Demonstrations Across the US On Oct. 7th….
As The Fight To Defend Public Education Continues
As states across the country continue to push through drastic cuts, 76 campuses in more than 30 states held protest actions on October 7th. Students, faculty and staff organized rallies and marches, die-ins, sit-ins, street takeovers, workshops and teach-outs.
Like on March 4th, most actions nationally were centered in higher education. But the widening geographic breadth of the protests defied predictions that the movement would be unable to sustain itself in the post-March 4th period, revealing instead the existence of an expanding yet fragmentary national movement, with a potential to grow and radicalize.
In California, even though the level of mobilization for Oct. 7th was lower than the massive protests of March 4th that brought tens of thousands into the streets, shutting down schools across the state, there were actions at every major university and at many community colleges. Some, like Santa Monica College, even emerged as new bases of strength. The biggest change was in the K-12 sector, which had led March 4th but was largely absent Oct. 7th.
The strongest action Oct. 7th was at UC Berkeley, where 2,000 students, faculty, and staff participated in a walk-out followed by a 4 hour, 600 student library sit-in. Undergraduates took the lead, acting for the first time in a climate of negligible support from the vast majority of the faculty. Organized around Academic Workers For A Democratic Union, grad students walked out with their classes and organized teach-outs. With a level of participation even surpassing March 4th, UCB defied the demobilization across the rest of the state.
Pulling Together and Pushing Forward: The Statewide Conference of October 30th
To continue the struggle after Oct. 7th, schools across the state called a Mobilizing Conference to bring together the organized students and workers around a common set of demands and plan of action. At the Conference, 200 students, workers and educators voted:
- for solidarity actions across the sectors during the UC Regents November meeting (where they would vote on an 8% fee increase)
- for actions on every campus the first day of the Spring semester
- for a Day of Direct Action against the cuts for March 2nd
- on a common set of demands
One of the key gains of the Conference was its attention to international and popular struggles – from Oscar Grant and Mumia Abu-Jamal to the student strike in Puerto Rico and the solidarity message to the students and workers of France to the condemnation of the murder of a young demonstrator in Argentina and the Conference taking a position against the recent FBI raids of the homes of anti-war activists across the US.
The UC Regents Meeting and The GSI Contract
In the post-Oct. 7th period, the UC Regents announced another planned 8% fee hike. In mid November, students and workers from numerous campuses converged on San Francisco to try to prevent the fee increase from going through. The protests outside escalated as police shut students out of the meeting. Dozens of students were injured and 13 were arrested as cops batoned, pepper sprayed, and even threatened to shoot them. This came with a jump in police intimidation of students, from the posting of police outside student meetings to citing students for flyering and seizing their posters and banners, to visits from police detectives to students homes.
Inside the meeting, the Regents passed two major privatization measures. The first was the reclassification of student fees as ‘tuition’, a move that expands the breadth of what students can be charged for, by transforming the nature of the fees from just reimbursement for services rendered to an actual price tag tied to the market for education as a commodity. The second was the 8% fee increase itself.
Meanwhile, across the UC system, grad students organized delegations to Labor Relations, marches on the boss, and grade-ins for childcare subsidies and wages adjusted for inflation. Facing down the opposition of union tops, the grad student caucuses at UCB and UCSC organized for a “NO vote on a bullshit contract”. While the contract was ultimately ratified, it was by less than 20%, the closest margin in years in a vote that turned out 4,000 members. And the opposition caucuses emerged with a solid organizing base in three key campuses and a broad periphery of support.
The Movement Responds to a Changing Political Climate
Taking place within a more difficult political context than any of the previous waves of mobilization, Oct. 7th revealed the fragility and weakness of the education movement on a statewide level. Coming out of March 4th, there were enormous pressures on multiple fronts acting to undermine, co-opt, and dead-end the base of mobilization we had fought to build over the last months. The electoral period, the paralyzation of the California budget, the increasing repression of the movement, and the various contract struggles posed new challenges as the political climate shifted. Its important to recognize these changes and to see how, at the same time, we were able in key sites to overcome them in order to continue to fight back.
