by members of Cal Students for a Democratic University
Why do students need a student union? This is a question that, surely, many people will ask, and we will begin right away by answering this question in this article to be as clear as possible and to leave as little doubts. A union merely exists in a place where there is some sort of struggle between a boss or some form of management and another group of “subordinate” people. This most clearly expresses itself in a work place where employees are always in a struggle with management for better wages, better working conditions, better benefits, etc., which are things management don’t tend to simply give away unless the employees are willing to fight for them. Generally speaking, these spaces, such as a workplace, are divided into two general camps: the workers who carry out the orders, and the employers who give the orders. This is also the central source of why there is a struggle, one group commands, the other obeys, and unions arise because history has often shown that those that command do so primarily in their own interests, resulting in poor wages, working conditions, no benefits, etc.
For students, we too are in a struggle with management, more commonly known as the UC Regents. They literally dictate how to use all the billions of dollars of funding and wealth the UC has. Article 9, Section 9 under the California constitution gives the Regents “full powers of organization and government.” They command and dictate upon us fees, prices, regulations, learning conditions (Faculty:student ratio, quality of facilities, etc.), and they all do this with no form of discussion amongst those most affected by their policies: students and workers.
In the past, students and workers have forced the Regents into concessions only through mass direct action, and with the tuition freeze for the Fall semester, the recent mass mobilizations have guaranteed one and a half years of no fee increases, for undergraduates, at least. Recently, the Regents raised fees on many graduate programs, with some increases as high as 35%! Regardless, these mobilizations are not enough, they are merely reactionary in nature and can only hold the lines, but they can not reverse the rapidly rising costs of attending a university.
This is where a student union comes in. It is an organizing and political body, more permanent in nature, that basically fights and pushes for the demands of students: no fees and no cutbacks. It is not solely a body for people from a particular political perspective, its general goal is to unite students under these demands. After all, how of us can truly say “Oh, yeah, I love it when they raise my fees?” The truth is the dictatorship of the regents affects all of us, and we must be united as a group to combat this systematic problem.
And believe us when we say these demands are winnable. The UC is a money making machine. In 2011 alone the UC’s multiple medical centers created a profit of over $800 million. Moreover, the state only contributes 11% to UC’s funding, so the Regents greatly exaggerate the economic impact lower state funding has on the operational capacities of the UC. In addition, the student union must not concentrate solely on economic gains, it should engage in a political struggle against the Regents to assume more control of the university, which we as a student body have virtually no say in right now.
And beyond just the Regents, this student union must be a leading light in pushing forward an alternative to cutbacks and fee hikes (i.e. austerity) in our education system. It must challenge the status quo, including the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, both of whom have been active and willing agents in the dismantling of public services. As students, we are being trained to become the new work force, and this means students play a foundational economic role. But with this role, we also have power that expands beyond just the university. As students, and as future workers, our united action and political perspective has the ability to change the world. The reality is as a group, us students, nationwide, in fact, worldwide, have been constantly pushed closer off the edge of a cliff. Some people believe this is inevitable and nothing can be changed. Others believe the closer we are pushed to the edge, to the point of nearly falling off, that students will somehow automatically organize and fight back. Both these viewpoints are false. We can change things but we also can’t wait for change to come. We are the change, and that means actively getting involved. In fact, the only option for us in these situations is for us to get involved, because we can very well be pushed off that cliff without much of a fight. Just as an iron gets hotter, we will keep our hand on or off it, but once it becomes extremely hot, we no longer have a choice to keep our hand on the stove. And as the situation in education gets worse we are all going to be forced to make a choice: do we fight or do we submit?
Furthermore, the student union must be orientated towards participatory democracy and mass direct action. If we, as a student body can not practice internal democracy, then how can we even think to run a university democratically? So we must empower individuals and promote unity as a group, any officials elected in the student union must be subject to a recall at any moment by the student body. Political debate must be open, and in fact, should be encouraged, but when the time comes to act, we must stand united, or we will lose. Although, campus mobilizations have been able to hold fees at bay for over a year now, for the most part, these mobilizations have only the foresight to simply fight battles. There is no institutional backing that a student union can offer to continue the struggle as students graduate and new students come in. Without a body such as this, we will be stuck preparing to fight battles, rather than trying to win the war.