The rallies, strikes, marches, organizing meetings, and occupations that occurred on September 24, 2009 across many campuses in the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems were the product of the profound economic, political, and social crisis we current face. This crisis is deep in California where the state has cut billions from public education. UC administrators have used the state budget crisis as cover to quickly and thoroughly implement privatization measures through staff furloughs, layoffs, huge tuition increases, and cuts in services from the health center to trash removal and other campus safety measurers.
In California and throughout the United States, we are experiencing a structural adjustment; public services funded by our tax dollars are cut to the bone and privatized to the highest (or most well-connected) bidder. This is not unlike IMF/World Bank economic austerity measures imposed upon African, Asian, and Latin American countries over the past 30 years. These programs hollowed out public infrastructures there. Our rulers have no qualms imposing the same neo-liberal economic measures they use to support their imperialist agendas abroad as they do against working people in America. The two are in fact linked. So given the speed and devastation California state officials and UC management has acted with, what does the response by students and workers look like? This piece seeks to analyze the organizing efforts at UC Berkeley since summer 2009 to see how far we’ve gone, and how far we need to go.
The UC Berkeley rally and march of roughly 5,000 people on September 24th was due in part to months of recent organizing among students, workers (staff and faculty), and the community. It also stood on the foundation of years of campus and community struggle. During the summer a group of students and workers (rank and file and local union leadership) organized to agitate against the budgets cuts under the name Student Worker Action Team (SWAT). This coalition brought together many activist students and workers representing different organizations and tendencies on the Left. SWAT staged a number of public townhalls during the summer. They supported actions against UC officials by unions (mainly AFSCME & UPTE), helped stage general assemblies, built for 9/24 actions, and organized solidarity amongst workers and students.
Progressive faculty also organized their ranks under the name SAVE, while blocking with unions, undergraduate and graduate student organizations to form the Solidarity Alliance. This body helped push the call for the 9/24 actions and organized a noon rally that saw around 5,000 people crowd Sproul Plaza. Other important groups that made the pickets, march and rally on 9/24 a success were the Graduate Student Association comprised of many graduate assistants in theory represented by the UAW, progressive student government coalitions like CalSERVE, and many multicultural and student of color organizations. The final players were the unions. On Berkeley’s campus workers are represented by several unions; AFSCME (service workers), AFT (lecturers and librarians), CUE (Clerical Workers), UAW (graduate students), UPTE (researchers). It was UPTE with CUE and UAW gradate students in solidarity that staged a statewide strike on 9/24. This action was called to fight the growing number of layoffs to workers in their unions and others on campus, as well as furloughs UC seeks to impose on all workers this fall. 9/24 represented the best of all of these forces (despite differing agendas) coming together to build a large action that garnered national and international solidarity and media coverage. But will 9/24 be the opening act of a cohering of forces and ideas organizing and fighting the budget cuts or its high-water mark?
Tactics & Strategy: Tailism, Adventurism, & Co-optation
The energy and potential of new layers of struggle, coming out of the assemblies and rallies leading up to and on 9/24, has largely dissipated for now. This is clear in the form and status organizing has taken in the general assemblies. Begun in mid September, the general assemblies saw a highpoint of 500 participants on 9/24. It now numbers around 50. The energy of the general assemblies has been thwarted, largely by liberal student government functionaries who took control of its facilitation, form and content. This sucked much of its initial energy into tedious proceduralism. Some of these groups and individuals have now left the assembly over the question of representation, which will be discussed later. Another problem is a number of leftists (some Trotskyists who initially advocated the assemblies) are tailing the liberals, trying to beat them at their own game. Battling it out through hours-long mass and subcommittee meetings, they seek to save the assemblies from the liberals to make it relevant to students, workers, and the community. Even after many student government functionaries left, they continue to devote considerable time to the reformers’ political agenda and to dynamics specific to the Berkeley campus. This has alienated workers and students from local CSUs and community colleges who assumed the assemblies were spaces to network and organize. The assemblies are increasingly irrelevant to most.
Assembly participants are helping organize a statewide organizing conference to defend all public education on 10/24. This conference is an important organizing opportunity. Yet progressive student government functionaries again largely shaped its form, content and emphasis for now. This means potentially radical formations leftists helped build like SWAT, as well as direct action tactics like the Anthropology Library study-in on 10/9-10/10 seem to be given lower priority. Perhaps the recent, qualified success of the study-in and departure of some student government liberals will see more militant tactics and formations come out of the conference. However this will not occur if tedious proceduralism is portrayed as the only means towards building a militant student/worker movement. The reality is sections of people are ready to move now.
