and the picket as a media spectacle. This was never a strategy conceived to win our demands in full. The feeble goal was to meet the UC somewhere in the middle. Indeed, the more conservative majority faction of the bargaining team always appeared to accede to the UC administration’s framing of the COLA demand as an unreasonably high raise, rather than a necessary social demand based on living conditions in the cities where we work. The way we see it, the COLA demand is not a simple raise, but a fundamental restructuring of what wages are and how they operate. This is especially salient in light of the fact that the UC was not only the boss in the UC strike but also the landlord of many of the strikers. As tenant organizer Tracy Rosenthal points out, “The U.C. system generates revenue not only by depressing wages in its role as the state’s third-largest employer but by extracting rents as a landlord to some 106,000 students.” By indexing wages to the cost of living, the COLA demand is part of the larger socialist strategy to guarantee that workers can afford to live where they work, no matter how much the cost of living rises.

Some among those claiming Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts as an organizing bible were deeply committed to the concept of the supermajority action’s ability to scare the boss into concessions and on this basis approved the obvious shortcut of secret closed-door bargaining sessions before the strike had even begun. We note that while McAlevey herself is pointedly critical of closed bargaining, the emphasis on the spectacle of worker action and the myopic focus on supermajority as the only form power can take ultimately led UAW leaders to adopt precisely this closed door strategy.  We think that this points to a tension, or perhaps a contradiction, in McAlevey’s conceptual framework. That statewide leadership believed that a better deal could be achieved through negotiation without worker input was one among many indications of the paternalism and lack of confidence with which this leadership treated the rank-and-file. When no serious UC concessions occurred after the strike authorization vote or in the first couple of weeks of the strike, statewide leadership began to panic — the fear that they had hoped to stimulate in the administration shifted to the union leaders themselves as the UC held its nerve. This is the point at which, on the basis of showing our “seriousness” at the negotiating table, the bargaining team made unilateral concessions. First, the bargaining team dropped the COLA demand for future years, and second, decreased the starting wage demand from $54k to $43k. These decisions sought class compromise rather than engaged in class struggle. Rank-and-file members responded by packing Zoom caucuses within minutes of their opening to voice their opposition to these concessions.

While far less pernicious than statewide leadership’s concessions, Santa Cruz core organizers also voiced skepticism regarding calls for spectacular direct actions, such as blockades and dining hall occupations. These are all legitimate tactics available to strikers, but many calls to “escalate” appeared to come from a panicked rush for quicker results, rather than being integrated into a broader strategy. While calls for greater militancy initially came from quarters denouncing the union in its entirety, without differentiation between rank-and-file organizing and top-down approaches, ironically, statewide leadership began adopting similar calls for direct actions aimed at generating media spectacle later in the strike. This is to say that the liberal-bureaucratic and ultra-militant tendencies in the union collapsed into one another based on a shared register of impatience and lack of utilization of strike power itself. A further irony here is that the union’s statewide leadership had long accused UCSC wildcat strike organizers of being “ultra-leftists.” This term has become little more than an invective in DSA discourse, but its connotation of impatience and an absence of strategy clearly applies better to the statewide leadership itself and not to those willing to wildcat.

A further twist came during the contract ratification vote, in which the dominant bureaucratic tendency in the bargaining team sought to co-opt the language of the long-haul strategy to, counterintuitively, argue for the strike’s conclusion. On December 23, the final day of the vote, UAW2865 president Rafael Jaime sent a mass email to union membership with the title “Vote YES and organize for the long-haul.” This usage of “long-haul” rhetoric to kick the can down the road exemplifies the proclivity of statewide leadership to twist militant language into its opposite. This same proclivity was on display with catch phrases such as deep organizing, class struggle unionism, and mass action. At the same time, that statewide leadership felt the need to frame their political perspective in our terms — even though the two approaches are ultimately incompatible — demonstrates the influence of our intervention to promote the long-haul strategy among rank-and-file workers in the union.

