Under the premise that austerity was the only possible response to the financial crisis of 2008, the University of California accelerated a process of financialization already was well underway since the 1990s. 

With diminished federal support, the state-run UC implemented a new revenue model that depended on diminished faculty hiring in order to maximize increased profit margins that were secured by increasing the number of students admitted into the university and their tuition

This revenue model was complimented by the implementation of forms of financial management that compelled professors and administrators to understand the function of departments through the lens of monetary profits and losses despite the university’s public mission. Interdisciplinary programs, which had formed as the institutional legacy of anti-racist and feminist struggles of the post-war era were among those whose functions and purposes were not immediately quantifiable or lucrative enough and thus were hit the hardest.

In addition, students were compelled to pay for the crisis in multiple ways. The UC increased its dependence on cheap graduate student labor, filling the need to keep student-teacher ratios down and maintain institutional prestige.

The increase in tuition resulted in an explosion of student debt. At the same time, rents increased rapidly in many of the coastal cities where UC campuses are located. It is this combination of processes that I refer to as the neoliberalization of the UC and it is this combination of factors that formed the raw material from which a new cycle of movements exploded.

Amidst a proliferation of radical student movement initiatives, a process of graduate student worker organization developed in 2010. 

While it won a historic contract in 2014, ultimately, the graduate student worker organizational process failed to stabilize into a lasting organizational formation. Understanding the reasons for this helps us to understand the broader structural and contingent problems that worker organizers face in the current conjuncture both in and beyond the university.

Over the cycle of struggles I examine at the UC, the anti-neoliberalization student movement gave rise to a number of organizations and organizational processes. Graduate student organization, as a stratum among these, was also many and varied, from space to space. 

Within this context, I examine the process of organizational composition and decomposition of a specific organizing core of graduate student workers at UCSD from 2010 to 2017 – an organizing core in which I participated between 2013 and 2015.

Following the work of Rodrigo Nunes, I define organizing cores as assemblages of persons within the network of a movement that play a critical role in shaping the movement’s contours and trajectories given the capacities, capabilities, and resources they bring to the table.

This specific organizing core at UCSD began to take form in 2012 when graduate student workers and undergraduates occupied a library that was closed under the premise of austerity.

Though the attempt to keep the library open failed, it produced an organizing core of graduate student workers that, following the newly formed statewide UAW 2865 Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU) caucus, joined the graduate student union and attempted to use the union as a vehicle for combatting neoliberalization.

They organized a number of strikes and protests over the 2013-2014 academic year and even won control of the local union unit at UCSD in 2014. 

Already by 2015, however, the organizing core fragmented under a variety of pressures. While it once more re-assembled in 2016 in the form of the Lumumba Zapata Collective in response to the Trump campaign, it decomposed once again by 2017.

Discursive-Practical Articulations

How do we explain this inability to stabilize?

Drawing on insights from Michel Foucault, I argue that through associating, workers develop what I call “discursive-practical articulations” that can either be inhibiting or conducive to organizational stability.

While the dominant discourses that circulate within a worksite or social base condition action and practice, a discourse does not in itself automatically or mechanically articulate a specific set of corresponding practices. 

Molding the ways actors perceive problems and solutions, dominant discourses provide a parametric range of potential practices which are articulated in a contingent fashion by the actors involved.

This concept helps us understand how discourses of direct action, identity and intersectionality, and prefigurative politics articulated practices that, respectively:

  1. Neglected organization building by placing too much focus on direct action;
  2. Created conditions from which people with specific identities established gatekeeper and tokenization  mechanisms dictating what was and was not permitted; and
  3. Contributed to the development of a persistent practice of policing and calling out that articulated with a panoptic social media environment.

The Poverty of Combat-Organizational Knowledge

Beyond inhibitive discursive-practical articulations, another critical factor I observed that inhibited the possibility of organizational stability was the lack of what I term to be combat-organizational knowledge.

That is, despite the fact that the militants that composed the organizing core experienced a number of different forms of structural oppression and were exploited by the university, and despite their theoretical sophistication, none of these knowledges endowed them with the practical know-how to organize: that which I term to be, combat-organizational knowledge.

Although militants wanted to organize in lasting, resilient, and politically effective ways, neither their experiential nor their theoretical knowledge could produce such an outcome. 

Combat-organizational knowledge then relates to the knowing of practices, techniques, and mechanisms that allow workers to autonomously organize themselves into an effective and creative fighting force. Not only did many militants lack such knowledge – they lacked the mechanisms through which such knowledge could be collectively produced and circulated.

As a result, I concur with Jane McAlevey that organizing is a kind of “craft” militants must learn. Yet, McAlevey’s rigid prescriptions remain inadequate to the task of providing the stable forms of organization that we lacked at UCSD.

While providing a coherent framework for organizing, McAlevey’s model says nothing about key issues workers faced in terms of conflict resolution, the development of dialogical structures for debate, the role of reproductive practices and collective joy that strengthens solidarities and fortifies the morale of workers, and the importance of fostering a culture of feminism and anti-racism in the workplace.

Rather than a specific organizing model, I propose that it is more productive to conceptualize worker organization as a set of problems around which knowledges of different practices, techniques, and mechanisms can be developed to temporarily “fix” organizational questions.

I argue that these problems revolve around key domains: outreach, recruitment, and leadership development; decision-making and rule-making; mobilization structures and evaluation; conflict resolution; reproduction and care; campaign development; messaging and framing; internal and external communication; anti-oppression restructuring; and coalition-building.

Any collective of workers looking to organize will have to face all of these problems. Knowledge of a variety of practices, techniques, and mechanisms can thus assist them in developing an organizational schema that fits according to the local reality and conditions. 

Such an understanding comes closer to recent insights made by both Nunes and Chris Dixon. Rather than seeking a single timeless model or organizational form, self-organization is better approached by “mediating” the forces and needs that come together in specific and situated ways that require a specific balance of organizational qualities. Likewise, for Dixon, a focus on specific organizational forms might override the necessity to think of organizational features needed to empower workers and coordinate their collective force.

To the degree and scale that workers can become organized, different repertoires and combinations of practices and mechanisms become possible. That is, the more capacities and capabilities workers cohere through pooling labor-power and resources via organization and coalition, the more sophisticated and complex the organization’s actions can become. In this way, organizing is not about finding a single timeless model, but finding the right combination of practices and mechanisms attuned to a particular, contingent reality. 

Organizational Ecologies of Dissent

Ultimately, however, I conclude that the ability to achieve organizational stability is always relational. That is, the technical composition of graduate students means that they are only at the university for a limited amount of time, and oftentimes their scholastic requirements mean they are not available for other activities. 

This creates a structural barrier to the generation of the institutional combat-organizational knowledge necessary to stabilize the organization.

At the same time, their organizational capabilities are shaped not only by historically-situated structural limits, but by the broader organizational ecology of dissent in which such organization is embedded.

Drawing on the work of Aldon Morris and Alan Sears, I define an organizational ecology of dissent as the ecosystem of organizations and infrastructures that buttress movements, such as schools, militant unions and parties, social centers, printing presses, cultural circuits and venues, and the like. 

Given the general decomposition of such ecologies that neoliberalism entails, without a broader organizational arrangement to buttress student efforts, organizational stability from this layer of workers cannot be expected and is subject to booms and busts. In this way, worker organization is always a relational question that depends on the broader state of struggle and its organizational and institutional development. 

Photo credit: Cynthia Vazquez 

Daniel Gutiérrez is a doctoral candidate at Freie Universität Berlin’s North American Studies program, where he researches working-class power, strategy, and organization.