Students Defy Attack on Higher Education in California


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 Berkeleyphoto 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, www.indybay.org
 

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.

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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 www.labornotes.org/blogs.)