Why Paycheck First is an anti-paycheck strategy

by Duane Wright

There are plenty of reasons to oppose Paycheck First’s narrative, ideology and strategy toward UAW 2865’s bargaining campaign, especially their collaborationist attitude toward management and their marginalization of anti-oppression work. However, I don’t want to reproduce a framework that assumes that AWDU is only about social justice and PF is stronger on economics, because, frankly, that is without a doubt completely untrue. There will be more essays on why anti-oppression work is central to union democracy; the point of this article is to challenge them on their own ground: namely, that they are the ones who stand up for Academic Student Employees’ (ASE) paychecks.

1.Their Record
First, Pay Check First is led by a group of people who are part of the old leadership, (a caucus called USEJ), that lost statewide leadership of the union to AWDU in 2011. So what is the old leadership’s record? Are they and the people that they agree with ideologically and strategically actually able to fight for good wages?

The data says no.

The report put out by the original wage committee early this summer (WAIT! I thought the bargaining team didn’t even discuss wages until September? At least that’s what I read on PF….) includes the following important graphs.


What these two graphs show is the following:
1.ASEs make significantly more than they would have if they hadn’t unionized.
2.However, we are making relatively less than we did in 1999, because
3.Our wages haven’t kept up with inflation since 2001-2002.
AWDU took statewide leadership in 2011, the previous two contracts were agreed to by a majority USEJ union and Bargaining Team in 2010 and 2007. So we are still losing pay thanks to USEJ. In fairness, I have heard them argue that the wage settlement in 2010 was during budget cuts to the UC so we couldn’t expect to have gotten better than what we did.  But that is precisely the point! Their leveled expectations and conciliatory attitude has over the last ten years led to the devaluing of our labor and has put student families into poverty. They claim to be standing up for our paychecks by attacking fellow workers with their tabloid-esque blog, but when was the last time you saw them organize a mass protest or work action that confronted management? Never.

I think this history is crucial to really understanding their project, which is about taking the 2014 triennial elections, NOT about fighting for better pay. But there’s much more to my argument. Let’s say you don’t believe that they are these former leaders or have any association with them. Fine. Good point. Union activists know who they are but the general public doesn’t because instead of debating us out in the open they hide behind anonymity. So let’s move on to the other arguments, as to why they aren’t actually looking out for our paycheck.

1.Their strategy this time
Browse the site (if you can stomach it; it’s like reading the comments on a Fox News column…) and you’ll find that they strongly supported the strategy of bargaining the entire contract over the summer and not allowing the contract to expire. They even have a countdown clock to expiration right at the top of their site:
This imagery reminds me, as a child during the 1980’s, seeing the national debt counter that the Reagan Administration was so fond of showcasing. It is a scare tactic, used to oversimplify the issue of strategy and to silence debate about expiration and strategy.
What happens during expiration? When the contract expires but the two parties are still engaged in negotiations (as we absolutely still are) then management cannot just unilaterally do whatever they want. Labor law says that the terms of the contract actually still apply because we are negotiating new terms and to just unilaterally impose new ones would be an Unfair Labor Practice.  That could only happen if we went to Impasse, and then at least 70 days for Mediation and Factfinding, plus time to bargain based on a Factfinder's recommendations.

However, the expiration of a contract also produces some great opportunities. There are rights that all unions typically waive in almost all contracts. The No Strike Clause is the most obvious example. The Waiver article is a less popular or understood one. When the contract expires we regain these certain rights, such as the legality of sympathy strikes, unfair labor practice strikes, and work actions based on grievances. In other words we have MORE rights and a better hand, strategically, after expiration as we continue to bargain.

The expiration of the contract means that during bargaining the union can actually have much more leverage to threaten a workplace action or full-blown strike (think of AFSCME, CNA, and UPTE’s strikes last school year). The sheer looming threat of a strike can be enough to move management much closer to our proposals during bargaining. The fear of expiration means that the only strategy that can be relied on is one that works within the constraints of all the rights we have waived, including the right to strike. If you know your workers aren’t going to strike then there isn’t even a bluff to call. Management can more easily take a hard line stance during negotiations and keep that stance without a concern about workers' job actions.

PF and USEJ’s aversion to strikes actually erases and dishonors the history of our local. We were founded after a finals week strike in 1999 that forced the university to recognize us. USEJ likes to say that it was HEERA that gave us our union, but HEERA was passed in 1979. We didn’t have a union until more than 20 years later and only after we took collective action.  
Simply crediting legislation and not workers' actions is  disempowering  because it doesn’t make workers the agents of change, it makes lawyers and legislators the agents of change. It's like crediting the Votings Rights Act and other civil rights legislation primarily to the politicians and not to the thousands who marched, sat down, and died for these rights.

