March 7, 2020
I greet you from Santa Cruz, where we have just finished the fourth week of our picket. There is something in the air here; time is moving differently. I invite you to come visit, if you can find a way. I hear flights are cheap these days on account of COVID-19.
I’m writing to you about a different sort of contagion. I write to congratulate you for catching the COLA bug, and to offer you some words on the art of chaos management that has taken form on the ground in Santa Cruz over the past few months. Perhaps they will be helpful to you as the COLA event unfolds on your campus and across the state.
You can’t reproduce what happened here in Santa Cruz on your own campus. Even if you could, nobody would be able to tell you exactly how. Accordingly I offer you neither rules, nor guidelines, nor directives. I invite you to use or discard my thoughts as you see fit.
My hope is that you’ll find something here that you can use to strengthen this wildcat movement on your own campus. If we wildcats are able to gain a strong foothold across the UC system without allowing our current union leadership to co-opt what we’ve built, we are sure to win more than a COLA.
LESSON: WHEN THERE IS A RUPTURE IN THE VOID OF REPRESENTATION, OTHER DEMANDS WILL RUSH THROUGH IT. WELCOME THEM.
Our movement originates in a space of lack. We lack a wage we can live on— which means we lack food, shelter, medicine, time for taking care. We, as graduate students, are not alone in this lack. We share it with a great deal of the world’s population.
We also lack representation: indeed, our union leadership doesn’t seem to take our accelerating impoverishment very seriously.
We, UCSC wildcats, took steps to represent ourselves, offering our demands directly to the bosses without union mediation. We made the urgency of our demands felt systemwide, and we did it by striking without the protection of a union— which is to say, by withholding our labor, disrupting the system when we were told we had no right to do so.
But we share the space we’ve disrupted with others. Why, in the chaos following our opening shot, should we, graduate students, expect to be the only ones with a demand to make? I’m speaking, here, of more than a COLA.
LESSON: THIS WAS ALWAYS ABOUT MORE THAN A COLA.
Shortly after we demanded a COLA for graduate student workers—say, COLA-classic— another demand followed. Why just grad students? — the thinking went—why not everybody? An affinity group came together around this demand: COLA4ALL. Their entry into the conversation was frustrating to some of the COLA-classic organizers, who had put a great deal of work into framing a concrete, limited demand that seemed achievable in the relatively short term. But had those frustrations been allowed to determine the direction of the movement, the movement would surely have sputtered out by now. Indeed, COLA4ALL has in many ways become the heart of the movement in Santa Cruz.
Let it be known that COLA4ALL began as an affinity group comprised of people who are always already struggling in the void of representation— BIPOC, queer, differently abled, undocumented. Whereas COLA-classic centered the demands of graduate students, COLA4ALL opened the movement to undergraduates and workers.
If graduate student wildcats disrupted the workings of the institution by withholding grades, COLA4ALL built an all-inclusive movement within the chaotic space that our disruption opened up.
LESSON: SOLIDARITY FOREVER MEANS SOLIDARITY RIGHT NOW
What does all this mean for those graduate students who feel a COLA for grads is within reach but a COLA for all is not?
If we want a COLA, and we think we are going to get it, we have to know in advance that we will owe our success to comrades with less to win. If we win a COLA, we will be obliged to continue fighting for those who remain stuck in the void of representation.
In other words, if we want a COLA for ourselves, we must begin right now to organize for more than a COLA. If we do not— that is, if we plan to step away from radical politics at the moment we win for ourselves— ‘solidarity’ becomes a curse in our mouths.
LESSON: THE UNION IS A POWERFUL INSTRUMENT. IF WE DON’T USE IT, IT WILL USE US.
The union is there to be used, by rank and file members, to elicit concessions from the boss. It is not there to direct the actions of its rank and file. A union that directs its rank-and-file effectively works for the boss— in our case, by insisting that we rest content with the paltry concessions this leadership ‘won’ in 2018.