Adventurism and Tailism
The blog Advance the Struggle posted an insightful piece “9/24 –Opening Shot Against the Budget Cuts”. It recounts the events of 9/24 and the fallout from the general assembly and attempted occupation of Wheeler Hall, site of that day’s general assembly. It pretty accurately recounts the debate of escalating tactics of occupation as proposed by a section of the assembly in solidarity with the occupation staged by graduate students at UC Santa Cruz. While an ad-hoc Berkeley occupation committee sought a vote for occupation of Wheeler on the spot, receiving support from a good number of those in the assembly, the facilitators (mostly student government types), said a vote would have to wait until the end. Frustrated by the slow pace of the assembly, members of the ad-hoc occupation committee decided to chain all but one of the doors. This upset many who wanted to see the assembly through and potentially put undocumented and foreign students, as well as workers, at risk for arrest or termination against their wishes. The occupation was quickly defeated as participants left, unwilling to support the occupation given the somewhat secretive manner it went down. Many felt they were not fully prepared to support the action. Numerous student government folks denounced the action and the cops quickly appeared shortly thereafter to quell the action.
As Advance the Struggle noted, the general assembly and failed occupation demonstrated the twin pitfalls of some leftists beginning to tail liberal student government figures, and the adventurism of insurrectionist leftists. Both strategies have proven alienating to students and workers that may have initially been radicalized by the lead-up and actions on 9/24. They further suggest:
“Without a doubt the movement needs to be democratic with open debate, but this cannot happen with a proceduralist bureaucratic system of decision-making processes led by student government functionaries. Mass meetings and general assemblies are truly democratic when they become increasingly guided by political perspectives which transcend letter writing and petition politics.”
So how can we win these folks back, bring in new layers of students and workers, and what tactics will be needed?
Labor journalist Steve Early in Embedded With Organized Labor quotes rank and file worker-intellectuals Marty Glaberman and Stan Weir saying, “Leftists should be planting the seeds for the next upsurge, not helping to erect what may become new obstacles in its path when the balance of workplace power starts to shift again in labor’s favor” (61). This quote captures the tension and strategic moment we are facing at Berkeley. While the general assembly may have been a way to give students and workers a structure of self-governance, brushing aside student government, top-down union coalitions, and the university administration, so far the forms and ideas status quo forces represent are not endangered. It is up to individuals and groups to the left of campus official society to propose new organizations, ideas and strategies that encourage and institutionalize the expansion of this new height in self-activity. It is also their job to know when to reshape or abandon these new organizations when they start to hinder worker and student self-management. A diversity of tactics is needed. Knowing what and when to employ certain tactics depends on gauging the general will of the campus community, which is a tricky art.
Another important tactical problem we face is co-optation by UC administration. On the Berkeley homepage campus administrators applauded the 9/24 rallies as peaceful. They also encouraged student and worker energies be directed solely towards Sacramento to petition for the $800 million cut from the UC budget. Most students and workers aren’t taking the bait, knowing the UC Office the President (UCOP) and campus-based administrators are as much to blame as the state. Berkeley administrators are our direct bosses, the ones choosing to lay us off, furlough us, and cut basic services. UCOP officials like UC President Mark Yudof and state officials (Republican and Democrat) are equally guilty in their attack and hatred of working folks and students, especially those of color. Our battle has two fronts, not one.
UC administration has also shown co-optation and containment in handling the recent study-in occupation of the Anthropology Library to protest Saturday closures of most campus libraries. After a few days of internal debate among administrators on how to confront the planned occupation (some wanted it shut down, calling the protestors dirty hippies) the study-in was “allowed” to happen. Library and campus administration sanctioned the event by having librarians paid to staff the event (most were supportive the occupation’s demands) while campus police sat just outside the library. Students decided not to directly challenge police and administration this time, but have planned for more library occupations and may escalate their tactics, daring police and administration to kick them out of their libraries. These efforts have won a qualified victory, with administration reopening many libraries on Saturdays by November through “generous donations” instead of committing ongoing public funding.
