Illustration by Patrick Yeung.

Story updated 2/18/2011 at 4:22pm

Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU), a splinter group of the academic student employee union, inaugurated the UC Santa Cruz chapter of AWDU on Feb. 9. The group’s formation and growing membership marks significant dissent within the union’s ranks.

Members of the United Auto Workers Local 2865 (UAW) union formed the group following the “No Vote” campaign that took place in late November 2010. The campaign protested the UAW-negotiated contract for academic student employees. The UAW represents nearly 12,000 UC academic student employees.

Opponents of the contract said they were disappointed with the contract’s 2 percent wage increase, which falls short of the annual 3 percent inflation rate reported in 2009.

After the withdrawal of 13 candidates for UAW leadership positions, AWDU members filled the majority of the open spots without opposition during the January UAW elections. Union members who withdrew said in an open letter that they did so to avoid disunity.

“We hope that our decision encourages all elected leaders, as well as all members, to work together on the many things we agree on,” according to the letter, “so that we will become an even stronger force in pushing back against attacks on higher education and continuing to advance the cause of social justice at UC and beyond.”

AWDU members hope to be more influential in the decision-making process. Daraka Larimore-Hall, a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara, is UAW northern vice president. Although he is not an AWDU member, Larimore-Hall said that the increased participation is good.

“What I’m hoping is that people are getting engaged because they want to build the strength of the union and focus on the employer and state legislature, fighting the right wing in California and their attacks on higher education,” Larimore-Hall said. “Instead of looking inward and fighting each other, we can fight the real enemy.”

UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley have the largest AWDU following of all the UCs. Brian Malone, literature graduate student and campus unit chair at UCSC for the UAW Local 2865, said that he has noticed increased union member interest in AWDU.

“We had a really good representation from across divisions [at the inauguration],” Malone said. “We had a lot of science people there. In the past, our organizing has tended to be humanities and social sciences.”

Cheryl Deutsch, UC Irvine graduate student and one of the two AWDU members recently elected to the UAW executive board, said the goal of AWDU is to increase academic student employee participation in UAW matters. AWDU members filled seats that often remained vacant in the past, rising from 28 to 75 joint council members after the election.

“It was really scary to hear that our contract was about to expire,” Deutsch said. “The union was not doing any kind of mobilization to prepare the membership … or mobilizing to push for what we deserve and what we should have gotten.”

Malone said that tension between reformers and paid staff is more visible in the Southern California campuses.

“[Deutsch] has been at the forefront of that uneasy relationship between the executive board and the reformers,” he said.

Deutsch said she is displeased with the lack of communication between paid staff, who are also union members, and elected members. In the past, paid staff often took the place of elected joint council members in the absence of contenders.

“The relationship between paid staff and campus unit officers should be made explicit, either informally or through a change in our Local’s bylaws,” Deutsch said in an open letter to the Joint Council of UAW Local 2865. “Paid staff should be accountable to campus unit officers in the same way that statewide officers should be.”

As a sub-caucus of UAW, AWDU is continuing communication with the union. Elections across the board will be held again in May.

“I think that it was unfortunate that there was quite a bit of … ad hominem attacks on union leaders, including myself,” Larimore-Hall said. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say that bothered me. I’m hopeful that with the vote and the very strong ratification of the contract we can move on.”