Organizing the fight for public education

October 23, 2009

Seven participants in this weekend's conference on defending public education in California--Ian Steinman, a student at UC Santa Cruz; Alex Schmaus, a student at San Francisco State University; Adrienne Johnson, a teacher at San Francisco Community School; Nick Kardahji, a student at UC Berkeley; Brian Cruz, a worker at City College of San Francisco; Jessie Muldoon, a teacher at Oakland High School; and Kathryn Lybarger, a worker at UC Berkeley--examine some of the issues and questions that activists are coming together to address.

SEVERAL HUNDRED college students, faculty, campus workers, and pre-K to grade 12 teachers and students from across California will gather at the University of California at Berkeley on October 24 to chart a course of action to defend public education.

The UC Berkeley General Assembly issued the call at a mass meeting of hundreds the night of the September 24 statewide student and faculty walkout and strike by campus workers in the Union of Professional and Technical Employees. Thousands of people participated at the 10 UC campuses across the state.

That was the first large response to catastrophic budget cuts totaling more than $13 billion passed by the Democratic-controlled state legislature and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The cuts have led to hundreds of workers losing their jobs, faculty forced to take unpaid furlough days, the rejection of tens of thousands of students from college, and severely reduced classes and services for the remaining students.

Tuition has been raised by more than 25 percent on average in the past couple years, and steep increases are projected next fall--for instance, the UC administration is proposing a 34 percent increase for the fall 2010.

Thousands turned out on Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley for a September 24 walkout by faculty, staff and students
Thousands turned out on Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley for a September 24 walkout by faculty, staff and students (Jonathan Nuñez | SW)

Meanwhile, in pre-K to grade 12 education, teachers and students have already suffered large-scale layoffs, overcrowded class rooms and a rapid-fire effort, centered in Los Angeles and Richmond, to turn hundreds of schools over to private charter school companies.

To top it off, everyone expects that next year's budget cuts will be even worse, with perhaps the largest-scale layoffs of public school teachers in California history.

Against this background, the October 24 conference in Berkeley is a welcome sign of opposition and will play a crucial role in organizing resistance.

State of the movement

Like all movements in their first phases, there are many different ideas about how to go forward.

The multiplicity of ideas is complicated by the fact that the movement spans three separate public college systems (the University of California and California State University systems, and a complex web of community college systems), as well as pre-K to grade 12 public education.

All four of these sectors are facing different forms of attacks (although there is a lot of overlap), serve different types of students, and suffer from different levels of corporate penetration.

What you can do

The statewide mobilizing conference to defend public education will take place on October 24, at the University of California at Berkeley, in Pauley Ballroom, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. If you are a teacher, student, staff or faculty in public education, you are welcome to attend the conference.

Look for more information at the CA Campaign to Save Public Education Web site.

Within each of these systems, there is a wide variety of political players: high school, undergraduate and graduate students, tenured faculty and junior instructors, custodial staff and technical employees, humanities and science departments, teachers and classified staff. These groups are represented by a long list of unions, professional and departmental groups, and political and ethnic student organizations.

There are different political ideas among of these groups of people, running from moderate liberals to socialists and anarchists, and all points along the spectrum.

And there is no agreement on tactics. Some students and teachers believe that lobbying elected officials is essential, while others have taken direct action to occupy buildings or liberate libraries closed due to budget cuts.

Finally, the level of organization varies widely between schools and campuses.

All of this is a perfectly natural situation, given the huge influx of tens of thousands of people into a struggle to defend their education and livelihoods, and it should be welcomed as a positive sign of the birth of a genuine movement that has staying power.

However, it does mean that, despite the promise of October 24, there are also dangers that the divisions could overwhelm the conference and prevent the adoption of a relatively unified, concrete plan for the next stage in the fight.

Building a united front

Given this reality, how can October 24 chart a course forward? The key is understanding what can be agreed upon and what cannot.

First is the question of demands. On the one hand, there is a wide variety of demands within the movement overall. But at the same time, there are some radicals--including some who have led occupations--who don't believe in any demands at all.

While that is an extreme position, held only by a small minority, it is probably only possible (and necessary) at this stage to agree on very broad slogans: No cuts, no layoffs, no tuition hikes, or something similar to this. Of course, individual campuses, unions, students groups and others should be free to modify or supplement these demands as they see fit.

Second, the necessity of multi-sector and statewide action in order to maximize our impact means that the conference should concentrate on trying to develop unity around concrete actions.

At this point in the semester, there is probably time for one more unified set of actions, most likely to be timed around days of protest at the UC Regents meeting in LA on November 17 and 18.

For the spring, there is general agreement around the need for a united walkout, strike and day of action in the early part of the semester within some key groups--for example, the Student Worker Action Team at Berkeley, the General Assemblies at City College of San Francisco and San Francisco State University, and the Educators for a Democratic Union caucus of teachers in San Francisco.

There is a debate over the date. Student Unity and Power originally suggested the day be timed to coincide with the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq on March 18. However, on that date, nine of 11 UC schools will be on spring break, meaning that statewide unity would be severely weakened.

Also, thousands of public school teacher layoff notices will go out on March 15, so it makes sense to take action before these are issued, in order to pressure authorities to reduce the number of layoffs as much as possible.

For these two reasons, the ISO will argue for moving the date up to March 11, and we hope unity can be achieved around this date, or another one close to it.

Among other proposals that may arise, the group Speak Out! is suggesting that instead of a statewide day of action, a march on Sacramento should be organized. But this would be better set for later in the spring, perhaps timed to coincide with May Day of the Teacher on May 4.

Delaying it will allow the earlier spring action to build up forces at campuses and schools across the state, and it will be better timed to come in the middle of the legislature's budget negotiations.

In addition to these basic actions, the conference should pick a date for a spring organizing conference (perhaps in early April) in order to assess the early spring action and make plans for the summer and fall.

No doubt, there will be many other great ideas put forward, from symbolic actions like wearing armbands, to direct actions like occupying or liberating buildings. However, it should be possible to incorporate most of these ideas into the basic framework of action described above.

For instance, if teachers at a particular school want to do a sick-out on March 11 while teachers at another school want to do informational picketing, there's no conflict. If students at one campus want to liberate a library, while other want to hold a teach-in, or organize a mass rally and march to block traffic, there's no conflict. If workers in one union want to take action, while workers in another union want to hold a lunch-hour rally, all these tactics--which express both their political ideas and level of organization--can work together to make sure that March 11 has a truly powerful, statewide impact.

Finally, there will no doubt be many differences of opinion and clashes in organizational style on October 24. Keeping in mind that the agenda is only really six hours long, there is a tremendous danger that conference can get derailed. This will put a premium on good sense, patience and collaboration among hundreds of people who have not previously worked together.

There will certainly be some rough edges, but if activists keep their eyes on the prize, October 24 will prove to be an important step in pushing back against the attacks and providing inspiration to teachers, students, workers and faculty across the country.

Further Reading

From the archives