We have a union that wants to dictate our course of action from above. It is not difficult to see the ‘use’ to which they are putting our movement. Indeed, they’ve done everything they can to domesticate our energy in service of a diet COLA demand: COLA for grad students who ask politely between now and 2022.
BEWARE THE ‘SOLIDARITY’ OF THOSE WHO WANT US MANAGED FROM ABOVE
I speak of UAW 2865 leadership— many of whom sign off their emails ‘in solidarity’— and of faculty who speak warmly about our courage and tell us to stand down in the same breath.
UAW2865: On February 12th— the very day I watched 17 comrades violently arrested; the very day I spent 4 hours holding the intersection of Bay & High with graduate and undergraduate comrades, watching militarized rent-a-cops salivate at the prospect of getting to use their new toys on our bodies— UAW2865 tweeted:
“Union members at Berkeley, Davis, and Merced were out in force today to make the case that more must be done to support rent-burdened grad workers. We are pushing administrators to stop raising our rents because enough is enough. #COLA4ALL.”
What about UC Santa Cruz? Not a word about our demands, delivered months before; not a word about the action we’d been taking to see our demands met; not a word about the concussions, broken fingers, bruised ribs suffered by UCSC wildcats demanding a COLA. On the very day the administration tried hardest to stomp us out, our union erased us from our own campaign.
Faculty: If they speak supportively but act with the administration, pay them no mind; they’ll only distract you from your solidarity.
With that said, I would not dare make the claim that we have not experienced genuinely supportive faculty. We’ve found, here in Santa Cruz, that some faculty— a precious few, particularly those who participate in FOG (faculty organizing group)— are genuinely committed to materializing the kinds of justice they teach in their classrooms.
LESSON: THIS UNION WILL WHITEWASH OUR MOVEMENT, IF WE LET IT
Not only did the February 12th tweet from UAW2865 erase the Santa Cruz wildcats from the story of the COLA event; it also appropriated the language of COLA4all. Indeed, shortly after the tweet, a website was launched by union leadership: cola4all.com. Luckily, the website was short-lived: the real COLA4ALL made sure of that. But the damage has been done, and the COLA4ALL language has lost its potency for the very communities by and for whom it was developed.
Any sentient being can see how unethical UAW was in making this appropriation. But I don’t want to dwell on ethics here. Instead, I want to bring up a strategic concern that arises from this appropriation. In practical terms, the whitewashing of #COLA4ALL compromises this language’s potential to bring BIPOC, queer, differently abled, and undocumented students on other UC campuses into the movement for a COLA.
From a coldly strategic standpoint, this act of appropriation compromises the ability of the COLA movement to build the kind of inclusive solidarity we need if we are to take the UC for the people. Indeed, it seems to me to have been calculated to do so. But from the perspective of a fired (up) UCSC wildcat, who stands in solidarity with the real COLA4ALL, this is more than a strategic problem. It is an absolute fucking outrage. Make no mistake: this was an act of violence against marginalized people, those who have lived their entire lives in precarity, who need COLA (and more) the most.
I haven’t given up on the union entirely— I maintain, hesitantly, that our movement can use UAW2865 to win some of the concessions we need. But I also have to ask: if our union works actively to stop its rank and file from building solidarity with the most precarious people in our workplace, why the fuck do we still pay dues?
LESSON: AFFINITY IS BETTER THAN AUTHORITY.
That our movement is grounded in a rejection of authority should be obvious enough from our choice to go out on a wildcat strike. We grow stronger by continuing to reject authority, maintaining that the power to end the strike remains with the wildcats who declared it to begin with.
Unauthorized should be taken to mean leaderless: we need answer to no one, least of all to an ‘authority’ that denies the legitimacy of our demands. But leaderless need not mean disorganized: a leaderless movement has to be a movement full of bottom-liners.
In practical terms, this means that we have to learn to delegate horizontally. This is a difficult skill to develop, because we have all been trained to respect authority. When we learn to detest authority, the last thing we want to do is feel like we’re giving an order. And yet, as I’m sure you’ve seen already, so much of the organizing work falls on so few people that it becomes necessary to delegate aggressively— to pass along burdensome tasks to others without a) feeling guilty for doing so or b) worrying that they will do a bad job.
