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

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

December 30, 2022

Our Pickets, Our University: Reflections by Organizers of UC Berkeley’s “Gas Pickets”

Photo credit: Ian Castro

The historic strike of 48,000 academic workers across the ten campuses of the University of California and the Lawrence-Berkeley National Laboratory came to a close on December 23, when the two remaining bargaining units of the United Auto Workers – UAW Local 2865 and SRU-UAW – voted to ratify new contracts. That ratification vote ended one chapter in the long struggle of academic workers for union recognition, fair working conditions and a public education system that elevates the public good over private profit. 

Striking workers and their supporters utilized a range of tactics during the six-week work stoppage, from pickets, rallies and marches to building occupations and actions against individual Chancellors and Regents. Among the tactics that, many believe, put the greatest pressure on the University were pickets at loading docks. Strong contingents of strikers at several campuses picketed deliveries. At UC Berkeley these pickets, organized by rank-and-file strikers, became known as “gas pickets” due to their focus on stopping the delivery of gasses and other essential research supplies on which labs commonly depend. The result was to spread the work stoppage by slowing the progress of labs that attempted to function during the strike. 

These loading-dock pickets operated not by blockade, but by the power of solidarity. Picketers informed drivers of the nature of the strike, and requested that they honor the picket line. Many drivers – including both UPS Teamsters and non-union delivery drivers – complied. 

As academic workers reflect on their experiences, they are not only concluding that they came out of this strike stronger than they went in, but are also envisioning the next chapter in their struggle – and its connection with the broader struggles of the multiracial working class. Here, we present the reflections of one group of strikers on the lessons that emerged from the gas pickets. – The Editors

We want to take a moment to reflect on the last several weeks and on the path forward. We are fighting for contracts that make academic work accessible to all regardless of socioeconomic background, access-needs, residential status, or status as parents or caretakers. Though the gains in our newly ratified contracts are not insignificant, we have not yet achieved this goal. Regardless of whether we could have achieved more in our recent negotiations, overhauling a system that was not built to include many of our workers will take long-term and resolute persistence in the face of formidable challenges. 

We believe that the power of our strike was not discrete nor pre-determined but rather a dynamic function of our sustained individual and collective actions. No single one of us had the power to make the University concede to the demands of our union but each of us made our strike more powerful when we came together. We believe that the leverage our bargaining teams had at their disposal was primarily determined not by the size of the picket lines, but by the collective stoppage of our work and the immense amount of organizing that went into supporting members of our union in continuing to do so, through infrastructure set up by both union leadership and by rank-and-file members. Even when the University feigned normality and SRU-UAW and UAW 2865 leadership told us that our power was waning, so many of us responded not by declaring defeat, but by continuing to organize even harder to grow the power of our strike. This alone is an act of courage, an empowered recognition of our value to the University and affirmation that we can fight for what we deserve. 

Our gas and delivery pickets were organized not through a directive, but through the desire to put pressure on the University of California even beyond the stoppage of our own work. These efforts emerged organically from our involvement in similar efforts to shut down construction work and garbage pickup which were fruitful but ultimately limited by legal technicalities and by severe no-strike clauses to which the University binds its workers. As we are researchers who work in many of the buildings we picketed, we know all too well what slows research operations; in non-strike times, we are the ones eagerly awaiting packages and calling gas and cryogen companies to accelerate the deliveries and the speed of our research, the research that the University of California proudly publicizes and profits from. 

While at present we do not have the opportunity to continue to grow our strike to win more of the demands that our workers acutely need, we are very proud of the momentum that we have all built together through stopping our research and teaching and through our disruptive picket lines. Although thorough quantification of our impacts remains an effort in progress, in addition to countless anecdotes of significant threats of and actualized disruption to research and university operations, we have several concrete indications: 

  • Thanks to the solidarity of the Teamsters Joint Councils 7 & 42 issuing a sanction so that members could honor our picket lines, few UPS deliveries occurred over the course of our six week strike. According to a UPS driver we spoke to, local UPS warehouses accumulated 35,000 packages that they have been unable to deliver to our campus. 
  • On 12/21 UC Berkeley described their efforts to surmount our picket lines, and the impact of Teamsters not coming to campus at all, as triaging deliveries. 
  • In terms of general research stoppage, a UC Berkeley HazMat employee recently told us that hazardous waste production was reduced by half during the strike.
  • Tens of thousands of grades were withheld across the UC system, and at UCSD quantified to 23% of fall quarter grades 