AWDU stands for empowering members, which is why we want to recall the fighting history of our local and why we recognize the need for an on-the-ground campaign in order to win our demands. Organizing for a strike is a way to get workers who are not on the bargaining team, and can’t fly across the state to be in the bargaining room every session, involved in the campaign. Since a picketline or shutdown of the university, even if only for an hour or a day, is far more powerful than anything that can happen in the bargaining room by the union bargaining team, then organizing on-the-ground actions is a way not only to empower members - or at the very least provide them the opportunity to empower themselves -but also best pressure management. If our demands are met they will know it was because of their actions, not any cleverly worded reasoning given by a bargaining team member in negotiations.

A strategy that relies on giving up our power as rank and file members to be agents of change is a losing strategy and our paychecks have been paying for it (as I explained in part 1 above). The ONLY way to win a wage that keeps us above subsistence and that at least keeps up with inflation is to fight. Work actions are one of many weapons we have in our arsenal, and settling before we have the ability to take collective action effectively means conceding when we are weak.

PFs strategy is to take away our strongest options for putting pressure on management and to take away even our ability to bluff. This is a losing strategy, and has been a losing strategy for over a decade now (see the above discussion about lost value of wages). It is also a top-down and disempowering strategy. So while they might use some rhetoric about further democratizing the union, their real position on bottom up rank and file democracy vs top-down bureaucratic democracy can be seen in their discourse around contract campaign strategy.

3. Wages are not the only economic issue / Paycheck for whom?

The most revealing aspect about PF’s strategy/ideology is that they consider wages to be the only (important) economic issue. Wages are however NOT the only issue nor even only economic issue. There are some obvious others, and some not so obvious ones. They include:

fee remissions
child care subsidy
dependent care
parking subsidy
transportation subsidy
class size
18 quarter limit
rights for undocumented students
equal pay for equal work

By stressing wages as the only “paycheck” issue they not only have tunnel vision and miss the almost dozen other articles which affect our wallet, but it helps reproduce structures of power and inequality - in other words it is not a social justice position. I will explain in detail using numerous articles/demands as examples.

Fee Remissions
            Since we unionized we won full coverage of in state educational fees and tuition. If you are a California resident then you only have to pay the “campus fees”, which are fees that our Grad Assemblies levy to pay for services and spaces that grad students use. This was/is a HUGE win for us, and shows the strength we have when we collectively bargain and of our collective action (our union was established after a finals week strike Winter Quarter 1999).
            However these aren’t the only fees grad students face. Out of State Tuition is charged to  non-California residents. If you aren’t a US citizen then you can’t get California residency. This means that international students are left in a precarious position as grad students, because they are fully dependent on their departments to fund them (i.e. pay their out of state tuition) while they are here. The only relief they get is if they go ABD within a very short time frame then they get the out-of-state tuition waived for a couple years. And international students are often rushed by their departments to finish their degrees, making the experience of graduate school even more stressful than it already is.
            International students aren’t just students, they are also Academic Student Employees, and UAW members. Do you think being dependent on their department makes them want to file a grievance if they are being discriminated against, harassed, overworked, etc? Not if it means the department could just cut their funding and basically force them out. Getting out-of-state tuition covered is both an immigrant rights and workers rights issue.
            Paycheck First says many times on their blog that they are for social justice, yet here we see that what they value most isn’t creating an equal workplace, but on placating those who already have the most rights.

Childcare Subsidy
Student parents have much higher costs than non-parents, and considering that we make poverty or near poverty wages these subsidies could potentially level the playing field for many graduate students. Despite having tuition paid for student parents still have a huge financial burden. I have a child, who is ten years old right now, and I took out $11,000 just in my first two years of grad school to help me pay the bills. None of that went to tuition. I didn’t have childcare expenses, so it could have been much, much worse. Student parents have testified in the bargaining room that their childcare expenses can reach up to $1100 per month! Getting that $1100 per month covered is a MUCH bigger raise than what Paycheck First is calling for, 5%. A 5% raise doesn’t even come close to covering that bill. A 50% raise would come close, but still fall short.
This demand then is about accessibility and equality. Without a good childcare subsidy student parents have two options: take out loans (and pay MORE in the long term) or drop out. Many drop out or just don’t apply to begin with. It is also about gender, as the bargaining team explained to management. Women disproportionately bear the burden of childcare. Due to societal gender roles many women graduate students end up dropping out. This is why even in fields where women are disproportionately enrolled as grad students men still dominate the professoriate.
Paycheck First says many times on their blog that they are for social justice, yet here we see that what they value most isn’t creating an equal workplace, but on placating those who already have access and privilege.

