Reflections on October 7th

— Wes Strong

STUDENTS, WORKERS, TEACHERS, parents and faculty throughout the country participated in the October 7th National Day of Action to Defend Public Education. As part of a growing movement, activists from 25 different states were involved.

With a total of 72 actions, October 7th represented months of organizing following March 4th, the first national day of action to defend public education. Many see the 7th as a huge step forward for the movement to fight back against budget cuts — brought on by 30 years of failed economic policy and expedited by the recent crisis.

Actions in California were the largest, with 1500 marching in Berkeley, and hundreds participating in sit-ins, as well as one campus hosting a weeklong campout. In Milwaukee, students and workers marched around campus chanting “No cutbacks! No Fees! Education should be Free!” In Atlanta, activists marched on the Capitol, delivering a failing report card to the state assembly.

In New York City, hundreds marched through Harlem. In Illinois, students and workers organizing with the Undergraduate-Graduate Alliance, which formed during last year’s successful Graduate Employee strike at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign (UIUC), rallied and delivered a failing grade to the administration for its attacks on the graduate workers, tuition hikes, and diversity.

Students at the University of New Orleans (UNO) unfurled banners saying “Chop from the Top” and “Save UNO.” In Baton Rouge, LA, students conducted a funeral march for public education.

The Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM) organized a weeklong march over 114 miles from Pittsfield, MA to the State House in Boston, getting out the message that the state’s public colleges and universities are in a “free fall” because of all the cuts.

These are just a sampling of all the various actions, from tabling, teach-ins and awareness events to walkouts, banner drops and sit-ins, that took place on the 7th.

The connections among students, workers and the community continue to play a big role in this struggle. Back on March 4th, students in New York City were supported by Transport Workers’ Union Local 100. Students marched to support the rally TWU 100 held that day, and for many the experience of solidarity was powerful.

So too did the students at UIUC reach out to the graduate employees to support their strike last year — and the strong bond continues. At UC Berkley, where graduate employees and undergraduates joined together, an empowered voice resounded throughout the campus. As the budget cuts continue, the connection between students and workers is one that’s growing on every campus.

A Step Forward

What made actions on October 7th a step forward from March 4th was the growing connection between students and workers in their schools and communities, along with the desire to continue to grow towards a national movement. People also were encouraged by solidarity actions that took place internationally as part of what’s being called the “Global Wave of Actions for Education” to continue through November.

A movement that builds student and worker power is crucial to our progress. The energy that students bring to workplace struggles often inspires campus workers, who sometimes feel that students don’t care about them. Both benefit by building these bridges; both are strengthened as they fight against the cuts.

To many it is becoming clear that workers and students face the same future — marred by a massive jobs crisis, a seemingly bipartisan consensus against public education, growing student debt, attacks on communities of color and working poor, and attacks on workers’ rights. This is contrasted with a system that spends trillions on bailouts, wars, and prisons. These factors have given rise to a collective struggle that fuels the fight to Defend Public Education.

I would expect another national day of action for the spring, but no plans have been made yet. Many are looking to the October 30 and 31st conference at San Francisco State University for direction. What will build and strengthen the movement will be its commitment to rank-and-file organizing, its focus on student and worker power, its commitment to the democratic process, and its ties to worker struggles.

While March 4th was the culmination of months — and years — of organizing, October 7th is a stepping off point for another year of actions. We couldn’t have asked for better results. We have continued to introduce an alternative narrative on public education, despite recent media promotion of so-called “education reform” and “Race to the Top,” particularly supporting charter schools.

We have survived the summer, a time when student activism often collapses, and we have come back to show our power. We are energized to continue the struggle, to make 2010-2011 a year of movement building and victories to begin the process of rolling back 30 years of attacks. We are in a point of crisis, and if we unite in struggle, if we struggle to build student and worker power, we can win.

[For more information, visit www.defendeducation.org or www. defendcapubliceducation.wordpress.com. For a compiled set of videos, media coverage, and a listing of actions from October 7th, go to www.defendeducation.org.

Against the Current has covered the attack on public education and the public sector, particularly in recent issues #148,146,and 144. You can find the articles online at www.solidarity-us.org/atc.]