In the lead-up to the California elections, there were significant efforts to divert the political trajectory of the movement by confining it to the electoral process. Some of the bodies that had played critical roles in campus mobilization up to this point, including most of the major unions, many of the more entrenched and bureaucratic student organizations, and the faculty associations (where they exist) played this role, effectively substituting the independent, militant direct action of students and workers for rallies in support of the Democrats, voter registration drives, and other actions that tried openly to tie the movement to the Democratic Party or to channel its aims into ballot initiatives.
At the same time, these efforts at cooptation were complicated by the complete failure of either of the two main candidates for California governor, Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown, to address the demands of the education movement. As a result, it was clear to many that there was no real possibility of defeating the privatization measures through the ballot box, and therefore, that our only hope continued to be defeating them through our self-mobilization in our schools and in the streets, no matter who ultimately assumed office.
The California Budget
The 3 month paralyzation of the California budget posed a challenge to our ability to effectively organize to confront the impending cuts. While the budget was held up in the legislature for more than 100 days, unable to achieve the 2/3rds majority vote needed for it to pass, even local administrations were forced to make budgetary decisions without any idea of what their real budget would be.
UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau, in an interview a month before the walk-out, complained “The situation with the state is frankly still quite discouraging… Its Sept. 7th, we don’t have a budget yet. So try, you know, to imagine a CEO of any corporation with a $1.9 billion a year budget and two and a half months into the fiscal year not knowing what his or her budget is and it’s unimaginable.”
Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, took advantage of the stalemate to try to buy out the movement with partial victories and to divide it by sector. He began efforts months ago to buy out the movement’s most well-organized sector, higher education: “Those protests on the UC campuses were the tipping point. Our university system is going to get the support it deserves,” Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff promised. These comments laid out what has been the strategy of the administration up to today: efforts to appease the higher education sector, with promises of increased funding won through drastic cuts or privatization in other key areas (K-12, prisons).
In line with this strategy, the week of Oct. 7th, the details of the budget were finally revealed – some $200 million in funding returned to higher education. While it represents only a portion of the $813 million already cut and, worse, came attached to $3.5 billion in funding cuts at the K-12 level and cuts to health care for prisoners, the funding increase was a key material gain of the struggle. However, as with every partial gain, it managed to confuse and demobilize the most conservative sectors.
During this key period, in the absence of a clear, united political strategy of the movement to confront the Schwarzenegger administration, some adopted a wait-and-see approach. Others argued for channeling a major part of our organizing efforts into a legislative revamping of Prop. 13, especially its clause requiring a 2/3rds Congressional majority to raise taxes.
The third factor that placed us at a disadvantage was simply the level of repression that the most mobilized campuses, including UC Santa Cruz, San Francisco State, UC Berkeley and UC Davis, suffered in the months leading up to and after March 4th.
While students have organized heavily against all efforts at criminalization of the movement and have even been able to defeat many of the charges, this defense work has absorbed lots of time and energy. Even it if has been unable to counter completely the effects of the administration’s efforts at intimidation, the administration has replied with drawn out academic trials independent from any official legal charges. These trials are affecting a major portion of the student vanguard at many schools, like UCB, where there have been close to 140 arrests in the last year.
At the same time that we recognize them as a partial defeat, it’s important to recognize also the ways in which the efforts at repression have contributed to and deepened the resistance. The role of local campus administrations, in cooperation with the police, in repressing the protests and openly silencing dissent received much attention, provoking strong condemnation from faculty associations, the ACLU, unions, and even moderate student orgs. And the widely publicized images of police invading campuses and attacking peaceful students have polarized public opinion across California against the university administration.
Within the mobilized students and workers, the response of the administration was deeply politicizing, making clear not only the role of the administration as a repressive force but also starkly showing the complete lack of justice in the university.
The legal defense campaigns served to mobilize important new sectors, like the UCB law school, that have since even deepened their involvement in the movement as a whole. And it made concrete the demands around the democratic structure of the university and against the police presence on campuses and for increased freedom of expression.
Where is the Labor Movement?
