Shoved From the Ivory Tower: Disabled Graduate Students Crushed Between the University of California & Their Union
Heather Ringo and Julia Métraux
On November 29th, 2022, over 200 disabled union workers and allies gathered on Zoom to beg members of the UAW 2865 Bargaining Team (BT) not to drop the core demands of our Access Needs Article (Article 23) in their labor strike and negotiations with the University of California (UC). We shared the challenges of acquiring medical documentation and how multiple COVID-19 infections could force us out of our jobs or kill us, how removing mask mandates during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic makes our workplaces inaccessible, and the horrific ways ableist bullying manifests in our labs and classrooms. Some shared how ableism at the UC and within the union led to suicidal ideation. Later that night, the BT voted in a private session — where rank and file members (non-leadership members of an organization or company) were excluded from attending, despite our repeated requests for inclusion — to gut the core demands of our Access Needs article. Most BT members who voted to drop these demands skipped the disability-centered caucus entirely. They couldn’t even be bothered to listen to us. On December 23rd, union members ratified a contract that abandoned us, with some claiming that the Americans with Disabilities Act is enough to create equity for disabled workers (spoiler alert: it’s not).
When journalists wrote about the UC-UAW strike, they parroted the words of union leadership, calling it “groundbreaking” and “historical.” These words sting because the contract leaves so many of us behind. We, as disabled union members, wanted to remember this strike as a historical solidarity movement in which we collectively fought to support our most marginalized colleagues. Instead, union leadership tells us we’re anti-union for demanding access.
The truly historical Access Needs Articles our union chose to gut would have included the following access-by-default demands written by and for disabled workers at the UC:
- Remove the medical documentation requirement: In addition to the difficulty of obtaining medical documentation, universities can reject accommodations suggested by doctors and, with no medical or disability expertise, prescribe their own “reasonable accommodations.” Heather Ringo, a graduate worker at the University of California, Davis, was told that her documentation was insufficient because it was through an FMLA form rather than UC Davis’ form, a form which her insurer stated was against their policy to complete; later, because they said it did not include the correct wording of “functional limitations.” Julia Métraux, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, despite already having medical documentation approved, had to get more in order to access a cart to take her around campus due to cardiac issues from COVID-19.
- Provide supervisor training about disability and accessibility: Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act being decades old, many professors and supervisors do not receive adequate training to ensure they are not discriminating against disabled workers and students. Some professors and supervisors refuse to implement university-approved accommodations or baseline requirements under the ADA, which includes not having captions in videos or holding events in inaccessible spaces. This is incredibly disappointing, as meeting ADA requirements should be the bare minimum.
- Provide a centralized fund for access adjustments: Some disabled workers have been denied access adjustments by their supervisors using the excuse that they do not have funding to make required adjustments. In other cases, the university’s refusal to fund accommodations means funding comes from research grants, causing resentment towards the disabled worker in labs. This lack of centralized funding means that the burden falls on disabled workers to find the money for access adjustments, which is an unnecessarily complicated maze for the worker and results in months-long waiting times to get access implemented. With wait times this long, academic institutions cannot pretend they are shocked when some disabled graduate workers leave because they are essentially pushed out.
- Enshrine workplace safety protections for COVID-19 and future pandemics: Despite the fact that it is a violation of our civil rights, the University of California has banned instructors or students from not only requiring, but even requesting universal masking in classrooms and workplaces. Thus, in addition to our disability article, we are demanding evidence-based pandemic protections in our workplace for all workers including but not limited to N95 masking, ventilation upgrades, and universal online access.
While we did not expect the University of California to immediately agree to these demands, the slim majority of the BT abandoning disabled workers is a shame. This is not to say all members of the Bargaining Team have left us behind. The BT9 (those who consistently vote against the conservative “business union” of BT10) – Janna Haider, Maddie Williams, Nick Cruz, Mark Woodall, Jack Davies, Stefan Yong, Micah Pedrick, Somchate “Pao” Wasantwisut, and Mai Nguyen – have fought hard on behalf of disabled workers. Similarly, alternates Sarah Abusaa and Becker Sharif have advocated valiantly to render union spaces accessible and in support of our articles. We thank them for fighting for a more equitable and accessible future. Unfortunately, they, like disabled workers at the UC, are working against a history of ingrained ableism both in the UC and UAW.
