Sunday, February 7, 2010

California Students Defy Attack on Higher Education

Students Defy Attack on Higher Education in California


By Kate Maich and Paul Abowd

Z Magazine

February 2010


Annual fees at the University of California in 1979

were $685. Thirty years later, they were $10,302 as the

University of California's appointed regents, who

oversee 10 campuses throughout the state voted to raise

fees by 32 percent, to begin next fall. Schools

throughout the state's three-tiered public education

system-including hundreds of state schools and junior

colleges-are also seeing fee hikes and program cuts.


September 24 walkout turns into a march and rally at UC

Berkeley-photo by Lara Brucker/Daily Californian


In response, an unprecedented coalition of students and

workers is fighting the attacks on affordable higher

education with large-scale democratic organizing,

including marches, teach-ins, strikes, and building

occupations. Technical, clerical, and service workers,

facing layoffs and cuts at the bargaining table, have

also entered the fray.


"There has never been a coalition like this on campus,"

says Claudette Begin, whose clerical workers union, the

Coalition of University Employees, called a two-day

strike together with technical workers (UPTE) at UC

Berkeley and UCLA.


At Berkeley, the seven days between the last class and

the first exam is referred to as "dead week." It made a

lively comeback this December when students, workers,

and community members "liberated" Wheeler Hall, a major

classroom building, during an open occupation that

lasted four days. Students reclaimed the space for

meeting and study, holding lectures and teach-ins on

the budget crisis, distributing literature on the fee

hikes, and dancing. At the end of each night, students

diligently mopped the lobby floor.


The takeover wasn't easily accomplished. Police

videotaped protesters and threatened arrests of those

who peaceably remained inside on the first night.

Months of democratic organizing lay behind the

operations. Two- to three-hour open meetings of the

general assembly, student-worker action team, and

graduate student organizing committee drew hundreds.


Students and workers voted for three days of action to

coincide with the Regents meeting in late November,

where the tuition hike would be decided. Students also

called a three-day strike at Berkeley coinciding with

the clerical and technical workers' walkouts. Then on

November 20, students barricaded themselves inside the

second floor of Wheeler Hall. They communicated their

demands by bullhorn to thousands of supporters gathered

outside: rehire laid off service workers, make the

budget transparent, and reverse the fee hikes. UPTE

members set up pickets, to protest what they call the

university's "illegal bargaining tactics," and called a rally.


UC called in several police departments which were

unable to break the barricades for several hours as

students held the doors and called, unsuccessfully, for

negotiations. "They kept yelling through the doors,

'prepare for the beat-down,'" said UC grad student Zach Levenson.


Throughout the day, students linked arms in tussles

with cops, while others sat down in the street to block

police trucks entering campus. Police eventually

arrested 40, but faculty and students negotiated their

release. The cuffs came off and the students emerged

before a cheering crowd.


Service workers with AFSCME Local 3299 have helped

support student organizing against fee hikes. They

blocked a back entrance to the building, one of several

actions aimed at reversing layoffs-44 have lost their

jobs at Berkeley. "How do you have a 32 percent fee

hike and then cut services on campus?" asked AFSCME

President Lakesha Harrison.


Organizing Everywhere


Students at UC Davis and Santa Cruz also led several

occupations during the week of the Regents meeting,

which was held at UCLA. The administrators were greeted

in Los Angeles by thousands of protesters. Students and

campus workers established a tent city outside the

meeting-which took place behind a police line. As at

Berkeley, UPTE workers walked out.


Eric Gardner, a member of the Coalition of University

Employees, spent the day running between an assembly

outside the Regents meeting and another that formed

outside Campbell Hall, where dozens of students had

locked themselves in. "After they voted for the tuition

hikes, the anger was palpable," he says. "People more

or less spontaneously blocked the Regents from leaving."


For three hours, activists sat down in front of a

garage where a van full of "fee-hikers" was trying to

escape. The police attacked the students with pepper

spray. Though their demands were not met, Gardner says

the culture has already changed. "Campus has been quiet

for years," he said. "We did this to show we can take

over this place."


The California State University system of 23 schools

relies more heavily on state funding than does the UC

system, which draws only about 20 percent of its budget

from the state. Summertime budget cuts turned into

department cuts, teacher layoffs, and fee hikes at CSU.


Student occupation at SFSU -photo by Luz Clemente,


San Francisco State University's sizable working class

population is dropping out in droves, unable to weather

new fees or find classes they need. Undergraduate Ryan

Sturges, an organizer with Student Unity & Power, says

the hikes (he paid $300 more this semester) are helping

construct a multi-million-dollar recreation center

aimed at attracting a wealthier "clientele." Sturges

and 300 students marched into the administration

building in late November as part of an open

occupation. Two weeks later, 20 students locked down

the SFSU business building for a day. Police broke

through student pickets outside and, with guns drawn, arrested them.


Huge public events don't mean that the movement has

been a huge success, however, as protests have left

some students alienated and many on the sidelines.

Nevertheless, the fee hikes remain, as do the UC

Regents-an undemocratic, appointed body with little

concern for the workers and students most affected.


The statewide resistance has brought questions of

class, race, and privilege to the fore as the new fees

will make public education unreachable for many

residents. Despite UC President Yudof's claims that

financial aid will rise, there won't be enough to

offset hikes, which will disproportionately affect

working class students and students of color-only 3.5

percent of students currently at Berkeley are African American.


Organizers are crafting a different list of priorities

for the school. "We don't want to just return to the

way the university was in, say, 2007," says Berkeley's

Levenson. The list includes lowering the pay of the

highest-salaried administrators, re-emphasizing

outreach to communities of color, halting construction

projects funded by fee hikes, making governance

structures more democratic, and "de-privatizing" as

Levenson says. This list is essential as 80 percent of

UC funding comes from private sources.


The fight against privatization of education-a public

good-isn't happening only in California. It has been

tied to a series of strikes, rallies, walkouts, and

occupations taking place in schools across the U.S. and

in Austria, Germany, and Greece. The highs and lows are

being shared in solidarity with a much larger movement.


Meanwhile, California organizers are casting a wider

net, fomenting an ambitious March 4 student and worker

strike throughout the state's education system that

will bring together K-12 and higher education activists.



Kate Maich is a graduate student in sociology at Berkeley. Paul Abowd lives in Detroit where he writes

for Labor Notes. His work has appeared in Monthly Review WebZine and Electronic Intifada. For a tactical

guide to student sit-ins, go to "Strikes" on


No comments: