Sunday, March 15, 2020

Have You Forgotten the Grad Student Strike?

With all the turmoil of campuses trying to convert to online - sorry, "remote" - education, it's easy to forget the ongoing grad student/TA strike that is centered at UC-Santa Cruz.

TAs will be needed to get less-than-tech-savvy faculty members converted to the technology of remote education. To have any kind of interaction, particularly in larger classes, TAs will have to conduct sections, etc. So, is there a route to a resolution? Below is a personal recommendation from yours truly:

A Third-Party Neutral Could Help Resolve the Current Grad Student Strike

Daniel J.B. Mitchell*
For many years before retiring, I taught courses at UCLA dealing with labor relations and collective bargaining. So perhaps I can offer a route out of the current graduate student/TA strike that is centered on the UC-Santa Cruz campus, but is having ripple effects on other campuses.

Let’s dispose of the legalities. I say “dispose” because although both UC and the union involved – UAW 2865 - have filed unfair labor practice charges against each other at the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), it is an illusion to think the PERB process is going to provide a quick resolution.

UC says that the union signed a multiyear contract which has yet to expire and which has a no-strike clause. It says the union has violated its contract by not taking steps to halt the strike. The union says the strike is a wildcat, unauthorized strike over which it has no authority. But, at the same time, the union wants UC to reopen the contract and negotiate a new settlement. PERB will in due course investigate, possibly issue a complaint, and hold a hearing, all time consuming steps. In reaching a decision, PERB will look not only at what the union publicly says, but what it has done. PERB could conceivably order the union to take steps to halt the strike, but even with such steps, how effective could such a remedy be? Probably not much.

Similarly, UC at one point offered a benefit enhancement unilaterally and said it wanted to talk with an entity other than the union. The union’s unfair labor practice charge says that it is legally the exclusive representative of the graduate student employees and that changes in compensation must be negotiated with the union and with no other entity. PERB will in due course investigate, possibly issue a complaint, and hold a hearing, all time consuming steps. It could conceivably order the university to rescind the offer of an enhancement and order UC to negotiate only with the union if it wants to change compensation of the graduate student employees. How would such an order – were it to occur – provide an effective remedy? It probably wouldn’t.

The point here is that PERB is unlikely to be the source of a settlement. So, let’s move on to what’s at stake for the union, for the strikers, and for UC. All three have a stake in having a significant level of trust in the collective bargaining relationship. Unless there is to be a future of prolonged and difficult negotiations, recurrent impasses, and strikes, there is value to the proposition that a deal is a deal, apart from the legalities involved. That is the essence of UC’s position, but it should also matter to the union and the strikers, too. If a deal isn’t a deal, you are likely to end up with an endless rocky relationship that benefits no one. Note that it is possible to negotiate long-term contracts that have contingencies built in for unforeseen events that can trigger an early reopening.

It is also possible – if there is a sufficient level of trust – for the union and UC to recognize that unforeseen events have occurred at the present time and mutually to agree to reopen the contract. UC’s educational function is not well served by disruption and a hostile relationship with key employees.

Potential resolutions are available that could preserve the principle of a deal is a deal and yet respond to the unfortunate situation that has developed. Both UC and the union would need first to step away from the legalities which aren’t likely to resolve anything. Often in situations when there is low trust and when an impasse has occurred, it helps to bring in an outside neutral for mediation and/or arbitration. 

There could be return to work, a withdrawal of charges at PERB, and a mechanism established involving a third party neutral. Such a mechanism could recognize both the principle that a deal is a deal and also that circumstances have changed that perhaps neither party to the existing deal was able to foresee when the deal was concluded. Sometimes the best way to preserve important principles is to rise above them. Maybe, the sudden intervention of the coronavirus crisis could provide a needed excuse for both sides to do so.

*Daniel J.B. Mitchell is a Professor-Emeritus at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. He continues to co-teach Public Affairs 145 – California Policy Issues – each winter quarter at the Luskin School.

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