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UC Students, Faculty Talk Strike Tactics

By Raymond Barglow, Special to the Planet
Thursday November 12, 2009 - 09:25:00 AM

On Tuesday evening about 80 UC Berkeley students and faculty packed the Sociology Department lounge in Barrows Hall to ponder strategy and tactics for a strike that will take place Wednesday through Friday next week, Nov. 18–20.  

The strike is scheduled to overlap with the next UC Regent’s meeting, Nov. 17–19, and organizers hope that it will halt “business as usual” at all UC campuses. 

Along with the sharp cutbacks being made to funding for higher education in California, the immediate grievance that motivates the strike is a proposed hike in student fees of 32 percent over two semesters. That comes on top of a 9 percent fee increase last summer. The result is that the expense of an education at UC will be three times higher than it was in 2000. 

From the Berkeley campus, five or six buses will carry students down to Los Angeles to protest the Regents’ actions.  

Zachary Levenson, a sociology graduate student and a strike organizer at UC Berkeley, told the Planet that the regents may choose to hold their meeting via teleconference, seeking thereby to thwart the protesters. He views the fee hikes as unwarranted.  

Contrary to a popular perception, says Levenson, these increases are not being made to compensate for a shortfall in funding for education. On the contrary, he says, the money paid by students will provide collateral for bonds that UC will use for new construction projects. 

Levenson acknowledges that ordinarily such construction might be uncontroversial, but he is doubtful that, given the current financial crisis, building new buildings can be justified. He cites as evidence for misuse of student fees a report written by Bob Meister, professor at UC Santa Cruz and president of the Council of UC Faculty Associations.  

In his “Open Letter to UC Students,” Meister says, “Higher tuition lets UC borrow more for construction even while it cuts instruction and research.”  

This claim is contested by Peter Taylor, UC’s chief financial officer: “It’s the kind of factually challenged distortion we’ve come to expect in partisan politics.”  

Taylor says that there will be no allocation of fees to new construction projects. 

“The educational fee—equivalent to tuition—supports university operations, including instruction and support activities. It’s counted as general revenue,” he said. “But, while general revenue is pledged as security for bonds, educational fees are not used to pay debt service on our bonds.”  

Meister replies that part of the problem here is that UC financial planning is not transparent. 

“Proponents of UC privatization both rely upon and betray the public’s willingness to believe that UC’s values are not changing—that it simply needs new sources of funding to do what it has always done,” Meister wrote. “Californians need to know that a tuition-dependent UC will have its priorities driven by financial markets rather than by citizens.” 

Organizers of the proposed three-day strike acknowledge that the decision to go on strike will be a difficult one for many students and faculty.  

“There is concern among professors that in the already shortened semester, which is two weeks shorter than previous semesters, the students have lost a Thursday from the first strike and another Thursday during the Thanksgiving break, and now could lose yet another Thursday with a 3-day strike,” said Anna Cohen. “A one-day strike on Wednesday or Friday could gather more support.” 

At the Tuesday evening meeting, sociology professor Barry Thorne expressed her hope that teachers will support the strike. She cited the appeal to faculty that is being made by the Solidarity Alliance at Berkeley to which she belongs. 

“All of you are informed enough to understand what a 32 percent fee increase means to the accessibility and diversity of the UC,” Thorne said. “You are all compassionate enough to acknowledge what 1,900 layoffs and further pay cuts mean to the staff of the UC.”  

The appeal points out that teachers can support the strike in various ways short of canceling classes. They can, for example, choose not to punish students who participate in the strike, they can use class time to host a discussion about the meaning and values of public education, they can endorse the strike demands, even if not the strike itself. 

The University Professional & Technical Employees Union (UPTE) will participate in the strike on Nov. 18 and 19.  

It appears that the strike has support within the university community, but will that support be as widespread and strong as that given to the walkout in September? Those meeting in Barrows Hall on Tuesday hope that the community will deliver an affirmative answer next week at university branches up and down the state.