Our Strike Strategies During the UC Strike 

Our long-haul approach to organizing aimed at building worker power, which we see as the top priority of socialists. And while the long-haul strike is an essential part of our contract struggle, it was just one element of a greater strategy to organize power among workers as a class, which we’ve been building at UC Santa Cruz for years. There are a few key tactics we’ve used to build power among graduate workers at UC Santa Cruz. It’s important we highlight the ways in which these tactics differ from those that were being championed by our union’s statewide leadership, and moreover, how our differing positions on tactics indicated a larger schism in the overall strategy of what it would take to win our demands and what would most successfully build worker power.

The first tactic employed by DSA members at UC Santa Cruz was to form an active and vibrant stewards network, in which departmental stewards kept communication channels strong between academic departments. The stewards network is a way to disseminate information from internal organizing circles outward. But stewards also act as the eyes and ears of their department. They are able to talk to workers in their department, learn about the challenges they are undergoing at work, and report back to the organizing committee. During the strike, the stewards network became a mode for assessing how great our power was as a body of workers withholding our labor. While statewide leadership spent the weeks leading up the strike (and the first couple weeks of the strike) obsessed with maintaining a large turnout on the picket line, we were more interested in meeting consistently with our stewards network. A couple of times a week, we would meet on the picket line for a stewards meeting, in which every steward would share if there were any challenges in their department, and what percentage of workers they estimated were on strike. This had dual effects: it enabled us to accurately determine how many workers were withholding labor on our campus and indicated which departments we needed to work harder on. Furthermore, it busted the myth that the picket line was the “structure test” of the strike. Halfway through the strike, we determined that, despite having an at times thin picket line, 18 out of 30 departments had more than 90% of workers on strike. The culmination of this engagement in the strike, empowered by the stewards network, was when 80% of academic student employees and 81% of student researchers at UC Santa Cruz voted to reject the ratification of the contract we currently have. Our analysis is that this rejection, at least at UC Santa Cruz, was solidly grounded in an organized workforce that saw a path forward to continue striking.

The second tactic we used to build and assess our power as workers was viewing participation in the strike as defined by withholding labor, as opposed to taking action on the picket line. Our assessment that the picket line numbers did not correspond to the strength of the strike also aligned with our strategic decision to avoid certain “militant” actions that would result in potential altercations with police. At a certain point during the strike, statewide union leadership began advocating for strikers to occupy buildings and block intersections (a sharp turn from their initial position that this could get the union in legal trouble). We saw this turn as an indication of suspicious intentions to create a spectacle that might distract workers, the media, and the public from the behavior of elected bargaining team members who were capitulating to the university. Moreover, we viewed this as a potential drag on our resources (should we need to shift energies toward jail support), and a misreading of the real power of the strike: the withdrawal of our labor.

As DSA members, we must continue to demonstrate that we, the workers, are the union –– not the staff who are hired to work for the union. Hired staffers tried to make decisions on behalf of workers, making every effort to pre-determine the actions of striking workers. But despite this, workers on our campus consistently looked outward to their coworkers, not upward at bargaining team members and staffers.

Class Struggle Unionism: The Strike as Weapon

During the strike, DSA Santa Cruz Labor Working Group was a site in which extensive strategic discussion took place among strikers and other workers in the community, much of it centered on furthering a strategy termed by veteran labor organizer Joe Burns as “class struggle unionism,” as opposed to a milquetoast and spectacle-oriented approach that he refers to as “labor liberalism.” Terms such as “class struggle unionism” and “rank-and-file strategy” are phrases we see evoked in many labor organizing debates on the left. It has become common to point to strikes and direct action as tactics that are unequivocally tied to building a strong, militant, rank-and-file and that support class struggle unionism. But tactics should not be conflated with strategy, and even militant tactics can work in opposition to class struggle unionism and undermine the rank-and-file when the strategy is not centered on disrupting the production of capital. It is with this in mind that we pose that within DSA there are two different strategies associated with the same tactics: class struggle unionism and labor liberalism.

Class struggle unionism aims to lean into the antagonisms between workers and bosses, and sees bosses always as the enemy of the working class. In this way, class struggle unionism uses a variety of tactics to disrupt the production and flow of capital and to severely limit the boss’s profits. Class struggle unionism believes that power lies in the hands of the rank-and-file and that through their collective action gains can be demanded and won and with this in mind, focuses on shop floor organizing and rank-and-file agency. Class struggle unionism uses militant tactics as a weapon against the boss.

