Report from the UC Berkeley Conference to Save California Public Education on 24 October 2009 – Steven Miller

The conference was attended by more than 500 people representing most of the Universities of California (11 campuses) and Cal State Universities (23) campuses, along with many community colleges (mostly from the Bay Area). Around 60 K12 teachers were present from various local cities. Adult Education teachers, who teach more students than the combined college levels were also present. Various unions of campus workers, at all college levels, were represented.

In California, with the largest population of any state, these cut backs directly hurt several million students, from k12 thru college plus adult ed.

People were young and old, from all sectors, all grades, all levels of California public education: professors, students, Adult Education k12 teachers all strongly represented.  College level students from all over the state were a large percentage. The UCB-based Student Worker Action Committee chaired the meeting.

The state American Federation of Teachers endorsed the meeting, though no big shots were present. The California Teachers Association (NEA affiliate) – the largest teachers union – did not endorse the meeting. This continues the abject collaboration of  CTA officials who never put a teacher in the streets to oppose the phony budget crisis, but who declared the $9 billion in cuts to k12 education “a victory”. In recent weeks, they have advocated that layoffs of teachers were necessary and should be accepted. Then they are proposing that the union takeover the Richmond, Ca (6 miles North of Berkeley), create a system of charter schools. This would be in collaboration with Standard Oil, the company that owns the town.
The first speakers, addressing the conference from the stage, were all clear that this is a fight of the working class. Though plenty of Left groups were present, these people, both students and local unionists, were not encumbered with their rhetoric. These were honest and clear statements.

Most people understand that the current situation of cutbacks, tuition hikes and layoffs are simply not necessary. The general slogan, up to this point, is “No cutbacks, no fees, public education must be free”.

The conference agreed to:

¿ Hold a one-day strike on March 4, with the understanding that each area will do something to protest attacks on public education in some form.

¿ Protest at the next UC Regents meeting, at UCLA on November 18 – 20.

¿ Meet as a conference once again before the March 4 Action, with people from each constituency serving as a continuations committee.

The choice of March 4 is significant because it reveals real awareness by the college level folks of the horrific $9  billion cuts that have been imposed on K12. These cuts can lead to massive teacher layoffs. March 15 is the date in California when teachers must be notified they will be laid-off. This is an expression of broad unity.

Some history: under the guise of the phony California budget crisis, UC Chancellor, Mark Yudoff has cut faculty, students and university employees across the board. Tuition will go up 50% by next fall from 2 years ago. Cuts at the State University level and the community college level will be at least as bad.

Yudoff, a serial killer of public universities, is famous for his signature quote, “Being president of the University of California is like being manager of a cemetery: there are many people under you and no one is listening.” People left the conference at the end to go to Yudoff’s house (lavishly paid for by the state) to construct a cemetery on his lawn.

The conference represented all levels of public education: k12 + community college, state university and UC levels levels. Adult Education is facing destruction because it lost its dedicated funding stream from the state. Thus it is now at the whim of local school districts, all of whom are cutting back. It also represented a unity of students and unions, without the historical splits due to syndicalism that have always hurt movements (black vs brown, students vs workers, etc

The conference represented a real, growing movement to defend public education. The broad range of attacks has created separate streams of struggle (students at each level, teachers at each level) that face different situations and thus have somewhat different demands. These streams are still marching parallel. It will take one more step for them to fuse into a genuinely common movement.

The conference was endorsed by: CFT, UC Berkeley General Assembly, San Francisco Bay Labor Council, Solidarity Alliance, Oakland Education Association (OEA), UPTE Local 1, CUE Local 3, AFT 1493, Peace and Freedom Party, Berkeley SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine), Berkeley PSA (Persian Student Association)

The disparity of conditions lead to the creation of a long laundry list of demands as well as a variety of positions on what actions to take and when. As is traditional at UC Berkeley, the conference attempted to resolve all this with hours of messy and inefficient ultra democracy.

We note that the Civil Rights Movement subsumed hundreds of demands behind the two-word banner  “Freedom Now”. Though this clarity of vision has yet to congeal, the direction is clearly towards “Free Quality Public Education for All”. The emergence of a popularly accepted “banner” is the hallmark of an active and growing social movement. This is half-a-step away.

The underlying theme is a positive vision. While there is plenty of talk about “fighting budget cuts”, one of the strengths of this movement from the start is that it has not put forward a negative vision (ie being “against” everything), but has systematically put forward the vision of “Defend Public Education”. Everyone there clearly recognized, as well, that the movement cannot be built unless the interests of undocumented workers are included. This is a reflection of the great 2006 marches, a formative event for many students.

At the same time, the orientation towards “Free Quality Public Education for All” is not yet directed holding the government accountable to guarantee the interests of the people, rather than corporations. This idea is so implicit in peoples’ thinking, however, that most people would immediately assume this.
There is plenty of general recognition that the privatization of public education is happening. However there appears to be little general recognition that government at all levels – federal, state, and local – is systematically being shriveled by the capitalist class.  The government, at all levels, is getting out of the people business with startling speed. By privatizing, it avoids all accountability.

There is little understanding of the process, since Clinton, popularly known as “getting rid of Big Government, which is really the devolution of government’s role and responsibility to the people. First, the government (as opposed to the “Great Society” Era) renounces its responsibility to support human beings by pushing all such responsibility down to the states who have pushed it onto the counties. Second, the feds just offer block grants, which feeds corruption at the state and local level as these funds are diverted away from what people think is the safety net.

How to concretize the need to focus the movement to hold the government accountable to the people is something that is still emerging and still concretizing. However, the best formulation that I have heard is that the federal government must be held responsible to bail out all state and local cutbacks, and then to bail out all human needs.

Privatization is seen more as “the current crisis” rather than a campaign by corporations, lead and organized by the state. The idea of holding government accountable is likewise implicit, yet has not emerged to give the movement, such as it is, a real focus. It is critical to recognize that this is a movement just beginning, one that must maintain the initiative and actions to keep drawing people in.

On the negative tip, there was a fair representation of Lefties who demanded a general strike – to good humored snickering. More importantly, the focus of the meeting was action, so there was some resistance to talking about the Big Picture. This, in my opinion, is something that could really be productive at meetings like this. Bickering over whether the actions should start on March the 4 or March the 15 are less important.

While some people could only focus on action demands, others went so far as to advocate that the conference call for protection of the whole public sector. This is a positive recognition of the real process that is unfolding behind government devolution, that is, the dispossession of everything public by corporations, now organized and abetted by the government and their hallowed “public-private cooperation”. There can be no doubt that corporations are now campaigning to dispossess America of every public right, policy, power, ownership form, function and responsibility. The goal is that the public will be no more. This is dispossession.

Another important polarity is this: Talking about the next steps for this, the California movement, is one thing. This involves setting goals, tactics, many practical organizing particulars.

Talking about the next step for the movement of the working class, of which this is just an expression, is a whole ‘nother thing. What are the next steps for the political development of the process? What does leadership mean in this context? This involves issues of strategy, vision, historical strengths and weaknesses, teaching and determining the overall line of march as class begins to confront class in the United States. No one can seriously doubt that dispossession marks organized class warfare, well organized from the corporate sector against the working people of this country. There will be a response. How can this be steered from simple defensive responses to taking the offensive?

Aside from the Days of Action, there are dozens of events unfolding across the state at the post k12 level: marches, protests, teach-ins, you name it.

For continuous information, see the websites:

Savecapubliceducation.org

keepcaliforniaspromise.org

[Steven Miller is an educator in Northern California]

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