However necessary an organizer/supporter model might be for orchestrating the triggering tactic— the withholding of labor— it is limiting to the project of building solidarity among and beyond the rank and file. It is also limiting to the capacities of the movement. To people unpracticed in labor organizing— the people we need to motivate most— the duality of organizer/supporter engages a counterproductive kind of heirarchical thinking: organizing sovereigns, supportive subjects. Experienced organizers know this to be untrue. But passionate supporters, new to the game, do not: I am here for the organizers, they will say; I won’t compromise their ability to organize by adding my ideas into the mix. This is how the revolution loses precisely the resources it needs most— the revolutionary subject’s abundance of capacity.
LESSON: PEOPLE ORGANIZE THEMSELVES BETTER THAN ORGANIZERS ORGANIZE PEOPLE. THEY JUST NEED SPACE TO DO SO. If it is true that the fiction of authority tends to persist wherever a line is drawn between organizers and supporters, and that it tends to choke people’s sense of their own capacities wherever it persists, then we need to introduce another way of thinking about the composition of the movement for a COLA. Instead of organizers and supporters, think affinity groups.
Who likes to sew banners? Who likes to design and/or screeprint shirts? Who likes to build things? Who likes to sneak around in the middle of the night? Who likes to cook? Who likes to ride bikes? Who can play music? Who can write well? Who is good with computers? Who is good at math?
Make it known that a task must be completed. Give the people who are able to do the task the space and the opportunity to find each other. They will organize themselves around what work there is to do. Dabblers in organizing will become bottom liners. The movement will grow, and the dominant attitude will change: from a storm of organizers asking each other how the fuck do we get this done ourselves? emerges, eventually, a dynamic in which it seems that if you ask, you shall recieve.
LESSON: PEOPLE ORGANIZE THEMSELVES WITHOUT KNOWING IT. LEARN HOW TO DEAL WITH THEM.
Affinity groups will arise without identifying themselves as a group. Not all of them will be good. I have in mind, here, a type of individual who feels that having a voice matters more than getting organized. Individuals of this type work together without knowing it, and they work against the movement. They are obnoxious, and they will make demands of time better spent getting organized. They will hijack your email threads indiscriminately, and they will turn every strategic conversation into a discourse on tone. They will not go away, no matter how badly you wish they would.
I don’t know what to tell you. Start an affinity group? Find your saltiest, your most sarcastic, your most unconcerned with tone, manners, etiquette. Allow them to architect email threads that can act as shitcatchers, so that important conversations have a small chance of not being drowned out by liberal nonsense. It doesn’t solve the problem, but it can mitigate the suffocation of radical action by reformist concerns.
LESSON: MEETING MANAGEMENT
I speak of managing General Assemblies, and I speak of speaking with management.
Caveat: I have never been accused of being a very effective organizer. I am just a middle-aged man who thinks he knows things. Some of what follows will be obvious. Some of this will be wrong. I offer it anyway.
GA: These are precious meetings: time is limited, and voices are many. To get the most out of them, plan them carefully, strategically, and collaboratively; stick to your plan, and learn from its failures for the next GA. For example, the grade-withholding tactic needs to be discussed at an assembly that consists entirely (or almost entirely) of folks who are able to participate in the action— that is, graduate student workers. Otherwise, other demands— which, I maintain, should be welcomed enthusiastically into the movement— will flood in, and distract possible grade withholders from the nuts-and-bolts conversations they need to be having if their action is to succeed.
But grade withholding is just one tactic in the movement for more than a COLA. After you’ve nailed down your execution of that limited tactic, hold general assemblies for all, in which other tactics can be proposed and discussed. Set an agenda beforehand with a team of facilitators at an organizing council. After each meeting, make it well known that your organizing council welcomes newcomers; they will come, and they will bring good ideas to put on the agenda; they will begin to pick up on the work the strike requires without waiting around for instruction.
They will also bring ideas that are obsolete, inapplicable, strategically misguided— which you will be able (to some degree) to get out of the way before the general assembly.