Labor liberalism, on the other hand, seeks to negotiate peace between workers and bosses, and sees bosses as collaborators in a common struggle. In this way, labor liberalism uses a variety of tactics as an appeal to the press to garner outside support and a speedy resolution. Labor liberalism believes that power lies in the hands of elected officials and lobbyists and that worker action should always be oriented towards appealing upward to the people with the real power. Labor liberalism focuses on turning out workers to support contract campaigns and relies on professional staff for critical decisions. Labor liberalism uses militant tactics as a spectacle.

All sides of every debate in UAW 2865 throughout the strike framed their positions in the language and aesthetics of class struggle unionism. But were the tactics pursued by the union’s statewide leadership consistent with a strategic outlook based in class struggle and the agency of workers themselves, or do they correspond more closely to the strategy of labor liberalism, which seeks to garner the support of the press and politicians? Against the dilution and aestheticized appropriation of the term “class struggle,” we would assert that a more rigorous set of criteria is required to determine if a given tactic is being used in service of class struggle unionism, as outlined in the following concluding and guiding principles.

7 Strike Principles

  1. The strike is a weapon, not a spectacle: power comes from hurting the boss, not publicizing the strike.
  2. Strike to win: socialists should make demands with the aim of actually winning the demand, as in the COLA demand, rather than as a signal in a back-and-forth game with the boss.
  3. Strike for the long-haul: our power comes from our ability to withhold labor as long as it takes to win our demands.
  4. Tactics must serve strategy: the stewards network and emphasizing withholding of labor rather than picket line numbers were successful tactics for strengthening the capacity of the rank-and-file to act and organize.
  5. Our tactics must strengthen the capacity of rank-and-file to act and organize.
  6. Our tactics must aim to disrupt or limit the flow of capital.
  7. “Supermajority strikes” should not be elevated to the only form that worker power can take. The choice between supermajority and minority action is not a moral one, but a strategic one, and must be settled by strategic debate between rank-and-file workers themselves as they fight the boss.

With the labor movement poised for a militant resurgence, many of the categories and terms that have structured socialist approaches to labor strategy –– and which were operative in our recent strike –– have been rendered significantly more blurry than they were in previous decades when the distinction between a bad “business unionism” in power and a good “rank-and-file” or “organizing tendency” struggling to take control had bright lines between them.  The partial successes of the latter have meant that the bad, old form of unionism has grown a lot more sophisticated and has metabolized much of the critiques we used to distinguish ourselves from it. Our experience of the UC strike in Santa Cruz was one in which the contest over the meaning of these terms (rank-and-file, structure test, deep organizing, power-analysis, peak-power, long-haul, etc.) was appropriated for use against the workers.

We are in a moment when self-professed allies of UAW’s Administration caucus can articulate their positions in terms borrowed from the pages of Labor Notes and argue that closed door mediation is an essential component of, rather than an alternative to, open bargaining. A time when DSAers who nominally support the Rank-and-File Strategy argue that supermajority action by rank-and-file workers requires union staffers shutting down minority action initiated by that very rank-and-file. To us, this all indicates the need for socialists to engage in sustained conceptual labor and strategic debate, something DSA has historically struggled with. While the UC strike did generate copious discussion, little of it actually added clarity to these core strategic questions raised by the strike. More often, different factions would simply deploy their preferred terminology taken from the pages of No Shortcuts as a cudgel against opponents. We call on socialists and communist militants in the labor movement to develop a more critical engagement with the whole coterie of concepts we use, first and foremost, those handed down from McAlevey and which tend to serve less to clarify strategy than as a sort of catechism for leftists in the labor movement. The UC strike is over. Real material gains were made, alongside the imposition of a two-tier pay system and a contract that fell far short of the hopes of most graduate workers. If we want the next fight –– whether at the University of Michigan, at UPS, at the Big Three automakers, or anywhere else –– to have a less ambiguous result, socialists need to go into it with a much clearer sense of strategy.