Privilege Politics as Cover for Liberalism
Privilege politics, the idea that oppressed peoples should be given more space to speak and lead movements than others solely on their outward ethnic, gender, sexual orientation or sometimes class identity, has driven a large wedge in organizing efforts at Berkeley. They view an idea of multiculturalism, managed now from above, as the highest state of inclusion for oppressed people in American society. While many individuals projecting privilege politics correctly note anti-budget cuts struggles should focus on students, workers, and communities of color harmed most by the cuts, in essence these politics serve as cover for liberal student government functionaries and others to silence more radical perspectives. This formation contains both people of color and white folks who privilege-bait anyone perceived as trying to represent oppressed people, or not representing their reformist agenda. There’s no doubt Berkeley is profoundly white and conservative (many so-called liberals here are actually conservative), alienating to people of color and working class folks alike. In order to smash the “progressive” white supremacy we live under at Berkeley it will take multiracial struggle from below, for that is what we hope our new university and society will look like.
The idea of representation is the crux of privilege politics at Berkeley. This concerns who is represented in the movement, as general assembly facilitators, public spokespeople, and whose agenda and ideas are heard. But what is this representation directing people of color to be? The next Barack Obama, Antonio Villaraigosa (Los Angeles mayor), UC chancellor or labor union bureaucrat? These are the apparent dreams of student of color liberals, to be the next progressive managers and ruling elites over workers in their communities. While these students may “feel the pain” of their community’s working classes, history teaches us they will manage workers with little more compassion than white men have for years. Looking at the history of how Black mayors and politicians treated working classes in cities like Atlanta, D.C., New Orleans, Oakland and beyond is telling. So the key to challenging the politics of privilege and representation is advocating working class liberation from below, grounded in communities of color.
The advocates of privilege politics have directly affected tactics and organizing at Berkeley. This includes the leadership, form, and content of the general assemblies. It continues even those some groups and individuals representing these politics recently pulled out. Members of SWAT, women, men, people of color and white, helped stage the first general assembly with students of color in student government. While this first general assembly was far from perfect, as a group SWAT was confronted by privilege politics advocates, scolded for not having enough oppressed people represented at the assembly and making it an “unsafe space” for them. While some valid concerns about the assembly’s form where addressed, its condemnation was really an attack on the radical potential of the general assembly for it wasn’t confined to their reformist logic. When students of color have challenged these politics as divisive and undemocratic, they have been ignored, whether facilitating general assemblies or speaking up at meetings and actions. This clearly shows the problem is not representation in terms of skin color, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status or class background. It is challenging any idea outside the bounds of official society. Liberals and some leftists cannot think outside a framework of so-called representative democracy. Anything more radical is seen as barbarism.
What is fundamentally undemocratic about the ideas and actions of privilege politics advocates is they exclusively seek to speak for or help facilitate what they feel is most needed for oppressed communities. A large part of their argument is folks without privilege automatically don’t want to do more radical things like occupations. This is patronizing, assuming that oppressed people can’t be militant and can’t democratically decided to struggle on their own terms. While class reductionist perspectives, seeing the budget cuts as solely an economic crisis experienced equally by middle class whites and working class people of color needs to be defeated, at the other end privilege politics advocates that sincere whites and people of color committed to anti-racism and democracy below must make way for people of color liberals. Given these concerns, racist attacks against students of color, be they working or middle class, and cuts to their campus organizations must be fought by all. For instance, the Berkeley administration defunded the multicultural organization Bridges by half. While Bridges members have pulled out of the general assembly and privilege-baiting some left activists, defending these middle class students of color is still key in principled anti-racist campus organizing. With that in mind, their middle class nationalism from above must be challenged through multiracial organizing along militant class struggle lines.
Challenges for Rank and File Labor Organizing
Workers through organized unions, rank and file formations, and the unorganized play a central part in our campus and community struggle. Unions like UPTE, CUE, and AFSCME brought out their workers to 9/24 actions in a show of solidarity with students fighting service cuts and tuition increases, and to fight against furloughs, lay-offs, and union-busting by UC administrators. Their local leadership has been part of the many student/staff/faculty formations that have sprouted. But what role have they played to organize their own members, build solidarity across unions, the non-unionized, and reach out to the campus and community as a whole?
Unions in the UC system, taken separately, are fairly weak and generally practice a narrow craft unionism supposedly protecting the needs of its members. Sometimes this is at the determent of other workers, union and nonunion. The recent struggles have seen UC unions attempt to organize together to make their actions more effective. The 9/24 strike was an attempt at this strategy. However only a minority of total union membership attended the pickets and other actions. There are some estimates suggesting only 1/3 of UPTE members at Berkeley were on the pickets. It was students and other workers that ensured some pickets had a critical mass. So clearly unions have much work ahead just to organize and agitate among its own members. This is seen in unions like AFT and UPTE whose unions represent largely white researchers, librarians, and lecturers. On the other end AFSCME represents largely working class people of color performing manual labor service jobs. AFSCME has been active in the past few years fighting for a living wage, better workplace conditions, and fair bargaining. While they won some concessions earlier this year, UC administration seeks to roll them back due to the budget crisis, painting AFSCME as spoiled children for not accepting furloughs and other union-busting tactics. A clear class divide exists within UC unions. This needs to be overcome. Can rank and file workers trust their leadership to fully confront these problems and build real worker solidarity? Their record is spotty at best.
