Opening Statement, Statewide Membership Meeting, 5/21/11

Remarks delivered by Cheryl Deutsch (President, UAW Local 2865)
Statewide Membership Meeting, 5/21/11

Welcome to everyone, this is a really exciting moment for our union and its fantastic to see so many members here today! It is truly inspiring to be part of the first statewide membership meeting in our local’s history to reach quorum!

The elections that just took place were a historic milestone for our local. Thousands of members across the state had a chance to vote for a range of candidates for all of the top leadership positions on the executive board and the joint council, and for campus leadership positions. For the first time in our local’s history members had a real choice of candidates, who offered different perspectives on the best way forward for our union. Ultimately, the majority of members chose to support the slate of candidates put forward by Academic Workers for a Democratic Union, and to endorse our program of reforms to make our union more democratic and more militant, as well as the ideas we’ve put forward to further the fight for public education.

But AWDU’s vision for the local’s governing bodies is one where, regardless of whether one caucus has a majority of seats, all views and opinions will be heard, whether they are popular or not. This has certainly not been the practice in the past, but we intend to make it the practice from this point forwards. It has been AWDU’s position that dissent and disagreement are healthy and essential to proper democratic organizing, and the notion of ‘unity at any cost’ is a recipe for autocratic governance and the disenfranchisement of marginalized voices. We have a vision of a union that is truly democratic, inclusive and run by and for its members.

At this point I’d like to introduce the members of the new E-board.

We have some big challenges ahead of us. The UC is planning to raise fees yet again next year, by 8% if the state budget does not pass, by 20% or more if it does. Department budgets are under increasing strain, and services are being cut to the bone. At a number of campuses there are plans to decentralize the administration of faculty and TA benefits to individual departments in a way that is likely to lead to fewer TA-ships and an increase in workload for those who are working. And the wave of attacks on UC workers as a whole continues with more layoffs, and an all-out attack on employee pensions. Though are members are not directly affected by this, we are committed to standing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters whose retirements and livelihoods are under threat, and to fighting for decent pay and benefits for all.

We are also committed to building solidarity more broadly with other sections of the labor movement. As we have seen, public workers in a number of states have had their right to bargain and organize challenged by the right and by big business. Republicans and Democrats alike have failed to stand up to this, and now more than ever we need to stand united as an independent labor movement to resist these dangerous attacks and to re-affirm our right to unionize and bargain over our pay and working conditions. The recent ‘State of Emergency’ protests in Sacramento are the beginnings of a fightback, but much more needs to happen and we want our union to be firmly at the center of that struggle.

But being an effective part of the struggle for public education and against attacks on workers’ rights, requires some radical changes in the way our union functions. Last Sunday the newly sworn-in E-board began the process of decentralizing power and decision-making from the top to the base of our union. We envision an E-board that does not try to make decisions for 12,000 members, but rather facilitates decision-making by members on their respective campuses, and coordinates and assists, rather than dictating from above. One small example of this relates to the restrictions that were placed on our ability to communicate with one another. In the past all emails to the members had to be vetted by the president, and campus leaders lacked access to the email addresses and contact information for the members on their respective campuses. This has now changed, and elected campus leaders will now have direct access to this information, as well as the right to have keys to their offices.

At this first E-board meeting we also devoted time to brainstorming ideas for how to make our union stronger, more militant and more democratic. Some of these ideas included plans to greatly expand the network of department stewards who are the eyes and ears of the union and the first point of contact for most members. We hope to see a union that has elected councils of stewards making strategic decisions about how the local should be prioritizing its resources. We also hope to see the dormant standing committees of the local, such as the Civil Rights Committee, the Women’s Committee and the LGBT Committee revived and given a central role in determining our political strategy.

More broadly we hope to see a local that empowers its members to run their union themselves. We want to help facilitate much greater member participation at all levels of decision-making and in all aspects of the union’s work. The historic turnout at the election, and the fact that this meeting is the first such meeting in the local’s history to reach quorum are clear signs that members are demanding a greater voice in the running of their union. We hope to hold two, rather than one, statewide membership meetings each year and to rotate them between the different campuses to facilitate greater attendance.

This meeting is an opportunity for members from across the state to meet one another and share ideas and experiences. It is a chance for us to come together and debate and decide on a political strategy for the coming months, and to decide on how our local’s affairs will be managed. AWDU campaigned on a platform that called for a radical re-imagining of this local, so that it is truly a grassroots, rank-and-file led organization, committed to social justice unionism. This statewide meeting, with its fantastic turnout of members from across the state, is the first step in making that vision a reality.