McUC Riverside on the Move

— Mark Brenner

IF YOU BELIEVE the press releases, Riverside—that "sleepy" campus known for its citrus experiment station, smog and not much else—is poised to become the next jewel in the crown of the University of California system.

With demographic pressures mounting, and size and space concerns at its flagship campuses in Berkeley and Los Angeles virtually precluding any serious future expansion, the UC system is desperately searching for ways to fulfill its mandate of providing admission to the top 12.5% of California’s high school graduates.

Something is needed immediately to relieve the pressure on the bigger campuses, and that something appears to be UC-Riverside. Over the course of the next ten years UCR is slated to grow between fifty and 100 percent, potentially doubling its present undergraduate enrollment of 7,500.

Were it solely for the growth, however, UCR’s story would be no story at all, a simple expansion to meet legally-mandated enrollment increases. What captures the imagination of some—and has UCR jockeying for entry into UC’s first tier—is the way it has so quickly remade itself in the corporate image.

UCR’s ambitious, savvy, and business-friendly Chancellor Raymond Orbach has consistently turned to the private sector for both inspiration and material assistance. Under his leadership corporate contributions are at record levels (approximately $25 million in private gifts in the 1995-96 academic year, not including contracts and grants).

This inspiration has been rewarded, as access to the campus has flourished for businesses eager to court college consumers and exploit a relatively captive market.

What sets UCR apart, however, is not the appearance of Pizza Hut or Burger King—in lieu of Marriott or ARA—in the school cafeteria. It is the degree to which the Orbach Administration has relied on the "market" to provide goods and services critical to the educational mission of the University, abdicating for the first time the University’s responsibility to respond to these essential needs of the campus.

Buy-Buy Education

As of 1995, all student registration cards double as MCI calling cards. And while students can get free email through the university, the university makes it clear that you will get much better service if you pay $12 per month for MCI On-Line.

In fact, privately, UCR officials indicate that MCI On-Line has become the backbone of their plan for providing internet services for students and faculty. Services that are free on other campuses can only be had through the market at UCR.

Perhaps even more egregious is Orbach’s recent venture into mini-malls. UCR invested over $1 million into a city project to tear down old businesses near the campus and build a shopping and movie theater complex in its place.

The ten-screen CinemaStar theater serves as classrooms for UCR in the day, despite the fact that the theaters contain woefully inadequate chalkboards and no overhead projectors. In addition, business never stops, as students are continually given coupons for the theater and surrounding businesses (such as Starbucks and Manhattan Bagels) as they enter their classes.

Orbach’s embrace of the market has not been limited to real-estate speculation or the leasing of access to the University’s Revenue-Generating-Units (a.k.a. the students). In addition, he has taken the twin mantras of decentralization and competition to heart in several important ways.

Perhaps most frightening is the recent proposal to change the way departments are funded to a "block grant" system. Under this plan, departments would get a block of funds based on the number of students they serve as enrolled majors. Those departments with fewer majors would get fewer funds, setting up a system where departments were encouraged to compete with each other for students.

Under this plan, for example, botany professors would be best served by encouraging their students to take only botany classes. Those departments with low job-placement ratios, such as art and philosophy, may see fewer majors, and hence, less funding—possibly forcing mergers, or wiping out the departments altogether down the road.

The Roots of the Union

Against the grain of this march to passive consumerism and corporate-style restructuring, a thin layer of the student movement has been hard at work on the Riverside campus. These experiences—from anti-187 and Affirmative Action struggles to the New Party-inspired local political project Progressive Riverside—coalesced this winter into a new campus organization,the Campus Labor Action Coalition (CLAC).

Many of us saw this as an opportunity to bring a more explicitly “labor” focus to the campus, and recent campaigns such as UNITE!’s battle with GUESS? and the UFW’s Strawberry Worker organizing drive seemed to offer new possibilities for activism.

The drive to organize Academic Student Employees (ASEs) on the Riverside campus emerged and drew its energy from CLAC. We were galvanized by the Administration’s increasingly corporate posturing, as the Winter quarter witnessed both the opening of regular classes in the CinemaStar movie theater, one of which I was fortunate enough to teach, and the announcement of the department "Block-Grant" funding proposal.

We were also encouraged by our conversations with the UAW, the International already representing ASEs at six campuses in the UC system. To its rhetorical credit, the "New Labor Movement" did not go unnoticed either, as members of our group were inspired by the Labor Teach-In held at UCLA that quarter.

In this context, our momentum and energy, coupled with the fact that ASE bargaining units tend to be at their smallest in the Spring, convinced many of us that now was a propitious moment for a union card drive, and CASE, the Coalition of Allied Student Employees, took off.

Card Drive Nuts and Bolts

In many ways, Riverside is an absolutely unremarkable place to do progressive political work, with the campus being no exception. Despite its aspirations to the contrary, UCR is a relatively small middle-tier school (approximately 1,400 graduate students and 7,500 undergraduate) with a reputation as a commuter campus, drawing its undergraduates largely from a local base in the eastern part of Southern California.

The campus has no strong public history of student protest (although every major campus movement from anti-war to Central American solidarity has had a presence), and little sets us and our ordinariness apart from the masses of America’s public universities.

