Striking for California’s public universities

September 24, 2009

Nick Kardahji reports on a one-day walkout of faculty, staff and students in the UC system--the latest stage in a growing protest movement.

THOUSANDS OF workers, faculty and students will walk out throughout the ten campuses of the University of California (UC) system September 24 to protest devastating budget cuts and drastic increases in tuitions and fees.

Driving this protest are the biggest budget reductions in state history--$24 billion slashed for this fall alone. Over the summer, the Democratic-controlled state legislature caved to the Republican minority, authorizing tens of billions in cuts in social spending, $813 million of which will come from the UC system. The cutbacks will only compound the misery in the state, which has a jobless rate of 12.2 percent--the highest in 70 years.

The cuts have had a drastic and immediate impact in the UC system. On September 14, almost a quarter of the custodial staff on the UC Berkeley campus received layoff notices. Two days later, the UC Board of Regents, most of them millionaires and billionaires, met to support UC President Mark Yudof's proposal for a staggering 32 percent student fee hike.

Workers at the UCSD hospital on the picket line during a five-day strike in July 2008
Workers at the UCSD hospital on the picket line during a five-day strike in July 2008 (Rick Greenblatt | SW)

Yudof wants to ram through the cuts and fee hikes rather than negotiate with faculty, students and workers over how to handle the crisis. Over the summer, the faculty voted to accept six to 10 furlough days--approximately a 10 percent pay cut--on the condition that the university administration allow the individual campuses autonomy in putting these into effect.

When UC administrators instead seized "emergency powers" and declared that they would implement the cuts unilaterally, faculty from up and down the state issued an open letter on August 31 calling for the September 24 walkout. It reads in part:

If we find the President's disdain for collective decision-making unacceptable, we must make it clear, collectively, that we will not accept it. If we hope to intervene in the process of decision-making that will determine the future of the UC system, we must interrupt our exclusion from that process--now.

It has been made evident that we cannot intervene as governors; we are compelled to intervene as workers.

We call for a system-wide walkout of all UC faculty on September 24, 2009.

We call for the suspension of faculty teaching on this date pending three demands, which we understand as absolutely minimal:

1. No furloughs or pay cuts on salaries below $40,000.

2. The immediate institution of the Academic Senate Council's July 29 recommendation regarding the implementation of furloughs.

3. Full disclosure of the budget.

THE FACULTY walkout is timed to coincide with a one-day unfair labor practices strike by the Union of Professional and Technical Employees across the entire UC system, because the university has failed to bargain in good faith on a new contract.

Other campus unions are pledging to honor their picket lines, and the action is quickly becoming a reference point for opposition to education budget cuts all across California, as solidarity actions are being planned at schools in the California State University and city college systems as well. Students, staff and faculty from the University of Arizona recently declared their intention to take action September 24 as well.

As author and activist Mike Davis, a professor at UC Riverside, described the connections that are being made:

Although only the first seeds of resistance, these walkouts have emerged from a historically unprecedented solidarity of faculty with campus unions and students.

There is a deepening awareness that the real battle is not over the budget per se, but the cynical manipulation of the crisis to further privatize public education in California. At Riverside at least, we're eagerly pursuing alliances with K-12, community colleges, the state university system, and even local private-sector unions like the Laborers.

The walkout has breathed new life into student, staff and faculty organizing--even over the summer break. When UC regents voted September 14 to hike tuition and impose more cuts, more than 150 UC workers turned out to protest them, and 14 supporters were arrested while trying to shut down the meeting.

The same day, nearly 300 students and workers gathered for a general assembly in the Martin Luther King Student Union at UC Berkeley. Organized by the Student Worker Action Team, a group of students and rank-and-file workers that has been mobilizing against the cuts since early June, the assembly voted to shut down the Berkeley campus September 24.

Campus workers and students will be joined for a noontime rally by representatives from struggles in the California State University system, local community colleges and K-12 teachers--most of whom have been hit much harder than the relatively insulated UC system.

The UC system has, in fact, suffered a relatively slight reduction in its state funding compared to its private reserves. Most of UC's budget is derived from endowments or other private sources, so the state cuts amount to only 2.5 percent of the overall UC budget.

UC executives can, in fact, cover the funding shortfall by tapping into the massive profits that UC medical centers generate, among many other options--including cutting their bloated salaries and perks.

Instead, Yudof, much like the CEOs in private industry, is using the excuse of the recession and the budget crisis to push through a plan to radically restructure and privatize the UC system. There are already plans to drastically cut enrollment for in-state students (who pay lesser fees) and to raise fees even more.

IF YUDOF gets his way, the UC system will cease to even pretend to be a place open to all Californians, and will instead become another exclusive club for children of the wealthy and powerful.

Forty years ago, the UC system was renowned as one of the best institutions of higher learning in the world--and it was free. Since then, California's elite and the politicians they control have built dozens of prisons and radically reduced business taxes and income taxes for the rich--and paid for it by starving public education.

But UC workers and students are determined that Yudof's further plans for the UC system should be allowed to happen without a fight. After September 24, the next step must be further campus-by-campus and statewide coordinated actions that seeks to build solidarity between students, faculty and staff to oppose all budget cuts.

Davis said he believed that "the kids themselves--in the high schools and community colleges, most of all--will decide the scale and militancy of the fightback." As he continued:

The children of new immigrants, especially, face a radically downsized future, with decreasing access to skills and careers, unless we can shift the fiscal burden from the poor to the wealthy--in what remains an immensely rich state--and reaffirm the state's historic commitment to democratic education.

I am very optimistic, precisely because this is not Berkeley in the 1960s, when sustained militancy was limited to a few college and university campuses. The real heroes of social protest in recent years, beginning with the school "blowouts" against Prop 187 in the early 1990s, have been blue-collar high-school students and their immigrant parents.

So the present fightback begins sociologically on a much broader plateau than in the 1960s, with far greater hope of a encompassing united front in defense of the public sector.

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