UAW, UC, and Systemic Ableism
The University of California has a storied history of disability advocacy. Yet while our institutions may brag about our disabled alumni, such as Ed Roberts, these trailblazers did not have accessibility handed to them. They fought for it. And we want non-disabled union workers to fight with us.
The recent strike was a long time in the making. Disabled graduate workers have faced pushback from fellow workers nearly every step in the way. For instance, disability justice demands were made, and dropped, in 2014 and 2018 UAW-UC contract negotiations. During the 2019-2020 academic year, Megan Lynch of UC Access Now approached UAW 2865 with disability grievances, and was told by a union representative that disability discrimination was not a union priority despite it being covered by multiple articles in our contract (13, 20, 23). She was not told filing a grievance was an option.
In Fall 2021, Ringo collected signatures on a letter to the UC Davis English Department asking them to take COVID-19 seriously. This letter, along with the foundational work of UC Access Now, led to department disability rights and accessibility training and the creation of the Disability Justice Committee (DJC). This group of disabled graduate students and allies at the UC, operating from a disability justice rather than disability rights framework, fights for access within the union and university. Union leadership, without letting Ringo read it first, drafted an email and sent it out to the membership with her signature on it. Other disabled workers at Davis report similar instances of dubious consent, transparency, and tokenizing practices, which run contrary to the disability rights slogan “Nothing About Us Without Us.” This use of marginalized workers for PR purposes is consistent with past patterns in the union.
Ableism and white supremacy are entangled harms. This is reflected in the whiteness of union leadership. But it’s also present in “official” disability organizing spaces. In UAW, the workers selected as faces of disability organizing are mostly white, despite Black, Indigenous, and other disabled workers of color doing most of the organizing labor and suffering the marginalization imposed by intersectional identities. Like in the tenets of Disability Justice developed by Patty Berne, we need to elevate “The Leadership of the Most Impacted.” To quote Blu Buchanan, a former head steward with UAW 2865, “Social justice unionism is an orientation towards union building which seeks to build intersectional solidarity with practices which center the voices of the marginalized.” Contrary to this impetus, the union chooses to center white disabled people who frequently level racist microaggressions and lateral ableism and sexism, such as SRU BT member Matt Ryan (UCSF) calling Mary Jirmanus Saba, who was requesting COVID protections, an “aggressive” “liar” and suggesting her advocating for disability rights constitutes “harassment.” One of the disabled white women featured on the official UAW website has actively excluded people of color from disability organizing spaces. One paid union staff member, also a white woman, yelled at two women of color fellow organizers and leveled racist microaggressions against them in union meetings about disability justice. When workers brought these harmful behaviors to the attention of union leadership, they were subjected to further harassment while those causing the harm were defended and elevated as exemplars. Combating these intra-union harms on top of UC harm exhausts and weeds out our most marginalized community members.
Many disabled people, including those involved in union organizing at the University of California institutions, have limited energy. We have poured this precious energy into begging for access instead of using time we have between medical, work, and class obligations to rest. UAW often holds membership meetings in inaccessible formats, such as in-person only without any mask requirements, which excludes members who are at high risk for COVID-19 complications. Union leadership often mirrors the ableism of University of California professors and supervisors, even as they use disability advocates in their PR materials and claim to fight for our rights.
During the summer of 2022, Tom Hintze – at the time a Davis campus union representative, who has since climbed the UAW career ladder ranks to become a “Political Director” – privately met with UC Labor Relations without consulting the DJC and settled our COVID-19 grievance, resulting in zero protections for disabled workers. Months later, there has been no communication from Hintze or union leadership about why this happened. Over this period, several union leaders have referred to disabled rank and file members as a “special interest group” holding other groups “hostage” and also have erased the work of UC Access Now in fighting for dismantling ableism. Union leadership has referred to questions about accessibility and contract bargaining as harassment and bullying. These accusations are an effort to silence us, one which will not work. Fighting for our needs isn’t harassment.
Unfortunately, ableism also extends to the picket line. During strike planning, we begged union leadership for a hybrid picket and universal masking which would allow immunocompromised and other disabled people to participate in the picket line without the risk of contracting COVID-19. After stating a hybrid picket was impossible, and with much pushback, they finally allowed some workers to strike on Zoom, even as they continued to present in-person strikes as the only valid form of organizing and disparaged those organizing online as lazy or “scabs.” Union staff also kept dismissing Megan Lynch of UC Access Now’s attempts to organize mutual aid to support the needs of disabled, undocumented, and other marginalized strikers.