One weakness that characterized the last semester was the lower level of participation from the education sector unions. The role of the students notably dominated much of the build-up for Oct. 7th as a result.
One important reason for this is that most of the unions entered the education struggle through their specific contract fights. As one union after another reached contract agreements, some with important victories as a result of the heightened mobilization and others with concessions in key areas like job security, there was no general project from the union leadership to keep the workers mobilized and involved in the struggle to fight back the larger attacks.
The Future Under Obama and Jerry Brown Looking Grim For Education
The reality is that during this period, many new cuts to education were announced. At the federal level, more than 275,000 K-12 teachers representing 82% of school districts in the country are expected to be laid off in the next year. And in California, incoming Governor Jerry Brown’s new budget proposal, to be released January 10th, will include a whole new wave of deep cuts the extent of which is being kept secret at this point.
At the same time, teachers unions have been facing a constant anti-union, pro-charter school, pro-merit pay campaign in the media and from the Schwarzenegger and Obama administrations, and most recently via the widely promoted pro-charter film “Waiting For Superman”. The administration’s message that is being repeated across the state was most clearly articulated last week by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa when he accused UTLA of being “villains of education” and “the primary obstacle to improving schools”.
Meanwhile, the California legislature placed 188 schools on a list of persistently underachieving schools to face government intervention. These schools have three choices: fire the principal and 50% of the teachers, become a charter school, or just be closed down.
Still, despite the general demobilization of the labor sector, there were several important union fights that defined this semester and there are still many centers of resistance that either need to be reinforced or are just emerging. And many rank-and-file workers are putting pressure on their union leadership to remobilize against the newest attacks and / or are organizing independently themselves to support the education struggle through non-union bodies like educators groups and other bodies of struggle.
In The K-12 Sector: The Union Leadership Pull Out
Within the K-12 sector, there were important developments in the post-March 4th period that framed the decision of the union leadership to pull out. The 40,000 member United Teachers Los Angeles, the second largest teacher’s union in the country, signed a contract at the end of March that accepted furloughs to prevent 2,000 layoffs – there have already been 5,000 layoffs in the district since July of 2009. United Educators of San Francisco followed suit in May with a contract that cut stipends in half, and included 250 layoffs and 4 furlough days. These were two partial defeats.
On the other hand, other sectors are continuing to fight back. The Oakland Education Association led a one-day strike on April 29th to force OUSD back to the negotiation table. Because of their continued refusal to cave on concessions, they are still without a contract. Recently, the La Habra teachers union, in Orange County, called a one week strike against pay cuts that ended Dec. 16th. And, under a barrage of never-ending attacks, UTLA has regained some momentum, struggling against efforts to base layoffs on teachers’ students’ performance on standardized tests instead of on seniority.
In The UC: Lower Level of Mobilization
The lower level of labor mobilization the UCs was evident in the period leading up to Oct. 7th. There were several major challenges this semester that posed challenges to the UC workers struggle. Most important among these were the layoffs, the demoralization of the workforce, and the decomposition of the inter-union relations, especially among the rank-and-file activists, because of the attempted raid on CUE (the clerical workers’ union). However, despite the fact that it was the first Day of Action where no union was able to call a strike and thus, at UC Berkeley, the first Day of Action that was almost entirely student-led, many rank-and-file workers found ways to show their solidarity with the struggle.
The layoffs were a blow to the ability of campus workers to fight back. On the one hand, the most active workers were among the first to be targeted. Half of the workers who founded SWAT (Student Worker Action Team – UC Berkeley) were laid off. On the other, because the union leadership failed to enact strong plans to fight the layoffs, they contributed to the worker’s already existing feelings of disempowerment and to the demoralization of the rank-and-file activist layer.
Within this context, the union leaderships made a few key mistakes that weakened their own ability to fight back, the worst of which was the CUE raid. The post-March 4th decision of AFSCME (service workers’ union) and UPTE (Technical and Professional Employees Union) to launch a surprise raiding effort against CUE not only drained key energy and time in the midst of the worst attacks public employees have faced in the last decades but also fatally weakened the fragile cross-union unity that had been built over the last semesters. It exposed the real agenda of the union leadership and their complete disregard for workers’ democracy in the unions but also polarized the active layer of workers against each other as they struggled to understand and respond to the raid.
