Building the movement at UW

October 21, 2010

In an open letter, Amy Smith and Chris Mobley, activists in the University of Washington chapter of the International Socialist Organization, discuss the movement against budgets cuts--and where it should go from here.

IN THE interest of building the most effective movement on campus to stop the budget cuts and fight for social justice at the University of Washington (UW), we thought it would be helpful to assess the lessons learned from the organizing that took place against the budget cuts last spring.

We think that, ideally, the most effective method for stopping the budget cuts would be radical mass action in the form of strikes, protests and civil disobedience that would demand taxing the rich and redistributing that wealth towards social programs including higher education.

The struggle can take on many forms, but it is clear that a strategy that relies on lobbying state politicians and campus administrators has not worked and is largely ineffectual. The only power we have to influence the powers that be is our power to mobilize, protest and engage in militant struggle. History has proven this point over and over again.

That is where we want to end up, but getting from here to there is a complex problem that we don't have all of the answers for. We want an open dialogue on how to effectively build for the types of social justice struggles that can be successful in the near future.

The budget crisis in context

The economic crisis has had an especially devastating effect on the lives of working-class people and students. The Washington state budget, like budgets across the country, is being devastated by the recession. Underlying this has been a commitment to a free-market orthodoxy that has led to tax cuts for the rich, while poor and working-class people were expected to pay an ever-increasing share of government budgets, through increases in regressive sales and property taxes, increased fees for government services and ballooning tuition costs.

At UW, tuition has increased by over 28 percent over the last two years, on top of tuition increases every year in the last decade. Recent comments from interim UW President Phyliss Wise indicate that the "Husky Promise" program, which helps pay tuition for low-income students, may face a severe budget crisis itself, just as the need for this program has never been higher.

UW staff have not been spared from the budget chopping block either. Night custodians, for example, have reported that they are now doing the work of two-to-three people, cleaning an average of 42,000 square feet per person compared with 25,000 square feet for the daytime custodians.

More cuts are yet to come as well. Governor Christine Gregoire recently announced an across-the-board 6.3 percent cut to all state departments in response to the latest state revenue forecast that predicts a $1.4 billion shortfall in the next biennial budget. This is on top of cuts to critical services after the legislature dealt with the $12 billion shortfall in the last budget.

It's clear that the forecast for the economy is not getting any better. Recent reports on key indicators like government revenue, unemployment, home sales and the standard of living for most people all point to either a coming "double-dip" recession or, at best, years of economic stagnation that could lead to a "lost decade" for young people.

This means that activists will be grappling with how to best fight back against cuts to our standard of living and for a quality education for years to come. It also points to the fact that the level and intensity of this struggle must be higher in order for it to succeed.

First attempts at organizing

The fight that started in California over a proposed 32 percent increase in tuition within the University of California and state university system soon spread to many universities and community colleges across the country. This fight reached its height during the March 4 National Day of Action, which saw tens of thousands of students and workers protest at every level of the state's education system.

At UW, the Student Worker Coalition (SWC) was able to tap into the anger over the proposed cuts by organizing a successful action where nearly 1,000 people mobilized. This demonstration didn't directly lead to growth within the SWC. The General Assembly the next day was only able to draw a few new individuals, but the majority of people in attendance were representatives of the campus left.

A consensus emerged that budget cuts organizing should seek to link with the United Auto Workers (UAW)-represented academic employees in their fight for a fair contract to replace their old one that was set to expire April 30. It was predicted that there could potentially be a strike starting May 3, the following Monday. The SWC debated through the different proposals on which action to take, and in the end a student strike in conjunction with the UAW strike was voted by the majority as the form the May 3 action should take.

In the lead-up to the contract deadline, it became unclear whether the UAW would actually go on strike. Within the coalition, however, the discussion still centered on an approach of shutting down the campus on that day through either a workers' strike, or students engaging in peaceful civil disobedience (skipping class and mobilizing around key entrances).

Another tactic that was argued for was setting up pickets at different clock-in stations of the janitorial staff, potentially allowing them to invoke a clause in their contract stating they can choose not to cross a picket line. This obviously carried a certain amount of risk for the workers involved as these pickets were unlikely to be sanctioned as part of a union work stoppage, but instead made up of individual workers and students.

As May 3 approached, it also became clear that we didn't have firm commitments from various campus groups or from unions that represented campus workers. A spontaneous outpouring of students was seen as the best hope that the May 3 action would be a success.

The action on May 3 drew a core of approximately 70 individuals, while several others filtered in and out throughout the day. Attendance peaked during a midday rally/luncheon, when a handful of campus workers came out during their lunch break and the crowd grew to about 150.