The local union bureaucracy at Berkeley is fairly progressive compared to other union locals nationally. Stewards and local presidents have been active in formations from SWAT and its workers caucus, the faculty Solidarity Alliance, and the general assembly. They play a role in voicing workers concerns and struggles to students and faculty, while some agitate for strikes and direct actions. They also play a role dragging progressive faculty from elitist conceptions they have of what solidarity with workers and students should be. However these progressive union leaders are still wedded to legalistic notions of the contract, their place as the progressive wing of capitalism, and ideas that unions should channel worker militancy within the union structure and official society. This practically means petitioning UC administration and the state for reforms, even if this takes the form of direct action. It also means union leadership has little time to build solidarity with non-union campus workers. This is a critical mistake given the vast majority of workers in the United States are not unionized. But what do we expect from a union bureaucracy that has trouble organizing its own ranks? So what is to be done by workers seeking a militant response to the furloughs, layoffs, and deteriorating workplace conditions but feel they have two sets of bosses holding them back; UC management and the union bureaucracy?
One answer is building workplace groups among the rank and file, regardless of position or union affiliation. These already occur in many workplaces through informal discussions about the budget cuts; whether laughing at the latest corporate speak from UC President Mark Yudof and the regents, or making fun of our local bosses who “feel our pain” but still tow the company line. While laughing with co-workers over a beer at the absurdity of Berkeley hiring Bain & Company at $3 million to teach the campus how to cut costs is easy, getting folks to commit to serious rank and file organizing is something else. Some are scared, feeling lucky to even have a job in this economy, especially if they have families to support. Others fear about their immigration status, feeling racist ICE police raids will sweep them up if they speak out. These are some of the many challenges we confront. But we must begin to build militant rank and file formations that create a culture of resistance and solidarity, defend our union’s autonomy and its progressive leaders as we see fit, as well as be the base for direct action on the job that goes beyond the labor contract.
We must branch out across the many job types and workplaces on our campuses and communities. We must break down the divisions of mental and manual labor, race, gender, sexual orientation, and more to build true rank and file solidarity. The tradition of wildcat strikes through worker struggle from below has a rich, albeit largely a forgotten legacy in America. From the uprisings of textile workers throughout the South in 1934, to the 1946 general strike in Oakland, to wildcats among black, white, and Arab auto workers in Detroit animated by the League of Revolution Black Workers in the late 1960s, to the massive immigrant-led rallies of 2006 and 2007. We also learn from campus struggles seeking to blur the campus/community divide to fight capitalism, imperialism, and white supremacy; from struggles for Black Studies from Berkeley to Columbia and beyond in the 1960s, to anti-apartheid work to defend Southern African liberation struggles in the 1980s, to Palestine solidarity during this decade. We stand on the shoulders of these struggles, learning from their strengths and shortcomings, while moving forward with confidence.
Given this analysis largely concerns the campus struggle at Berkeley, a few more comments on why student/worker solidarity is important in theory and practice are needed. As mentioned above, it will be rank and file workers along with students that move this struggle forward, hopefully linking with militant community labor organizing. Student Worker Action Team has sought to be a space for workers and student to organize together as equals. However students now greatly out number workers, many unable to make evening meetings. The same is true of the general assemblies. While a workers caucus has been started to address these dynamics, its independence of the union bureaucracy is still contested. Students must strategically support this formation in its struggle to remain independent when called upon by workers. Likewise workers must be ready to defend student militancy against attacks by campus administration, for practical solidarity should be a two-way street.