If you look at video and photo footage of University of California strikers, you will likely see mostly unmasked people shouting in compact areas inaccessible to wheelchairs, and where infectious respiratory diseases can easily spread. Multiple workers, such as DJC member Raj Chaklashiya at UC Santa Barbara, reported catching COVID from the picket line. UC Berkeley claimed to have a masked picket line area, but, at least during the first week of the strike, almost no one in that area was wearing a mask. At UC Davis, the picket line was far from any bathrooms or water fountains, and multiple people visited the mutual aid tent — volunteer-run by disabled and other marginalized workers to fill the gap left by paid UAW organizers —seeking water and first aid. To give UC Santa Barbara organizers credit, they finally asked people to wear masks to protect their fellow workers after pressure from Chaklashiya.
We are not describing this ableism and harm because we are anti-union. We both voted in favor of going on strike, and have dedicated immense amounts of energy towards supporting the strike. Julia wanted to be able to be part of picket lines, but without enough precautions against COVID-19, she could not take that risk. Ringo risked her health by attending the in-person picket before realizing such purely performative optics were not worth the risk. Both supported the strike from online, Ringo without receiving any strike pay despite repeatedly applying for it. Disabled workers are performing a massive amount of invisibilized organizing labor because we believe in union power as a vehicle for meaningful change, but we’re extremely frustrated with union leadership perpetuating ableism. Ableism has no place in a so-called historic strike, and we shouldn’t even have to say that. And yet we have to, again and again.
Cripping the Future of Union Organizing
To be blunt: the ratified contract fails us. In addition to our Access Needs demands, we need cost of living adjustments. Disabled people often live in poverty due to systemic ableism, which takes shape in many forms, including being underpaid for the work that we do. We encourage union members to fight for real, rather than performative, disability justice, within union spaces as well as the UC, and ask members of the bargaining team to continue to do the same.
We also call on organizers to make strikes more accessible. Picket line inaccessibility highlights how strikes can be made more accessible. Yes, there have been some remote shifts – such as text banking – but these have been problematic for two reasons. First, some people taking remote shifts have been told that their work is not good enough, and they should be on the physical picket line, despite its inaccessibility. Second, disabled people should be able to choose organizing activities that best align with their talents and access needs. When the union does not prioritize accessibility in-person, many disabled people are relegated to remote shifts, even if they would prefer to participate in person. Unions should not police workers’ access needs. Just like our employers, unions should trust that we know what we need. A few of the following would make picket lines safer for disabled people:
- Including diverse disabled workers in all stages of strike planning
- Mask requirements (with exceptions for people who cannot wear them due to their disability)
- Free N95s handed out to picketers
- Free COVID-19 testing
- Food and water availability
- Seating areas
- ADA accessible bathrooms nearby
- Wheelchair accessible marching paths and gathering spaces
- Distributing accessible educational infographics about public health precautions
- Listening to disabled workers’ needs and adjusting tactics throughout the strike as needs arise
- Multiple online options to support the strike in addition to phone banking (like creating signs, PR materials, administrative work, polling, and more)
What might some of this accessibility look like in practice?
During the strike, disabled workers at UC modeled the kinds of accessibility we would like to have seen from our workplace and union. This included crowdsourcing and handing out N95 masks, holding disability studies teach-ins with online attendance options, and providing mutual aid in the form of food, water, and basic first aid. Disabled workers deserve such spaces where their presence is valued; where inclusion is planned from the start, an act of love rather than an afterthought. The good news for union leadership and also University of California decision-makers: disabled graduate workers have been straightforward about what we need to succeed. We have been generous with our knowledge, labor, and resources. We have supported our nondisabled colleagues at great personal risk and cost. It’s time to include, listen to, believe, and support us.
Update from Heather Ringo: “While at the time the article was written and published I had not received my strike pay, thanks to intervention from Courtney Bither, and after excuses from union leadership that they had received my requests for pay but for some reason did not act on them, they did finally pay me in late January.”
Julia Métraux (she/her) is a graduate student at University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. As a journalist, she hopes to highlight the stories of chronically ill and disabled people.
Heather Ringo (she/her) is a PhD student in English at the University of California, Davis and an adjunct professor at Solano Community College. As a disabled educator, she aspires to incorporate accessibility into all aspects of her praxis.
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