Thus, our ability to organize a successful card drive among the 630-odd undergraduate and graduate ASEs who work as Teaching Assistants, Readers, and Tutors (and other assorted job categories) at UCR seems to me to speak precisely to what is possible at most campuses around the country.

We struck chords with people on simple issues: guaranteeing our partial fee remission with a union contract; improving our health care (which doesn’t provide for preventative care or dependent coverage); and increasing the voice of ASEs in a system that is increasingly dependent on their labor.

Using stock techniques—office-hour visits to talk about the union,door-knocking in Family Student Housing, phone banking hard-to-reach folks, and tabling on campus—we managed to sign up a strong majority of the bargaining unit over the course of the ten-week quarter. The UAW provided key logistical support, from hiring two local organizers to renting office space and buying equipment.

Internally, we had a consistent, committed core of activists from a broad range of departments in the humanities and social sciences, many of whose lives revolved almost singularly around the card drive from start to finish. Moreover, we all shared a sense of urgency, that this was the right time and place for this card drive and that we were serious about achieving our goal of completing the card drive in one quarter.

Recognition: Past and Future

The best lesson of this experience is that progressive labor organizing in unremarkable places has just as much (dare I say more) chance of succeeding now as ever. Lest enthusiasm for early successes give a misleading picture, however, the July certification of card majority by California’s Public Employment Relations Board now places CASE squarely in the middle of a much bigger struggle.

Since 1983, when AGSE (Association of Graduate Student Employees) was founded at UC-Berkeley, ASEs in the UC system have been locked in a struggle with its Administration over their rights under California’s Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act (HEERA).

The UC Administration has consistently contended that most ASEs are not in fact employees (especially Teaching and Research Assistants), but students in a "special mentoring relationship" with the faculty with whom they work. Thus, since they aren’t workers, they don’t have collective bargaining rights under a legal sleight of hand eerily similar to that used to justify "workfare" recipients exemption from federal and state labor laws.

This struggle has been punctuated by legal as well as victories. PERB administrative law judges’ rulings in 1987 and 1996 held that TAs, Readers, and Acting Instructors, among many other positions, did fall under the purview of HEERA. An interim contract from 1989-1992 at UC-Berkeley afforded substantial gains on fee remission and health care (won through a Spring 1989 strike), which were later extended system-wide.

There have also been successful card drives on all but one campus. However, the period has also been marred by defeats: The 1987 ruling was reversed in 1989 at the level of the PERB and lost again in the California Court of Appeals in 1992 (the UC Administration hopes for a repeat performance with the 1996 ruling). Most importantly, a 1992 open-ended strike at UC-Berkeley and UC-Santa Cruz failed to win recognition.

Whatever the outcome of the present legal battle, many ASE activists have come to see their best hope of winning recognition as involving action at the level of the UC system. To that end, CAUSE, the UAW-sponsored California Alliance of Unionized Student Employees, has begun coordinating system-wide actions (such as last year’s rolling strike campaign and state legislative action) between the campuses.

CASE’s recent card majority is seen by other UC unions as the latest step in solidifying that system-wide approach. Working as a coalition poses its own challenges, as conditions faced by ASEs and their unions varies sometimes dramatically across the UCs. However, given that these unions together represent over 15,000 ASEs, a unified voice seems much more likely to carry weight with the UC system Administrators.

Where CASE Goes from Here

No matter how rosy the spin put on the issue of recognition, CASE has its work cut out for it. One of the biggest sacrifices we made, in choosing to do our card drive in one quarter, was to forgo much of the institution-building which we know is key to CASE’s long term survival.

Three particular issues stand as our challenge internally. First, like many organizations, we are searching for structures of representation which can simultaneously get things accomplished and still remain democratic. This task is especially challenging given that our "official" status is still fluid and our legal rights to represent our members questioned by UC Administrators.

Second, we need to broaden our participation, of both activists and general membership. Naturally, this point is closely related to the issue of structure, but it also speaks to our ability to be an effective political force on the campus and in the UC-system. Carrying on militant actions, which appears to be a virtual precondition to winning recognition, is a far cry from signing a union card; and because of their peculiar status as both student and employee such actions embody even more ambivalence for ASEs than most.

Indeed, not only is there the legitimate concern of retaliation on the part of faculty—who are not the direct target of any job action, but are our immediate supervisors—there is also the sincere concern that our undergraduate students, already taxed by increasing class sizes will suffer most from a TA strike.

Add to these worries the opportunistic calculations of those who see themselves as biding their time before they join the club (don’t try to tell them that two out of three PhD.’s will never get tenure track positions), and it’s a recipe for reticence.

Finally, we need to take the questions that come after recognition seriously. The nuts and bolts of a contract, dues structure, bargaining, and the like, are real issues in the mind of the membership, and unconvincing or ill-conceived answers only undermine support.

In any case, the answers to these questions will almost certainly change when we’ve won recognition. Perhaps the most important thing we can take from developing thoughtful answers now is an insight into the process of how our union will operate. In short, we need to walk the walk now, before the chips are on the table, or else we may never be given the chance.

But other campuses have managed to build vibrant and successful unions and so the potential is there for UCR to do the same.

ATC 71, November-December 1997