The idea of students as workers is worth discussion and debate. Students experience some of the same capitalist workplace dynamics in their classes and other campus spaces as they do current and future workplaces. While this is qualifiedly different than the experiences of workers on campus and in our communities, students are increasingly a source of profit to campus administration through increased tuition rates and unpaid contributions to the corporatized university. These take place in classrooms and labs, concert halls and athletic fields. Besides unpaid student labor, the (mis)education they receive on American campuses directs them away from challenging the racist and capitalist foundations of their oppression and society at-large. Instead educational programs attempt to mold students, especially in the UC system, into future middle managers, state officials, and other “experts” to uphold the status quo. This pedagogy also helps perpetuate false divisions of campus versus community, and mental versus manual labor to check campus struggles from linking with community ones and vise versa. Yet the role of the university in buttressing the so-called American Dream of uplift into the middle classes is crumbling before our eyes. Students are graduating into a world with few jobs, lacking basic job training, and buried in subprime student loan debit. Workers can share their experiences with students and build practical solidarity, seeking to transform the mission of the public university. In concert, workers and students can foster a new radicalism for democratic control of higher education and of their communities. While demands will reflect the different experiences of workers and students, they must expose the role of campus administrators and faculty as facilitators of ideologies and programs hindering the anti-racist and democratic potential of communities outside its walls. The not so dirty secret is these so-called campus leaders are ideological arms of the state as economic and political elites.
A final, and important reason rank and file workers should build solidarity with students, is to challenge the union bureaucracy and defend independent worker formations as noted above. This is key for a number of students, new to activism and some entrenched within the Left, conflate the actions, interests and politics of the union bureaucracy with those of rank and file workers. We see this often where student/worker solidarity formations become fertile ground for unions to recruit students as interns and future paid organizers. While a beneficial experience for some, it actually subverts the radical potential of students forging true solidarity with rank and file workers. Union internships direct student militancy into upholding a reformist, leftwing of capitalist relations. Many elements in the organized American Left are guilty of this too, fighting to be the next progressive union bureaucrats in a struggle for the soul of organized labor. Militant rank and file workers must teach students the obstacles union leadership can place on rank and file worker organizing. This is difficult when labor struggle is rarely seen by young folks in their communities nor taught in their schools. This is a new phenomenon for students, therefore progressive union bureaucrats may appear as true militant workers to them. Rank and file worker organizing can hopefully point out these contradictions to students, while drawing strength from their talents, numbers, and energy.
Which Way Forward
One major task Berkeley organizers face is not fetishizing certain tactics or forms of organizing. They must instead view them as ever changing and sometimes disposable. We see this with the debate between the parliamentarianism of the general assembly versus the adventurism of some advocating direct action. Both tactics can and have served a role in past and current struggles on campus. Both may be used in future struggles as well. In fact it’s not an either/or if you look at the recent Anthropology Library study-in on 10/9-10/10. While an ad-hoc direct action committee planned the event, a number of student government functionaries and other reformers participated in the event. Some Trotskyists in SWAT with a strong orientation towards the general assembly were initially lukewarm to the event. They continued to believe a broad, mass democratic base needed to be established through the general assembly before tactics are escalated. Nonetheless they participated and helped make it a qualified success.
Now creating a mass democratic base to support struggle is needed. However the method of relying mainly on a parliamentarianism shaped by student government liberals is defeatist. This method assumes people are radicalized in a slow and linear manner through petitioning the assembly before action. Yet one can ask was it always a parliamentarian democratic majority that started sit-ins throughout the South during the Civil Rights Movement? What about recent workers sit-ins at Republic Windows in Chicago and factories Europe, South Korea, Latin America and China? And what about the role revolutionary organizations have played in animating struggles throughout history? These examples demonstrate people can be radicalized to action in leaps and bounds fostered by small, dedicated groups of people. While a number of factors will lead to these leaps, there needn’t be the “correct objective conditions” for people to move. Everyday people know we currently face profound crises in our workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods perpetuated by capitalism and white supremacy. Some are getting organized and moving, giving courage to others so they can move too.
Which way forward for the anti-budget cuts organizing at Berkeley? We are under no elusions and claim no easy victories. Whereas 9/24 was a great success, we must be clear that a great majority of campus workers and students did not participate in the actions. We won’t ever convince all to move, and must live with that. However the work to deepen and proletarianize this struggle, organizing working class students of color as equals, as well as working with oppressed and low-paid Black, Latin@ and Asian & Pacific Islander workers on campus, must be a priority. These layers are under the boot of management the most. They have much to teach and give our campus struggle. They also have the potential to radicalize the movement greatly. Some are ready to move, supportive of rank and file wildcat strikes challenging campus bosses and union bureaucrats who can’t think past legal tenants of the contract. They also constitute the working class on campus in and the community that can challenge liberal students, faculty, and workers of all backgrounds who seek a better place at UC administration’s table instead of flipping it over. Only then can we defeat the privilege-baiting and petition politics holding back the potential for Berkeley, as our school, our workplace, and our community, to be self-managing.