After several hours of picketing at a main entrance to campus, a group of approximately 50 marched through campus, temporarily blocking some entrances. The UW police took a very hands-off approach to the protest due to a recent incident of police spying being revealed and reported on by local media. It was clear throughout the protest that UW police were attempting to avoid creating further controversies. After marching through campus the protest eventually dispersed.

Evaluating our successes and challenges

It is clear that the March 4 action was significantly more successful in mobilizing students, workers and organizations than the strike on May 3. It is important to evaluate why this was the case by looking at the state of, and changes in, the movement between those two dates, both on a local and a national level.

Some of the objective reasons that account for these differences include the fact that March 4 was a national day of action and therefore attracted more attention. Another factor was that the UAW did not call a strike, but instead extended its contract, creating two problems: the academic employees were not on the picket lines, and there was also confusion about whether the student strike would go forward. Additionally, because the state legislative session had ended between March 4 and May 3, many may have felt there was no longer an audience for their protests.

Another factor was that, nationally, activists were trying to figure out the next steps after the success of March 4. It was apparent that the movement could successfully mobilize large numbers of people who opposed the cuts, yet it wasn't clear what it would actually take to rollback the attack and make gains. This led to many debates that are still ongoing, not only nationally, but locally as well.

Despite these circumstances, however, May 3 still had the potential to be a much larger action had certain key strategic choices been made differently. We think these strategic mistakes contributed to the small size:

-- Presenting the May 3 action as a strike created confusion because many on campus don't concretely understand what that means;
-- Having the action early in the day in a far-away corner of campus, as opposed to a more prominent location;
-- Requiring a day-long commitment to picket lines and marches by participants; it would have been better to have a shorter event.

These decisions were made largely as a result of misreading where the political mood of the campus was at. To participate in the type of student strike that was called for on May 3 requires a much higher level of political understanding about why mass organizing and militant struggle are necessary and can be successful.

Several SWC members argued that the campus community was ready for a strike and tired of rallies, but the actual participation on May 3--where fewer people participated in the "striking" portion and more in the rally portion--seems to prove otherwise. The significantly larger turnout at the March 4 rally also supports this notion.

There is clearly a large amount of awareness on campus that the budget cuts are negatively impacting the university: hundreds of people turned out to town hall meetings with campus administration to voice concerns about the budget; when doing outreach for the May 3 action, many students articulated that they were upset about the budget cuts and rising tuition; towards the end of the year, professors threatened to begin organizing after unilateral wage freezes were proposed by former president Mark Emmert. The Daily's coverage reflected that the campus as a whole was unhappy with the way the budget was being prepared and carried out, and the administration itself encouraged students to get involved in lobbying efforts. Finally, the UW police felt that enough people on campus would be responsive to anti-budget cuts organizing to necessitate police spying on the SWC.

This illustrates that there was widespread anger on campus--but the fact that there was a small number involved in organizing was an indication that, amongst the campus population, there was a lack of political understanding on what could be done about the situation. Many students and staff felt that there was simply nothing that could be done about the cuts, that the money just wasn't there, and that the best we could hope for was to soften the blow.

A more effective strategy that would have reached a broader base would have employed tactics more suited to where people's ideas actually were at the time, with an eye toward using the momentum around those tactics to increase militancy over time. Leaping way over where current ideas are at doesn't work. We need to work with current consciousness and try to move it over time. A certain level of political development on a broad scale must happen before more radical tactics will be find a larger base and therefore be successful.

Building a broad-based student movement

Moving forward, it is clear that there is a large base of support around social justice issues that has not yet been organized at UW. We believe that any struggle will only be successful if we can build a widespread political coalition that includes a broad base of political ideas but also encourages open debate. Through testing and assessing different strategies and tactics, we believe that people can be won to more militant and radical ideas through the course of struggle.

To this end, we have involved ourselves in organizing on campus around Initiative 1098, a measure to impose an income tax on the wealthiest citizens in Washington. Despite our belief that the initiative could go further in bringing about economic justice, we also think that the initiative has already proven to be a useful tool in bringing out large numbers of students to political organizing.

This base of support creates the potential for both short-term organizing around the initiative and also long-term organizing around broader issues. The initiative itself provides a concrete way to get more funding for education, and also a motivation to stay involved in political organizing as students can see the tangible effects of their efforts.

We would encourage the involvement of more students and groups as a way to help broaden the politics of the campaign and make the campaign as effective as possible in building a base for political organizing on campus.

Further Reading

From the archives