Unions Representing University of California Academic Workers Vote on Merger

Members of UAW 2865 and 5810, which combined represent more than 40,000 academic workers across the University of California system, may merge. The vote could have huge implications for higher education in the Golden State.
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Updated on October 13, 2023
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  • Members of UAW 2865 and 5810 will vote on whether to amalgamate, or merge, union locals.
  • UAW 2865 represents 19,000 academic student employees and 17,000 graduate student researchers across University of California campuses.
  • UAW 5810 represents between 9,000 and 11,000 postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers across the university system.
  • Voting will be open from Oct. 10-20.

Last November and December, academic workers across the University of California (UC) system went on strike for six weeks, marking the largest academic strike in U.S. history and winning wage and benefit increases.

Now, those academic workers — more than 40,000 researchers, postdoctoral scholars, and academic student employees across the UC system's 10 campuses — are considering consolidating their gains by amalgamating, or merging, the two unions to create an organized labor juggernaut in the Golden State.

But as the voting opens, not all members are on board with the move as differences in regional economics and academic fields surface among graduate students in the sprawling UC system.

The fate of the amalgamation movement won't just have massive implications for the existing workers; future academic workers and the UC system's $46.9 billion budget may also be affected.

UC academic workers are represented by the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) in two union locals: UAW 2865 and UAW 5810.

UAW 2865 comprises two units: student researchers (SRs), including graduate student researchers (GSRs), fellows, and trainees, and academic student employees (ASEs), including tutors, readers, and teaching assistants. UAW 2865 is the largest union local of UC academic student employees, with 36,000 workers represented statewide — 17,000 student researchers and 19,000 academic student employees.

UAW 5810 represents postdoctoral scholars, also referred to as postdocs, and academic researchers with an estimated 9,000 to 11,000 workers total, as membership size varies throughout the year with funding cycles and the academic calendar.

The amalgamated union would have a different local number and is proposed to include four different units to represent student researchers, academic student employees, postdocs, and academic researchers.

Process of Amalgamating

In April, both locals formed a joint amalgamation exploratory committee, laying out the process for merging groups and recommending how the new local could operate.

Anny Viloria Winnett, a graduate student researcher studying community health sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, told BestColleges that members of both locals worked together in coordination to secure fair contracts during last year's strike.

Since the strike was for both 5810 and 2865, we had to collaborate a lot, she said. We had to plan the strike together. We were engaged in basically the same tasks, and it became really obvious and clear that we were stronger when we were working together under the same leadership [and] under the same bigger goals.

Tanzil Chowdhury, a graduate student researcher studying materials science and engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, serves as the unit chair for UAW 2865 for Berkeley. Chowdhury said he worked very closely with members of UAW 5810 in his positions as both a head steward in UAW 2865 and a member of the bargaining team for Student Researchers United-UAW during the strike.

We regularly worked together when it came to implementing our organizing program on campus, he said. ... Amalgamation allows us to take the next step with respect to that coordination, make sure that we're regularly in communication with one another, that we’re sharing resources, and that we're building more solidarity across all of the academic workers at the UC.

Maintaining Representation For All UC Academic Workers

One of the challenges of amalgamation is ensuring every member is represented in the larger union. UAW 5810 is about one-third the size of 2865, and membership size varies between each of the 10 UC campuses.

Both Winnett and Chowdhury served on the amalgamation exploratory committee as two of the 11 community representatives from UAW 2865.

Winnett says that proportional representation will largely remain the same and that the standard union member will not see much of a difference before and after amalgamation.

Our ability to be represented equitably in each local is going to be maintained, like numerically that really won't change, she said.

The way that we understood amalgamation...means a lot more people are being represented. But in reality, it's the same number of people who are being represented in both locals, now we're just centralizing our leadership into one body.

Chowdhury explained that the executive board will see one of the larger shifts if the unions merge, although he is not concerned about one group of people being favored over the other.

We're going to have one executive board that's going to have a few seats that are going to be unit specific. But for the most part, they're going to be voted on by everyone in the idea that we're one big union that if somebody is a student worker, it doesn't mean that they're not going to be looking out for the interests of their fellow postdocs, and academic researchers. We're sort of all in this together, he said.

Janna Haider, fifth-year Ph.D. student in the University of California, Santa Barbara history department, told BestColleges she does not support amalgamation because she feels it would further diminish the voices of humanities students in the union.

The humanities have been more and more marginalized in UAW spaces because so many graduate student researchers are in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) departments and the nature of the types of labor that academic student workers do in the humanities and social sciences versus STEM is so different, she explained.

Haider previously served as a bargaining team representative for UAW 2865 from UC Santa Barbara and as the recording secretary for the campus unit of the union before she resigned after the strike. She said her experiences in both of the roles motivates her decision to vote against amalgamation.

The experiences that I've had both in statewide leadership spaces ... and also at the campus level, indicate that our colleagues in STEM don't respect those of us in the humanities, she said. I was told to my face on the picket line by a graduate student in the physics department [at UC Santa Barbara], that I was sacrificing nothing by going on strike because it's not like I was giving up any research time.

Haider voted against ratification of the contract and sees the amalgamation referendum as a financial and power move by the union locals.

The end of the strike and the ratification vote revealed that there are really, really strong undercurrents of dissatisfaction, dissent, [and] of anger, she said.

The fact that the margin on the contract was what it was, with so many people, especially not on the three prestige campuses of Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, left deeply unhappy, indicates to the administrative caucus (the political party that has controlled the UAW for quite some time) that they're about to lose control over UAW 2865, Haider said.

While the majority of academic workers across the UC system voted to approve the new contracts, variation in vote totals between UC campuses was noteworthy:

  • At Berkeley, 72% voted to approve the GSR contract and 69% voted to approve the ASEs
  • At UC San Francisco, 61% voted to approve the GSR contract and 70% voted to approve the ASEs
  • At UC Santa Cruz, 19% voted to approve the GSR contract and 20% voted to approve the ASEs
  • At UC Merced, 25% voted to approve GSR contract and 27% voted to approve the ASEs

If approved by a majority of members, UAW 2865 and 5810 would have to formally petition the UAW International Executive Board requesting that amalgamation occur. While the singular, merged local would share an overall leadership structure, bargaining units would remain separate, and existing contracts would remain intact and independent.

If amalgamation is not approved, the locals would remain separate.

Voting will be open to all unionized academic workers across the UC system and will last 10 days, starting Oct. 10.