Beyond direct impacts on the university, our picket lines were a place where we built solidarity and community. Workers from distant departments across campus stood together for hours, sometimes in the dark, cold, and rain to fight for our shared goals. We discussed bargaining and newly pertinent legal concepts, learned about the ways proposals would affect other workers in our union, creatively crafted chants, and respectfully challenged each other’s ideas. We benefited immensely from the solidarity of workers in other unions who expressed support and in many cases made monetary sacrifices or risked discipline or dismissal to refuse to cross our picket lines. We got a unique view of day-to-day University operations and the essential work that AFSCME 3299 members do on our campus every single day. We appreciate the unwavering support of DSA members, undergraduate students, and other community members who joined us on the line, shared wisdom, picked up slack when our members needed a break, and made sure we never went hungry or without caffeine. Our pickets at the loading dock became a praxis of our solidarity, bringing us together with all who share our struggles. 

So where do we go from here? What do we do with our grassroots energy and new reflexive reactions to seeing trucks on the horizon? It may take some time to get over the latter, so let each truck be a reminder of the solidarity we cultivated and received and of the fights we, as workers, have left to win. Contract ratification does not mean the end of our fight, only that it will look a little different now. Returning to our individual work does not preclude the longevity of our collective action. 

Just as we were supported by so many workers, we too can support workers in other trades in their own struggles to fight the boss, whether physically on local picket lines or from a distance. Workers in our own community are on strike or will be on strike in the near future; nurses at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center are on strike until January 2, 2023. The teachers union, Oakland Education Association, is in the midst of contract negotiations and the United Teachers of Richmond voted to authorize a strike just last week. The Teamsters, our staunchest supporters, have a national contract with UPS that expires on August 1. These are opportunities to pay back the solidarity that our community has shown us, and to prove to them that our union fights for all workers, and not just for our own self interests. Furthermore, each and every one of us has lived experience that is extremely valuable for other academic workers going on strike. We are in the process of compiling the resources that we have developed over the last six weeks and documenting them so other academic workers can hit the ground running with disruptive pickets from the very first day of their strike. In addition to these more procedural documents, we would like to collect advice for future academic workers on strike from anyone willing to contribute. 

Lastly, though very importantly, we hope that all of you who spent the last six weeks fighting for a contract that would be transformative for all of our workers, and are in a position to do so, keep fighting both within and alongside the existing local UAW organization. We recognize that our union has failed to negotiate contracts that allow all of us to persist as graduate workers at all and to continue this fight. For those of us with more privilege, it may be tempting to give up and return to our siloed ivory tower labs and offices where we can better control our individual progress. But this is OUR union and OUR university and we must instead look forward to forging a more democratic union that fights for all of our workers, including those most precarious and those that cannot yet afford to work within this system at all. To achieve this, we need the active members of our union to be people as dedicated as all of you, who are willing to make sacrifices for each other, who read and listen to all — with critical eyes and ears and through the lens of strong principles. 

Through our grassroots efforts and those of other rank-and-file members, we have seen firsthand the power that each of us has to make things happen without waiting for directions or approval from a higher authority. The bold vision for our fight– to bring all of our workers out of the rent burden and make academia more equitable and just– was shaped by rank-and-file members. It was the principled fortitude of the rank and file that pushed our bargaining team to not settle for UC’s 12/2 offer and continue bargaining for a contract that brings us closer to what we deserve. The strength of any union, and especially our union, lies in the breadth and depth of engagement of its members. This strike and contract ratification vote represents an unprecedented volume of participation by the members of our union. Let us not take for granted that seven thousand of our colleagues believed in our collective power to keep fighting for a contract that serves all of us. 

It is difficult to find words to describe all that was our gas picket, but in this moment of history, we get to share these spots of time. We feel so grateful to have stood alongside you all over the last several weeks and want you to know that we continue to stand with you, even if not physically. We hope everyone takes time to rest and care for themselves and each other. 

Wishing you a restful holiday and an empowered new year. 

In solidarity, 

UC Berkeley ‘gas picket’ organizers