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Member Spotlight: Goetz Wolff- UC-AFT Local President at UCLA, Urban Planning Lecturer, and Activist Labor Researcher

When Goetz Wolff was asked by the Board to step into the President position for the UC-AFT Local at UCLA he was reluctant to take on that responsibility because he was very busy with teaching and mentoring students in Urban Planning, as well as consulting for unions.  But in light of his academic work focusing on economic justice, and his six-year stint as the Director of Research at the Los Angeles County Labor Federation, Goetz admits that he felt a sense of duty to invest within in his own union.  He accepted the position and then was elected President at the next membership meeting.  

His work with the UCLA local has focused on growing the membership and providing UC-AFT members with more opportunities to voice their workplace concerns and hopes.  Not surprisingly, Goetz has been instrumental in the development of UC-AFT’s You See (UC) Democracy? organizing campaign. 

In his life outside of UCLA, Goetz maintains an extensive rooftop vegetable garden, he serves on the board of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, and for respite, he enjoys daily walks in nearby hills with his wife and their four dogs.

UC-AFT Insider:  You are the Local President at UCLA, which is one of the biggest UC-AFT Locals.  What are some of the challenges you face in organizing members there?

G.W.: First, the good news.  Our UCLA librarians are very solid and maintain a common union vision.  By contrast, our biggest challenge is among our lecturers who are scattered across the huge campus in their diverse workplaces:  many of them have part-time contracts that don't span the three quarters, and consequently they rarely spend a substantial time on campus.   We face a structural issue in that so many of our lecturers teach only one or two days a week resulting in the absence of a collegial environment which would encourage an exchange of ideas and and concerns.  Of course, this isolation could be addressed by our union--but first we need to reach those lecturers to even engage in a discussion of their concerns and needs.    

UC-AFT Insider:  In addition to working as the local president at UCLA, you've been very involved at the system wide level working to craft the You (UC) See Democracy? campaign.  What do you think about the direction UC-AFT is moving with respect to organizing?

G.W.: I envisioned the (UC) You See Democracy campaign as directly applicable to increasing our union's reach to members and potential members--especially to the many lecturers who are being denied the most basic academic participatory rights held by senate faculty.   The idea for the UC Democracy campaign truly came from a few members and field reps who had the opportunity to participate in a week-long strategic organizing training provided by the Berkeley Labor Center.  Our state Council endorsed this campus-based campaign in the fall, and was the focus of the most recent Council meeting.   The openness of our elected leadership to embrace this effort demonstrates that indeed, "the members run this union."  The Council is encouraging each campus to define its problems, its strategy, and its tactics.   It is this spirit of campus-based campaign development and decision making that gives me great hope for the invigoration of UC-AFT as a union "on the move." 

UC-AFT Insider:  UCLA is notorious for difficult labor relations and for violating our contract.  Do you think this could become a bigger issue for our members at UCLA under the You See (UC) Democracy? Campaign?

G.W.: Let me turn this around:  the UC Democracy Campaign draws attention to the systemic disregard, and even abuse, of lecturers who provide approximately half of the teaching for our UCLA students.  It is crucial to frame our campaign in the larger context of quality education.   University policies, as well as de facto policies at the unit level, undermine quality education and academic freedom.  The You See (UC) Democracy? Campaign provides our members with a space to recognize, identify, and collectively act upon the problematic labor relations that affect them.

UC-AFT Insider:  What classes do you teach and what do you find most rewarding about teaching?

G.W.: I'm fortunate to have been teaching for over 20 years in a department that is largely an exception to the rule of how lecturers are treated by other UCLA departments.  Thus from the very beginning when I was invited to teach in the graduate Urban Planning professional program, I have been asked to develop my own courses--which have become institutionalized in the catalog:  "Labor and Economic Development," "The Southern California Regional Economy," and "Sectoral Analysis." Because I choose to teach half-time, I am able to integrate my consulting work (with public agencies, unions, and community organizations) in the classroom, as well as mentor students with their capstone master's projects.  The result is that my students become directly engaged linking their classroom work with practice in the field--and that often leads to activist jobs.

UC-AFT Insider:    You've been in L.A. most of your life.  My sense is that you love the city. What do you like to do in your free time?

G.W.: I do love L.A., as much as I am frustrated by its social, economic, and environmental failings.  It is the need to make this wonderful place better for all its residents that motivates my teaching and activism.  I love to explore the city and still discover "new" places.  And it's not only the urban I appreciate.  Thanks to having four dogs that have found us along the way, we take delightful early morning walks (off-leash, where possible) in the nearby hills and riparian locations that provide respite and rejuvenation.  I've done vegetable gardening since I was in Asheville, NC. Now I continue with some fifty ten gallon containers on our flat roof-top where we get sufficient sun.  My deep commitment to growing "crops," has been converted into another form of activism.  I serve on the LA Food Policy Council where I bring back in my concern with labor, an element which is often overlooked by good food advocates concerned primarily with healthy food and food access.  And when I can make the time, we love to go camping.

UC-AFT Insider:  You are a really well known union researcher.  You've worked with lots of graduate students in Urban Planning who have gone on to become researchers working for labor unions. You worked for six years at the LA County Federation of Labor (the central labor council) and worked on a number of successful campaigns. How does it feel to have that kind of impact helping working people in L.A.?

G.W.: I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to work closely with union leaders and activists in the area.  What started as a fight for keeping jobs in the region in response to plant closings and offshoring in the early 80s, became the basis for my recognition of the need for non-ideological research that could aid workers and their unions.  But research without grounding (often the nature of "academic" research) frequently fails to have any impact.  My involvement with demonstrations and electoral campaigns provided me with the opportunity to work side-by-side with rank and file activists as well as union leaders.  As a result of this experience I've been able to contribute to the labor movement in a way that I never planned.  It makes me feel that my effort and time spent has been worthwhile.  And now, unexpectedly, I'm president of our UCLA local.  I guess that I finally had to "walk the walk," in addition to "talking the talk."