Rights for Undocumented Students
Currently undocumented graduate students are not supposed to be able to get jobs as TAs. How does putting the issue of wages first help people who can’t even get a job? Paycheck First shows their commitment to social justice by ignoring the question, Paycheck for whom? By starting at the assumption that everyone is already getting a paycheck they further marginalize those who the system has already marginalized.
Even worse however is that fact that there have been reported cases of undocumented students in programs that require people to TA in order to graduate. These people have had to TA to finish their requirements, but could not get paid. They worked for free. What kind of union stands by and asks for better wages and ignores those in their bargaining unit who are working but aren’t getting paid? Again they have shown that their framework comes from a privileged position.
Paycheck First says many times on their blog that they are for social justice, yet here we see that what they value most isn’t creating an equal workplace, but on placating those who already have rights, access, and privilege.

Class Size
            Class size is without a doubt an economic issue. And its probably the biggest economic issue in our demands. But you wouldn’t know that from reading their blog. Their tunnel-vision on wages shows that they are either very short sighted, or just opportunists who are trying to appeal to what they see as the lowest common denominator. They lack any real analysis of what “economic demands” mean. Class size isn’t just about having power in the workplace. It is about jobs.
            With smaller class sizes there are more jobs available for graduate students. It is not a coincidence that class sizes are on the rise; it is a restructuring of the university to get TAs to do more work for the same pay (or less pay). If one graduate student TAs for 95 instead of 50 students then they just cut the number of jobs nearly in half, and with it the pay, benefits, and fee remissions they would have to pay out.
            It is short term thinking to assume that there will always be jobs for all graduate students (there aren’t always right now anyways). The university could very easily increase class size and limit the number of jobs, and thus force a more competitive atmosphere among grad students. This would be caustic for a union. Unions are about solidarity, about cooperation, but competing for jobs breaks that culture and could very easily lead to the university successfully union busting and getting rid of UAW 2865 altogether!
            Paycheck First says many times on their blog that they are for a more democratic union, yet here we see that what they value most isn’t  strengthening the union and creating more jobs for grads, but merely for appealing to a shortsighted individualistic demand --- ironically the same type of thing that doesn’t build solidarity but breaks it, just like management wants to do.

18 Quarter Limit
Much like  undocumented students, childcare subsidy, and class size, this is an issue where PF doesn’t ask, “wage increase for whom?” they just assume that everyone is getting paid and will benefit from higher wages. Abolishing the 18 quarter limit on TAships is very much an economic demand to those who have hit or are near this limit. If you can’t work you can’t get paid. When we can’t work we are forced to either drop out or take loans to pay for school. This makes school far less accessible for student parents who may take longer, or for students may have medical issues, or any other number fo factors which has delayed their completition.
In my department, sociology, the average time to PhD is 8.5 years right now. My dept will give 1 year of dissertation block grant. That means that if we can TA for 18 quarters we still have to find 1.5 years of extra funding on average! Some people take 10 or more years. Where’s their paycheck? Where’s their raise?
The message it seems for these students from Paycheck First is that if they aren’t rich that they shouldn’t have applied to graduate school to begin with. Or maybe they want us to add to the over 1 trillion dollars in student loan debt?
            Paycheck First says many times on their blog that they are for social justice, yet here we see that what they value most isn’t creating an equal workplace, but on placating those who already have access.

I could keep going, but you get the point by now. When they say “Paycheck first!” they don’t mean everyone’s paycheck. They just mean those who are not student-parents, or women, or undocumented students, or international students, or from poor or working class backgrounds, or aren’t in programs that take a long time to complete, or people who have had medical complications slow their completion time, or people who aren’t good at writing grant applications, or ……

Just take a look at these wordclouds. A wordcloud shows the frequency of words used on their blog, the bigger the word the more frequently it is used. The top one was taken on 9-22-13, the middle one was taken on 10-9-13, and the bottom one was taken on 10-28-13. Notice what words appear most often. Notice what words are missing.  Check out what it is today, just google search “wordcloud” and you will get many different websites that will do this for free, all you have to do it put in the website address (paycheckfirst.com) and it will automatically generate it for you.


From their history, to their strategy, to their framework, the very words they use betray their sloganeering.

Paycheck First doesn’t care about social justice, or your economic situation. And they don’t even have a winning record or strategy to win the very narrow demand they so fetishize.

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