By now we know that the current economic crisis in the state of California is without precedent. The very fabric of everyday life in California, from our parks to our cities, our schools to our air and water, even the promise of the California dream itself, is imperiled by this perfect storm of capitalist crisis and political paralysis. For public education, the damage caused by greed and political fecklessness has reaped an unaccountable toll: classroom sizes swell while teachers make poverty wages and college tuition costs ever more. Gov. Schwarzenegger, like the current University of California president Mark Yudof, the corporate leaders appointed to the Board of Regents, and much of the rest of the California political establishment, want to tell us that the economy is collapsing, everybody is hurting, and so we must slash public services to the poor, close battered women’s shelters, furlough underpaid workers, and bust the greedy unions of janitors, teachers, secretaries and nurses. All while refusing to tax oil extraction, Hollywood mansions, yachts, and profit-rich corporations, and billionaires. There is no alternative, we are told.
But if this political crisis is unprecedented, then so is the rising opposition that is responding to it. In but one vital corner of this big problem, an alternative is emerging that is uniting diverse people in a movement in defense of public schools in California from kindergarten through Cal. On Sept. 24 this new movement, a Solidarity Alliance of faculty, workers, and students will lead a walkout at UC Berkeley. The walkout has gained support from throughout the UC system and into the CSU’s, the CC’s and even into other states. We have built new organizations of faculty, graduate students, student and worker action groups, and together with all the campus unions, the Sept. 24 walkout will be the start of a major new social movement determined to remake California in its own democratic image.
Solidarity between students, faculty and staff does not always come naturally on college campuses. Each of the elements in this alliance is fighting for their own self interest. The students, especially those from working class families, students of color and transfer students, can no longer afford the jacking up of student fees while the number of classes and student services are being cut. Professors cannot allow UCOP to seize emergency powers, overthrowing the democratic processes of governance that make UC unique while forcing furloughs on an already overworked faculty. And the unions are in a fight for the very survival of the workers and staff, as staff in every building are being fired and some of the lowest paid workers in the state are being forced to take pay cuts in the name of shared sacrifice (while UC administrators give themselves handsome bonuses and pat themselves on the back). UC administrators have long understood that they can pit these different constituencies against one another: if workers take pay cuts and layoffs, then there is no need to raise student fees; or if student fees go up ($10,000 a year is still a bargain says Yudof) then we can end these unseemly faculty furloughs in one year. Get with the program, the Regents tells us, there is no alternative but to stab each other in the back and proceed with the privatization of what was once the finest public university in the world.
Obviously, the Solidarity Alliance rejects this necessity. Solidarity began organizing only a few months ago. In an act of unrivaled cowardice, hiding under the cover of summertime, while faculty work hard on their research projects and students vacation and search for low paying jobs, Yudof and the Regents planned to grant themselves “Emergency Powers.” Not only did they plan on throwing over the century old history of democratic governance in the UC system, but the Regents also planned to impose a structure of furloughs, cuts, lay-offs and fee increases seemingly determined to permanently damage the core mission of the University of California. To oppose these drastic changes, while the unions passionately protested Regents in the streets, faculty
Lyn Hejinian is a professor of English at UC Berkeley.
began to mobilize, gathering signatures of petition, recruiting speakers to make public comments, writing editorials and educating themselves and the public. Out of this initial drive (Yudof got his emergency powers), SAVE the University was born. SAVE is an unprecedented faculty organization dedicated to exploring any and all means to resist the privatization of the UC. One of these paths was the formation of the Solidarity Committee of SAVE, chaired by English Professor and poet Lyn Hejinian. It was Lyn’s idea to take a branch of a faculty organization and open it up to non-ladder faculty, graduate students, undergraduates and all of the campus unions in order to find a way to work together.
Within two weeks of furious organizing and coalition building, with the ready cooperation of all parties, the UC-Berkeley Solidarity Alliance had grown to include the heads of all the major unions on campus (UPTE, AFSCME, CUE, UC-AFT), the leaders of GSOC (the graduate student organizing committee), a committed and brilliant group of undergraduate leaders (mostly drawn from CalSERVE, the ASUC, and UCSA), and the organizers of SWAT (the Student Worker Action Team, a growing democratic organization of students and rank and file staff members). Together we christened ourselves the Solidarity Alliance, and in another week’s time we had issued the first call for a system wide walkout faculty and student walkout in solidarity with a planned strike by UPTE on Sept. 24. We have issued a clear and compelling list of demands that call for no new student fees, an end to the layoffs, cuts, and furloughs, especially for those making less than a living wage, and a restoration of democratic governance at the UC. Today, our members are planning all the events of this week of education and action, including a major Teach in on the evening of Sept. 23 (at 7 p.m., Wheeler Auditorium), events all day on Thursday the 24th and the big Solidarity Rally that will take place on Sproul Plaza at noon.
In so doing, the Solidarity Alliance has become a model for organizing faculty, workers, and students towards a common set of demands, a model that is quickly being adopted on most UC campuses as well on various CSU and CC campuses and even in other states. The causes for this sudden and rapid growth of a Solidarity movement are equally ethical and strategic: only an alliance of faculty, workers, staff, and students can have any chance of achieving their goal of defending public education in California. With the unions’ organizational infrastructure and legal standing and their long history of defending human rights, with the students’ numbers and energy and capacity for new and audacious ideas, and with the faculty’s prestige and internal institutional knowledge, we present a real threat to Yudof and the Regents as they attempt to impose corporate priorities on the free flow of learning, discovery, originality, and exchanging of speculative as well as practical ideas. The Solidarity Alliance is not just about standing up for the ongoing excellence of UC Berkeley. Our commitment to a top-notch public university, accessible to all Californians who want and are able to enjoy and benefit from it, implies a commitment to excellent public education at all levels in California. We are rallying together in solidarity with staff, teachers, pupils, and parents all over the state, who are enduring disgraceful conditions in their schools. This is a political crisis, and it is through political means that it must be addressed. The cause of public education is ours! The walkout on Sept. 24 is only a beginning.
Lyn Hejinian is a professor of English at UC Berkeley.