ATC 149, November-December 2010

UC Berkeley actions

The level of undergrad mobilization at UCB was respectable if lower than actions the past year. While there were some unionized workers at the noon rally -- definitely union leaders and activists were among the speakers from the front of the crowd -- there was no serious mobilization from any sector of the unionized workforce this time around.

Even undergrad students in the crowd were murmuring, "last year was hecka bigger." The abdication of moral leadership that the faculty provided last fall (and in more scattered and weaker ways in March 2010) is a big part of the relative downturn on campus as well as some unions being under contract who last year tied their contract fights to the defense of public education. ATC coverage in my opinion overstated the role of unions and workers in the mostly student movement at UC last year but it did exist in a meaningful way then. Harder to argue that's the case this year.

It makes sense that the wave is on the upswing in other parts of the country where public resistance tied to this motion perhaps began later, but while activists still try to make things happen there is a serious vacuum of strategy: given what we all did last year, what could we possibly do now that would effectively turn around these attacks? The movement at present has no coherent answer unfortunately.

Off UC campuses (and possibly SF State where I haven't heard) results were even drearier. There were no repeats of marches at the community college level in Oakland and Berkeley as far as I know. The buzz among teachers and parents and high school students in the public schools of Oakland which was a serious force in last years actions was completely absent at least in the school communities my daughters are a part of even as the teachers continue to work while negotiating the same contract.

California may need to look to the rest of the country for a short in the arm this time.

Optimism of the will...

Its seems that to some extent

Its seems that to some extent folks in California have seen things retreat. This has come about for a number of reasons, including a lack of clarity in the movement, little to no discussion on why we do what we do and what the goals are, a reduction of union involvement during the GOTV process, and the normal tensions that develop among people engaged in this work when we are not seeing immediate gains. In reality we are after the initial period of this struggle, which is often marked by a initial burst of energy, though it rarely results in all the energy being consolidated. Folks enter initially with thier own desires for the movement, and things change or they get tied into other things / arent empowered enough to stick around. It is really up to folks to realize this, to look at what the goals of the movement are and do some serious work that proves that we can win and empowers people from the ground up. Its going to take more than a year of organizing to fight back 30+ years of attacks, the time it will take will depend on the willingness of the movement to engage in this on a day to day basis, and to creatively adapt.

Our best tool we can put into play is our ability to organize and work with the people from where they are at and in the many levels of the struggle. Our best way to do this is to find serious ways to build these centers of power that challenge administrations and force them into points of crisis. It has worked before, it can work again, we just have to be ready and flexible enough to adjust to the changing conditions and find creative ways to build struggle. UC GSIs did a grade-in to encourage a strike if they dont get a contract, and some are calling for an all out grade strike - which I think is right on. The best way to change the power dynamic is to shut down the university, to strike, and to do so with massive support. Of course this is easier said than done and requires a dynamic process to build towards.

Our goals should be to organized towards that point in empowering ways that brings people into the struggle, offering a powerful alternative narrative, proving we build better solutions and through struggle we can make them happen. We should be talking about how we can build towards mass student strikes and walkouts that will shake the system to the core. Not just the student left, but how do we engage the broader student body and empower those folks to want to get in on these actions. There is not one specific program that will work everywhere, but we need to be having the strategic discussions inside the movement that clue us into the best directions for the time on local and national levels. Having just got back from the Cali conference, one of parts that was most efective was the 20 minute breakouts on sunday (which were cancelled on saturday for time and people had to push to reinstate them on sunday). These brought people who are facing similar conditions together to talk about these issues, and many got a lot out of it. all the other stuff was good too, but demands, actions plans, and structure aren't the movement by themselves, especially if the discussions that talk about why we want these things don't happen and the natural process of building solidarity through talking about and strategizing around these conditions doesn't occur.

In the end, we move forward with what we have, which is certainly progress, and adapt to the new conditions. Also, if we are short on inspiration, we can always look at the international work going on around this issue! There's tons going on from europe to central and south america, to asia, etc. That can definitely re-energize and organizing base.

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