Labor Syndicalism

A Grassroots Union During the Working Class Insurgency of the Early ’70s

By Tom Wetzel

The creation of new grassroots unions was often a feature of the periods of working class insurgency in the USA, when there were high levels of strikes. Hundreds of thousands of workers joined unions with a more grassroots character during the period 1909 to 1922, and again in 1933 to 1937.

There was a less well-known working class insurgency in the USA also in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. There were typically about 300 strikes a year in the ‘70s – far more than today. Many of these strikes were wildcat strikes. For example, in 1970 there were three national wildcat strikes…on the railways, the postal system, and over the road trucking. The postal strike was…and still is…the only national postal strike in the history of the post office. Workers won a historic 14 percent wage hike against Richard Nixon who tried to use the army to move the mail.

Many of the wildcat strikes of that period were strikes against the union bureaucracy as much as against the employers.

Although there were not the huge numbers of new grassroots unions formed in the ‘60s-‘70s as in the earlier period, there were a few projects of this kind, like the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement in Detroit.  Another example was the Service, Office and Retail Workers of Canada – an independent grassroots union formed by Canadian socialist-feminists.

The ‘60s and early ‘70s was especially a period of insurgency for public sector workers in the USA. This is the story of one of the early unions of teaching assistants, which were part of the building of teacher unionism in that period.

In the Los Angeles area, there was a student support group for workers in local  strikes which produced a newsletter called “Picketline.” At this time radicals were aware of the student/worker action committees that had been formed in France in May 1968. For example, this student group recruited students from UCLA where I was a student to picket for workers in the national truckers wildcat. A judge had issued an injunction preventing the drivers from picketing. So students picketed the trucking companies…and the workers stood on the other side of the street cheering.

Some of the students who were doing this were graduate students who worked as teaching assistants at UCLA. In 1970 they decided “Hey we’re exploited too, so let’s start our own union.”

In September 1970 I went to the initial organizing meeting for this union. There were about 40 people in the room. So that was our initial union, our organizing committee. There was a group at UC Berkeley also trying to form a TA union at this time and they had gotten a charter from the AFT, so that is what we did at UCLA. But we soon ran into bureaucratic manipulation by the AFT full-time officials.

So at that point, we disaffiliated from AFT and became an independent union — Student Academic Employees Union (SAEU). We re-structured the union. In each department, there was a departmental organization. These typically worked through periodic assemblies. The assemblies elected the shop steward. The executive committee of the union was made up of all the shop stewards plus the secretary-treasurer, who was elected union-wide. There were no paid positions or paid staff.

During its early years, the union had maybe as many as 80 to 100 members. This was in a “bargaining unit” with maybe 1000 people (including research assistants and bibliographers and readers as well as TAs). We prosecuted grievances on our own – no lawyers or paid staff, using the existing UC grievance system. For example, the theater arts department was paying its TAs reader pay but requiring them to hold office hours, attend the lectures, etc. We won on that grievance. One of our early campaigns was against departments forcing people to work for free. The English department did this on the argument it was part of your education as a future professor. I talked to my coworkers about this but didn’t seem to get much interest in joining the union in my department (philosophy).

Finally, the faculty in my department proposed to hire two women as TAs without pay. They were married and their family income was too high to qualify for a TAship under the rules then in force.

Apparently, people had actually paid attention to what I was saying because I had people coming up to me saying “We must have a meeting!” So I called a meeting which 23 of the 24 TAs in my department attended. I was working on this with two other libertarian socialists and we prepared beforehand a proposal for an ongoing assembly-based departmental organization. I presented the proposal at that meeting, which was accepted. We also elected someone to negotiate with the faculty over a solution to the grievance. In this case, we easily got the faculty to agree the two women would be hired as TAs…getting their job experience…but would be paid the same as everyone else.

Nowadays this kind of union would be called a “minority union.” Back then it was called an “organizing union” because you are using both one-on-one conversations as well as meetings and building campaigns around issues to build the union. The early ’70s was a period when there was a fairly high level of student radicalization, and also UC in that period was fairly inexpensive so we had more students of working class origin than may be the case today at UC.

The union had people with a wide variety of political views. There were independent Marxists, members of the International Socialists, members of the Progressive Labor Party, supporters of the Communist Party, a “Socialist-Humanist” group among history graduate students, and a number of libertarian socialists. However, people generally supported the militant and grassroots character of the union.

In its meetings, we often came to agreement on some proposal just by talking it through. If we didn’t reach agreement this way, then a vote would be taken. The union used majority vote democracy to make decisions.

The union’s big growth came in a major struggle against University cutbacks in 1976-77. The administration proposed to eliminate undergrad tutoring, which was used mainly by working class students, especially students of color. At the same time, they were proposing to eliminate 10 percent of all TA positions. The biggest hit would be the foreign language departments where the TAs usually taught the courses. The university was proposing to abolish all introductory foreign language instruction. During this period the union mounted a mobilization campaign. This included weekly production of a newsletter “Don’t Mourn, Organize!” and weekly speakouts in the quad in front of Royce Hall. The Progressive Labor Party became something of a problem in this period as they tried to dominate the speakouts and use them to expound their sectarian agenda. So the union had to enact some rules to run the speakouts in a democratic way so no one would dominate.

During this period membership in the union rapidly built up to about 350 members. This was about 75 percent of all TAs in social sciences, languages and humanities. With this level of majority support the union was finally in a strong enough position to call a strike. The union did not just demand that there not be layoffs. They also demanded that the tutoring for undergrad students be retained. This was a demand for our students. Because of this demand, the minority student organizations organized a 1000-strong demo in support of the union on the first day of the strike. The strike took place for one week and the union picketed all entrances to the campus. They were able to turn back many Teamster delivery drivers, disrupting deliveries to the campus. Members of my own department did an occupation of the chancellor’s office to disrupt business there.

After the first week the administration began to make noises backtracking: “Maybe we can find the funds to only eliminate 5 percent of the positions.” At that point there was a debate in a mass meeting of the union. More militant members who had been involved in the occupation of the chancellor’s office voiced opposition to stopping the strike. But a majority voted to end the strike. By the end of the semester the university had completely backtracked and no longer was proposing cutbacks in positions. So the union won on its main demand. This union did not obtain a contract with the university. It’s aim was to use direct action to gain concessions directly, to force the university to not do certain things. This is very basic direct unionism in action. The president of the union during the strike, Reece Newman, is still a libertarian socialist today.

The SAEU of the 1970s is a very definite contrast to the highly top down and bureaucratic UAW TA union that exists at UC today.

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