Public and private universities are lightning rods for the labor movement. Why? To paraphrase Willie Sutton, ‘cause that’s where the labor is. Far from wispy idylls of libraries and home games, universities are economies unto themselves, replaying and magnifying the rest of the culture within their walls — including, of course, the labor movement.

In a society given ever more to the production of information, they are power stations. The University of California system has an operating budget estimated at $12 billion, a mix of state funding, federal research grants and private money. It employs 150,000 people statewide.

Many of them have been busy signing union cards.

The newest work-force insurgents are the Academic Student Employees, or ASEs. “Please don‘t call us grad students,” implores Connie Razza. “We’re workers.” Razza is a spokesperson for the Student Association of Graduate Employees (SAGE), affiliated with the United Auto Workers. Culminating 15 years of organizing, readers, tutors and teaching assistants won union recognition this year with SAGEUAW.

The endgame started in 1995, when the state Public Employees Relations Board (PERB) ruled that as workers, ASEs could in fact unionize. This upset previous rulings, which had adhered to the UC administration‘s position that the ASEs were just students.

The administration stuck to its guns and appealed the board’s decision. Last December, the grads, with large majorities in support, went out on strike. No classes held, no papers graded. Undergrads brought soup to picket lines. The Daily Bruin editorialized in support. Grad opposition was limited but colorful: Anti-union French teaching assistants quoted Proust on the evils of unions. “Proust never worked a day in his life,” scrawled an English TA in response. As the UAW readied strike benefits, legislative higher-ups Senate President Pro Tem John Burton and Speaker of the Assembly Antonio Villaraigosa stepped in, negotiating a 45-day cooling-off period.

And then, “the environment changed,” as UC spokesperson Brad Hayward put it. Early this year, PERB announced that it had rejected the university‘s appeal. Recognition was inevitable; a bargaining team was formed. Both sides are tightlipped about the issues on the table, but a contract will likely address longtime ASE complaints. “Anytime I’ve TA‘ed without any other income, I’ve had to take out a loan,” says Razza.

(The L.A. Times acknowledged grads‘ troubles soon after the strike, but editorialized against unionization and proposed that UC make it easier to fire tenured faculty to free up better-paid positions for the grads.)

The turnaround in the giant California system, years after state schools in Michigan, Massachusetts and Wisconsin, will nonetheless boost grad organizing nationwide. Opposition to ASE unions rests on the perception that grads are just students: Union-shy faculty often cast them as apprentices, living lean in preparation for fatter lives in the pastures of academe. But apprenticeships offer no argument against unionization.

Among skilled craft workers, apprenticeships are often facilitated by unions as an entry point into the work force.

Furthermore, apprenticeship fails to capture the life experience of grad students in today’s university. A glut of TAs (9,000 systemwide) and an absence of tenure-track faculty positions would suggest that supply outstrips demand. But in light of the work that ASEs perform — day-to-day grading and teaching undergraduates — their services are very much in demand. The university is a factory, and an undergraduate with a diploma is its product, like a Ford Taurus sent to the showroom. While some students still go to college just to think, the majority, Razza explains, are pre-professional students.

Many in the union feel that the production of tomorrow‘s workers by unionized ASEs will result in a more class-conscious product — kind of a union label for students. This broad vision of organizing has its roots in an independent union called District 65. Through the late ’70s and early ‘80s, when labor was widely held to be in decline, District 65 organized nontraditional, heavily feminized work forces, such as day-care workers and rural legal-service staffers (one of whom today is the UAW organizer charged with the ASE unions). It organized white-collar units at Columbia University and grads at UMass and UC Berkeley. In a financial crisis, the UAW absorbed it — along with its diverse leadership. In today’s more organizing-friendly labor culture, District 65‘s legacy lights a path toward organizing difficult sectors.

“TAs, readers and tutors — we’re temps and casuals,” says Connie Razza. She believes that the grads‘ victory affirms the rights of that growing pool of workers.

The surge of “pink-collar organizing,” represented by District 65 and highly visible on campus, runs against the “barren ’80s” school of labor history. This school has its merits — Reagan busted PATCO and heavy industry took flight, no small potatoes — but it represents a conservative, masculine view of labor history. Although most workers today are female or minorities, no one advertises “union member” like a white guy with a hardhat.

But also during the ‘80s, office workers across the country formed Service Employees International Union District 925. At Yale University, office assistants, tired of being seen as faculty wives earning pocket money, struck for recognition — and persuaded the blue-collar workers whose picket lines they’d crossed in the past to respect their own line for eight weeks.

In the UC system, the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) rode this wave, organizing a mostly female bargaining unit of some 18,000 clerical workers, police dispatchers and child-care personnel. But by 1995, AFSCME was stuck in dusty bureaucracy.

The union collected dues but returned little to its UC workers. Few workers knew their rights; supervisors acted with willful ignorance of the union contract. Because state labor law declares an open shop for public-sector university employees, only 3 percent of the workers in the bargaining unit were active, dues-paying members.

UCLA library assistant Claudia Horning was one of many who attended the state AFSCME convention in 1994 from across the UC system. “We came with a platform that said, ‘Either Organize Us or Let Us Go.’ It passed unanimously,” she says. “And it was ignored by the AFSCME leadership.”

Soon the Coalition of University Employees, or CUE, was born. In November 1997, clericals up and down the UC system held an election to oust AFSCME and install CUE as the new, independent union.

The university chipped in its two cents with a halfhearted “no union” Web campaign that CUE president Elinor Levine, an administrative assistant at UC Berkeley, describes as “a revolting animated bear dipping its paw in a pot of honey.” An Internet campaign rolled the union on. CUE won the election with 62 percent of 6,000 votes cast.

In the original AFSCME effort, however, 17,000 clerical and other university workers cast ballots. CUE now faces the dual challenge of restoring membership while winning a first contract.

The union won‘t give numbers, but estimates that membership is around double its AFSCME nadir.

When the university held up pay raises approved by the Legislature, CUE lobbied for a law in Sacramento that would force UC to use money intended for pay raises for pay raises. When the university suggested that CUE concede work-rule language that included progressive discipline for dress-code violations (a code that Levine characterizes as “underwear must be worn; shoelaces must be clean”), members flooded administrators with protest e-mails. Recently, CUE paid for a full-page ad in The New York Times Western Edition (cost: $5,000) accusing the university of foot-dragging in contract negotiations.

For active members, CUE holds the promise of restoring balance to a public institution. “In the movement to make the university into a corporation, we’re the ones who get hurt,” says UCLA clerical Julie Monroe. Elinor Levine says that recent raises to top administrators exceed her own $27,000 salary. University officials defend the raises, asserting that comparable institutions pay similar administrators even more.

CUE‘s independence and its rank-and-file character are part of its appeal, but it may yet choose to affiliate with a larger union. Self-preservation may speed this process up: Legislation pending in Sacramento would turn the university into an agency shop, requiring that all members of a bargaining unit pay dues. While Levine is busy organizing more members to pay dues, she fears that a legislative fiat could turn CUE into booty for AFSCME: “If they decertified us, they’d make $2 million a year.” Library assistant Claudia Horning is reserved on the subject of affiliation; she fears CUE‘s best qualities would be compromised if it became Local X of a larger, bureaucratized union.

If CUE affiliates, it’ll have many neighbors to choose from. The past four years have seen successful organizing drives among four different bargaining units, including research professionals and health-care workers. The California Nurses Association and the Communication Workers of America have significant presence in the system, as now do the United Auto Workers, with the ASEs‘ success.

The football team can’t be far behind.

LA Weekly