When AWDU Loses

The AWDU caucus in UAW Local 4121, which represents graduate student workers at the University of Washington, suffered a resounding defeat last month when hundreds of members met to vote on its Bylaws proposals. The biggest proposed change was to introduce term limits for the Executive Board. This may sound innocuous, but it was, in fact, a back-handed way to try to make many of the most effective and popular officers ineligible to run again because the UW AWDU caucus knew that it wouldn’t be able to beat them directly. The NYU AWDU caucus has also stated a more general support for term limits. Even if term limits seem abstractly democratic, they can also be very detrimental to a union’s effectiveness if they prevent the most experienced and trusted leaders from continuing to serve. This is why support for legally mandated term limits for union office is often a right-wing anti-union position.

In fall 2014, the UW AWDU caucus lost a trustee vacancy election by a more than 2-to-1 margin. Apparently in partial response to this, they vowed not to run candidates in this year’s triennial elections but instead to focus on “structural” change through amending the Bylaws, and they have kept this promise. Their logic appeared to be that members might not like them personally but would perhaps see the abstract beauty of their Bylaws proposals. At least, this appears to have been the point of a weird video one of them made entitled “Why do I like the amendments but not AWDU?”

Apparently, members like neither. The membership meetings defeated the proposed Bylaws amendments by a similar 2-to-1 margin. This is especially significant because AWDU tends to have a relatively easier time getting its supporters to take time to attend a meeting as opposed to just dropping off a ballot or voting online. Many rank-and-file members who do not strongly self-identify as radical activists must not only have disapproved of these proposed Bylaws amendments but also cared enough to show up to vote against them. Hundreds came out not once, but twice to do so.

What does a caucus committed to making the union more “democratic” do when members overwhelmingly reject not only its candidates but also its very version of democracy? Does it, perhaps, admit that maybe the union wasn’t so “undemocratic” in the first place? I wouldn’t bet on it. Demanding term limits while also refusing to run candidates was a revealing move. It tacitly admitted that the UW AWDU caucus, while it may have positions about what is abstractly more or less democratic, has no interest in actually taking responsibility for the strategy and tactics of collective bargaining.

I believe that UW AWDU actually shares this tendency with other AWDU caucuses. But whatever their many flaws, the AWDU caucuses at NYU and in the UC system have at least held leadership positions and therefore nominally taken responsibility for collective bargaining in addition to tweaking their precious Bylaws, making it possible for critics like me to hold them accountable when they consistently do a bad job. Perhaps the UW AWDU caucus saw from the examples of UC and NYU that dreaming up new “structures” is easier and more fun than fighting management.

Frankly, I personally wouldn’t mind if the other AWDU caucuses started to go this direction too. There’s never been any reason a small extracurricular group couldn’t do most of the things that the NYU and UC AWDU caucuses seem most excited about doing (having a reading and film discussion group, conducting highly bureaucratic meetings, advocating for BDS) without derailing collective bargaining or the national movement to organize adjuncts, postdocs, and graduate student workers. Instead of fighting to change the Bylaws of existing unions, other AWDU caucuses could even just write their own caucus Bylaws like UW AWDU has!

Anyway the example of the University of Washington proves that AWDU can be defeated. Now that the triennial elections are concluded, we will see how the UW AWDU caucus responds to the membership’s overwhelming rejection of its vision for the union’s future.

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