News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

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East Bay DSA

November 21, 2022

Berkeley undergrads bring new meaning to strike solidarity

By Anthony Migliacci and Luca Dhagat

To many of the University of California’s nearly 300,000 students, strikes are distant news, simply actions reserved to the industrial workplaces of the Midwest. All that started to change last Monday, when nearly 50,000 academic workers across ten UC campuses began striking in response to the University’s numerous unfair labor practices. The strike was authorized with 98% approval by members of three United Auto Workers locals, which represent postdoctoral scholars, graduate student researchers, academic researchers, readers, tutors, graduate student instructors, trainees, and fellows. 

For most of the University’s large and diverse student body, this strike — the largest U.S. strike since 2019 and the largest education strike in U.S. history — is likely to be their first experience of a powerful labor action. It is also the first to personally impact many of these students, with its disruption of their day-to-day schedule of classes and other academic services. While it is undoubtedly exciting that academic workers are collectively waging a war against their abysmally low wages, lack of benefits, and toxic work environments, why is this strike so meaningful to undergraduates?

When Cal YDSA, the Young Democratic Socialists chapter at UC Berkeley of which we both are organizers, called a rally of undergraduates at the Campanile on Friday afternoon, numerous student organizations joined in and turned out their members. 

Elise Joshi, the Executive Director of youth organization Gen-Z for Change, told the crowd, “Our voices are loud, but so is the silence from leaders who claim to support us,” adding, “Gavin Newsom and state leaders, your silence speaks volumes.” 

Graduate student researcher Kenny Vetter tied the demands of the strike to the interests of the student body, pointing out that “Austerity is a symptom of a broken system that relies on the financialization of education. The only way we are going to change that broken system is with this right here, the power of the people.” 

Cal YDSA organizer Grace McGee, connecting the strike to the experience of undergraduates: “Our generation has not seen an economic system that works for us. We grew up wondering why our teachers were being pink-slipped, why mom and dad couldn’t find work, but we have the opportunity in this moment to build a world that works for ordinary people.”

Striking workers join the undergraduate rally at the Campanile Friday

The truth is that this strike may be a truly radicalizing experience for countless students and young workers. Striking UAW members, and those of us standing with them in solidarity, are showing UC students and others that a better future is worth fighting for and that we can all engage in struggles in our workplaces and on our campuses. They are bravely making evident the immense power of collective action to fight for the demands that unite us as working people, and to highlight the powerful interests that oppose those demands. And, given that the University churns out new laborers who will be joining the workforce in the future, their struggle can be a training ground as well as a major inspiration for a growing and increasingly militant labor movement. Simply put, this strike may very well build class consciousness for hundreds of thousands of young people.

The spirit of solidarity has consumed the UC Berkeley campus. Students are being informed by their professors that their classes have been canceled in order to honor the picket line, while some lecturers, represented by UC-AFT, are teaching their courses on the picket line. At a Monday rally, it was announced that UPS drivers represented by the Teamsters could refuse to deliver packages to the University. Students spending just a minute near the picket lines are likely to hear the many supportive honks coming from truck drivers, bus drivers, and members of the community. Construction workers halted their work in a refusal to undermine UAW’s efforts. Of course, Bernie raised his voice in support of the UAW workers. But even the Stanford marching band spelled out UAW with their bodies at the Big Game at Cal on Saturday.  

Faculty support has been growing, both on and off the picket line

This powerful solidarity is forcing students to think about unwavering working class solidarity and to understand that meaningful change can be won when working people stand together. This experience will inform their political perspectives and will inspire them to be militant labor organizers in their own workspaces after graduation.

Cal YDSA has been at the lead in building undergraduate solidarity and support for the strike. Many of our members are academic workers and part of UAW-2865, and YDSA members in and out of UAW have been visible and present at the picket lines. 

Some of the most active and militant union leaders are also proud socialists and YDSA members. For example, Tanzil Chowdhury, a graduate student and researcher at UC Berkeley, member of the union’s Bargaining Team, and one of the most recognizable faces on the picket line, carries a DSA card. During the strike’s first day rally on Monday, Tanzil gave a rousing closing speech about how the strike is our chance to give the reins of history back to the working class. In the midst of one of the largest rallies that Sproul Plaza has seen since the Free Speech Movement in 1964, he quoted Mario Savio’s famous “Machine” speech: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part!”

Needless to say, this historic strike represents a unique moment to build the socialist movement’s organizing power. By organizing students to engage in strike solidarity, Berkeley YDSA has become the campus group students go to if they want to get involved with supporting the strike. In the weeks leading up to the strike, we published an Undergraduate Letter of Support students could sign on to. With nearly 20,000 signatures and growing daily, we’ve used this petition to reach students to ask them to come out to the picket lines. We’ve also been able to use it to promote YDSA’s own solidarity actions, like our art build, where we created posters and banners for the strike, and the Undergraduate Solidarity rally we organized in order to bolster the number of undergraduates showing up to the picket lines. We’ve also been active in publicizing strike information through social media and through flyers we’ve distributed on campus, like what it means to not cross a picket line. We’ve also created an email template that students can use to reach out to professors to ask them to stop holding classes, so that their students aren’t forced to cross a picket line.

Although these efforts are extremely important to building energy for strike solidarity among undergraduate students, our work is only getting started. The vast majority of undergrads on UC campuses, even among those who are supportive, are not involved with strike solidarity and don’t yet see the connection between the struggle of their academic workers and the fight to protect their own educational futures. Berkeley YDSA has been working to solve this problem by portraying the strike as part of a broader struggle against neoliberalism and austerity in our universities. By connecting the exploitation of academic workers to issues like the budget cuts and closures of three libraries on campus, especially at a time when tuition hikes continue and the UC spends millions on pampering chancellors and administrators, we’re showing students that the strike is a part of a broader fight against a system that only cares about profiting off them.

This strike is our chance to show the bosses many things. It’s our chance to show them that the threat of a resurgent labor movement and a militant working class is on their doorstep, that students know that a victory for working people is a victory for them as well. It’s our chance to show that our communities stand in solidarity with workers when they go on strike. 

It’s also our chance to show the bosses that every single day more people are realizing the need for systemic change to fix the problems in our workplaces, and that wherever they go, they’ll find active and militant socialist organizers leading the way with every fight for working class power.

Anthony Migliacci is the co-chair, and Luca Dhagat is a member of the organizing committee of Cal YDSA.