For the first few meetings, it will inevitably seem to the masses as though an elite cadre is pulling all the strings and making all the calls. But as newcomers grow into their capacities to facilitate, things will no longer appear to be predetermined by a small group. It will become clear to everyone present that the people are organizing themselves.
Meeting with management (from department chairs to administration): You’ll have to do it. It will mostly suck. Department chairs will be department chairs: they play a long game incompatible with the urgency of our movement. Administrators will listen to your arguments without hearing the suffering that compels you to make them. Find your comrades as soon as the meeting is over: their company is the antidote to administrative poison.
LESSON: GIVE HESITANT FOLKS AN OPPORTUNITY TO PARTICIPATE IN THE ACTION WITHOUT FORCING AN IMMEDIATE CHANGE IN ROUTINE
I cringe as I say this— you all have declared a full grading strike, and what I’m telling you may seem like a less militant option— but I say it because it may help you find ways to increase participation in your action.
Consider the distinction between a grading strike and a grade-withholding strike. The former withholds much more labor-time, and immediately disrupts the relationship between student and instructor/TA. The latter withholds about a minute and a half of grading time, and delays the real disruption until after the end of the quarter.
Consider this distinction from the perspective of a supporter who loves to teach, who feels a strong sense of obligation to their students. If the picket line is drawn within the last ninety seconds of the quarter— in such a way that the relationship between TA/GSI and student is not abruptly brought to a halt— this kind of supporter will participate in the action much more readily. Moreover, the extra time this option allows strikers to spend with undergrads will provide an opportunity for you to get out ahead of the administrative narrative which says that the strike does undergrads harm.
It is much easier to persuade people to withhold ninety seconds of labor than it is to persuade them to stop going to work altogether, particularly when they feel they do their job for something more than $$$. Not everyone who participates will hold the line: indeed, as warning letters come out, your numbers will begin to decline. But as the submitters fall away from the line, the withholders— many of whom will have begun the action cautiously, apprehensively— will become more invested in the movement, and begin to participate actively in the organizational work that directs the chaotic energy of the collective towards a concrete goal.
LESSON: STOP LEARNING FROM TENURED FACULTY. START LEARNING FROM UNDERGRADUATES.
Undergraduates face the same future we face. Full professors do not. It’s as simple as that. Encourage your students to start affinity groups, and to join existing ones; let them know how they can help you, and make it known (by your actions and your words) that you are invested in helping them thrive outside of the classroom. We owe our successes, in large part, to the principled militancy of undergraduates in the People’s Coalition and the Snail Movement (among other groups). These alliances began in the classroom, when the strike was only an idea.
Do not scoff at the scale of undergraduates’ demands, or push away the enthusiasm they bring to the movement. Fold them into your organizing, amplify their demands. Remember, we are talking about much more than a COLA.
LESSONS, LESSONS, LESSONS…
I’ve learned precisely nothing from getting fired. Before receiving my termination letter, I’d already met with callous administrators, faced off with overeager cops, argued with the hopeless about the necessity and promise of our movement. In other words, I was already well acquainted with the evils of the UC machine, the lengths to which these fuckers will go to make sure we’re kept just barely alive, and the heartbreaking limits this system imposes on the imaginations of those who work within it.
Comrades— you already know what I know, and more. I am at peace with having lost my job. I’ll find another income, and I have plenty of work to do which promises nothing in return. I am not at peace with the continued bullshit of the UC system that gaslights us all into thinking we are doomed to spend our lives in the space of lack they’ve constructed for us.
We, UC grad workers, share a boss and a landlord with a staggering number of people— workers in maintenance, food service, sanitation; undergraduate students whose rising tuition is pledged in advance to the parasites of financial capital; adjuncts; administrative staff; the list goes on. We share our space of lack with most of them. Let’s fire the architects of our misery and rebuild the UC for the people who need it.
I am absolutely positive that we can succeed, and that we will. But again, what do I know? I’m just some fool who got himself fired.
Dr. Tippy DeTourmand