Despite these major obstacles, there were two important developments in the labor struggle this semester. The first was the escalation of the campaign, spearheaded by AFSCME, against the privatization of the pension system. This campaign is critical because the pension fight is the most important and unifying issue for the UC workforce right now. Unfortunately, despite organizing consistently against it, AFSCME has chosen to do so in relative isolation from the rest of the unions and the student movement.
The second was the mobilization among grad students for their contract campaign. As a result of this struggle, which the grad students fought to make an organic part of the education struggle as a whole, for the first time, 40% of the membership voted NO, a historic turnout. This semester also saw the growth and radicalization of AWaDU (the grad student opposition caucus within UAW).
Perspectives For Continuing to Build Independent, Democratic and Mass Mobilization
Examining the experience of this past semester, what is clear is that there continue to be not only new and deeply damaging attacks and cutbacks that demand a response, but also a desire from many students and workers to continue to fightback.
The experience of UC Berkeley, Laney, Santa Monica College and a few other campuses throughout the state in building up for Oct. 7th shows clearly the real possibility that exists for strengthening, expanding and radicalizing the struggle. We need to build on these experiences, taking from them what worked and generalizing those strategies.
The success of Oct. 7th at UCB was achieved not because the pressures of demobilization and co-optation of the movement didn’t exist at Berkeley – to the contrary – these pressures existed and almost derailed the movement. From the beginning of the semester, it was clear not only that the level of politicization of the student body around the cuts to education was lower and that we would have to rebuild it from the ground up, but that we would have to do it in the context of a weakened and dis-unified labor movement, ongoing repression of the student activists, and with negligible support from the faculty.
We tried to understand these structural limitations and set out, from the beginning, to devise and implement a plan of mobilization to directly counter-act them, using the experience in struggle and the base of mobilization that we had built over the last year. This plan relied on:
- identifying the new attacks and tapping into anger around them to build mobilization
- implementing a dedicated, coordinated, creative outreach plan from the first day of the semester targeting undergrads and freshmen
- strengthening and expanding the key campus-based bodies of struggle: SWAT and AWaDU
- consistently working to involve campus organizations representing underrepresented communities
- uniting all sectors around a common list of demands
- building the independence of the movement on multiple fronts: independence from electoral politics (fought off efforts to do election-focused rally), independence from the faculty (undergrads mobilized and participated despite lack of faculty support), independent mobilization of the rank-and-file (AWaDU)
- targeting and holding accountable the Chancellor and local administrations for their role
Going into next semester, the statewide education movement must have as a priority to continue the work of building strong bases in the schools themselves using the experiences of UCB and other schools, to strengthen and revive the labor movement, and to rebuild the regional coordination of the mobilized campuses.
To reconstruct the labor movement, we must first recognize that the labor leadership, with variation from sector to sector and local to local, is unwilling to enact a consistent and uncompromising plan to fight back the layoffs, cuts, and plans of privatization. Further, they will do everything they can to avoid having to mobilize and involve the rank-and-file and, where the rank-and-file are active, they will even seek to undermine it.
It is our task to help rank-and-file workers to organize to put pressure on the union leadership to fight back while at the same time seeing how to build their involvement, independent of the leadership in the struggle. This second part is critical because we cannot tie the hands of the workers by confining them only to what is possible within the context of the unions. So concretely, this means seeing, on the one hand, how to build bodies of rank-and-file self-organization within the unions, and, on the other, seeing how they are organized or becoming organized independent of the union, through progressive teacher’s associations for example, and trying to politicize these spaces to become bodies of struggle.
For rebuilding local coordination, we must have a plan to revive and improve the local mobilizing bodies and strike committees. These bodies played an important role in involving teachers from the K-12 sector in the build-up for March 4th and in bringing together rank-and-file activists and in unifying the movement around a commitment from all sectors to fight back together.