Guest Commentary: Bargaining with the Emperor

Graduate students march in the rain to their bargaining session in March

By  Ellie White

On March 21st and 22nd, 2018, the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) came to UC Davis to bargain with the UC Student Workers Union for a new contract. The Academic Student Employees’ (ASEs) current contract is set to expire June 30th, 2018. With a new contract the union can ensure progress on compensation and workplace conditions for ASEs, the teaching assistants, readers, tutors, and associate instructors at the UCs.

As a rank-and-file member of the union, I attended bargaining on the 21st, and here is my experience.

On Bargaining Location: The location for the first day of bargaining was agreed to without hassle. In negotiations on where the second day should occur, UCOP refused to come to the Solano Park Community Center. I live in Solano Park. It is the only affordable housing available on-campus and is scheduled to be shut down in 2020. Its community center fits over 50 people, has a playroom for children inside, large windows for parents to monitor their kids when/if they play outside, was free of charge, and reserved for the entire day.

Why would UCOP refused to bargain there? Maybe it’s because opposing affordable housing and the roofs over our heads are difficult when you are sitting under the roof over our head. Maybe this would have made participation in open bargaining much easier for parents, a group whose grievances UCOP proved they do not like hearing. I will come back to this point later. Opposing student parents is the equivalent of opposing their children who could have been just a few feet away. Therefore, UCOP felt that bargaining at the Solano Park Community Center would be “inappropriate.” The alternative rooms they insisted on, and the union agreed to, were at the Alumni Center.

Solano Park is a place the university provides for us. The Alumni center is a luxurious building we provide for the university with our money when we become Alumni. The room provided to the union was designed to seat 10-12 at fire capacity. The union bargaining team was over 20 people that day and could not legally fit in the room, a fact UCOP was aware of. Somehow, they managed to themselves end up in a much larger room[1]. Creating artificial problems is one of the many ways an activity can be opposed; UCOP seems to have an aversion to working on a new contract.

On their Comfort in the Room: The first day of bargaining was at Wyatt Pavilion. A stage with two rows of tables had members of the bargaining team sit on either side. The room was surrounded by auditorium seating for the other members of the union who were attending open bargaining. UCOP was “uncomfortable” sitting on stage and with their back to people in audience seating. Long discussions ensued on their dissatisfaction with the room. Finally, the room was cut and union members squeezed into 1/2 of the room.

On Testimonies: Around 15 students[2] gave short testimonies in the morning. Most talked about the importance of affordable housing and Solano Park for their survival. Some parents talked about their struggles with UC Student Health Insurance Plan’s costly healthcare and their child care expenses. Some children were also present during testimony. UCOP’s response? “Housing is a student issue, not a worker issue”, and they will not discuss it.

On Democracy: After what seems to have been a difficult morning for UCOP, they wanted to talk about the other union members present. According to UCOP, everyone not at the bargaining table is not and should not be part of the bargaining process as they are technically “guests.” Translation being: they do not want to hear anymore more student testimonies. I suspect understanding the union’s democratic nature is difficult for people within an institution that is not democratic, fair, or inclusive[3]. Regardless, UCOP was forced to sit through more student testimonies.

On Request for Respect: After being late at the start of the meeting, more than 30 minutes late returning from lunch, and spending another 40 minutes talking about what was essentially a request to no longer hear student testimonies, UCOP talked about the union disrespecting their time by not giving them a detailed agenda. They wanted to know beforehand who was going to speak, specifically pointing to the Solano Park testimonies. Once again, to me, the time they deliberately wasted throughout the day pointed to their aversion to working.

On Fear of Social Media: UCOP also understands that they have an image problem, maybe because they have a corruption and greed problem. They requested the information from that day’s session to be exclusively posted to the union’s website, since social media, especially twitter is “inappropriate[4].” The rebuttal was that the union’s twitter belongs to the union just as much as the union’s website belongs to the union, and whether the objection was to the character limit imposed by twitter. After some discussion, UCOP requested that twitter posts include a link to the website. Visit and search for: #UCForAll and #Bargaining2865 for the information they did not want you to see.

On the Issues: The issues discussed and brought up in testimonies spanned core quality of life and workplace concerns: affordable housing, sanctuary campuses, dependent healthcare, mental healthcare, demilitarizing campus police, gender neutral bathrooms, and diversity. UCOP outright rejected the idea of bargaining on all of these issues.

On Trained Psychopathy: I cannot explain UCOP’s demeanor in any other way but trained psychopathy[5]. No amount of emotional testimonies from students seemed to have any impact. Their bodies cold and unmoving on the inside and out. No concern, worry, or empathy could be found on that side of the table. It is not a surprise that most of the UCOP team had their heads buried in their laptops and phones or staring blankly at the floor for the majority of the testimonies. I was left bewildered how effectively humanity can be trained out of human beings.

On Window Dressing for Diversity: 11 of the 13 UCOP bargaining team were women, and most were women of color. I heard none but one (the chair) speak the entire day[6]. What was the purpose of this image? Window dressing for diversity. When housing is more of an issue for minorities, how else can we explain UCOP’s attack on affordable housing? When the biggest part of the leaky pipeline to STEM is bad policies on maternity leave and child care, how else can we explain UCOP’s refusal to talk about these issues? Their goal is to appear not racist and not sexist while continuing to be racist and sexist.

On Our Comfort: I gave testimony twice that day. There was more self disclosure in my statements than I was comfortable sharing, but I have learned that a response to injustice is not to simply modify how we feel[7]. It is to be despite the emotions. I was shaking and in physical pain when talking about my personal concerns with UC Davis’ mental health service[8]. It took me an hour to stop shaking after I was done with my testimony.

As one student parent put it early in the day: “Why do we have to be here to talk about these issues?” It is despicable to have to bargain for our fundamental needs. When you confront the people responsible, you are forced to feel: hopelessness, feebleness, contempt, horror, anger and anxiety. You are forced to shake while trying to get out the words that are demanding back what is owed to you.

How small of them to think it is OK to talk about their mild discomfort in the room that morning. How unhuman, unfeeling, and disconnected when they have their heads buried in their chests. My experience at bargaining can be summed up in the story of “The Emperor Has No Clothes” but the opposite; this time the people are naked and yell: “Clothe us! We’re freezing!”, and the emperor says: “Wow! What warm outfits you have on.”

Ellie White is a graduate student at UC Davis

[1] The bargaining room was also not available for part of the day (midday), which UCOP did not communicate to the union beforehand. This only became clear after UCOP mysteriously insisted on a long break.

[2] I lost count.

[3] If you believe in democratizing the UC please sign the petition at:

[4] The word “Inappropriate” was misused so much, I have been doubting my understanding of it.

[5] Or could they all be suffering from a temporary paralysis of facial muscles?

[6] That’s not true. One UCOP member did ask me where the bathrooms were.

[7] From Sara Ahmed’s “Living a Feminist Life.”

[8] In 2016, the UC Office of the President announced an $18 million UC-wide initiative for the hiring of 85 mental health clinicians including an additional 12 counseling psychologists at UC Davis. We, at UC Davis, didn’t get that.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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