Building the movement

UC student organizers work to broaden support for the March 4 Strike and Day of Action


Frustrated by deep cuts to education spending and quality, momentum is building across California in support of the "Strike and Day of Action to Defend Public Education" on March 4.

Students, laborers, and faculty throughout the University of California system are trying to expand on last semester's organizing efforts by strengthening ties to groups from all tiers of the public education system. But questions linger about the best way to proceed and what exactly the event should look like.

"I think that the regents and [UC President Mark] Yudof are very fearful of what would happen if the students and workers united. They could be unstoppable," said Bob Samuels, president of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT).

That collaboration is exactly what many grassroots organizers are hoping to achieve, although their central message is not limited to participants in the UC system alone. They argue that fee increases and cutbacks at the universities are symptomatic of a greater problem, namely the denigration of free and low-cost public education.

"This emerged as a movement of students and workers at the university level. What we're doing now is going beyond the UCs," said Blanca Misse, a graduate student and member of the Student Worker Action Team (SWAT).

By reaching out to members of preschool, K-12 public school, community college, and California State University communities, organizers hope to turn March 4 into a rallying moment for the entire public education system in the state. Organizers also want to ensure that the UC system isn't funded at the expense of other institutions of public learning.

"We need to be fighting for money and political power," Misse added. "The committees need to mobilize all of the fighting sectors and show them our strength."

At the Jan. 17 meeting of the Berkeley March 4 organizing committee, one of many ad hoc groups set up across the state, a gathering of about 35 union members, graduate students, community activists, and undergraduates discussed what the day should look like locally. They also reported back on their attempts at organizing the local community, including garnering union support and reaching out to high school students.

Javier Garay noted that at a meeting of the Oakland Education Association, a union of public school workers, "89 percent of the nearly 800 attendees voted in solidarity with the March 4 Day of Action, possibly including a strike."

Yet the most heated discussions centered on how to unite the interests and power of the university population behind the broader fight for public education funding.

During the meeting, Tanya Smith, president of the local chapter of the University Professional and Technical Employees union (UPTE), stressed the importance of "not being an ivory tower" by extending activism "beyond Berkeley's campus and reaching out to the political center in Oakland."

Student activist Nick Palmquist, a fourth-year development studies student at UC Berkeley, admitted that the "tuition issue" is a big motivating factor for college students. At the same time, he noted, "Students have a lot of potential to see the bigger picture. We're trying to expand the consciousness of the movement."

That movement stretches back to the beginning of the school year, when students realized that Yudof and the Board of Regents were planning on making up for the $814 million budget cut from 2008-09 and the additional $637 million cut in 2009-10 with layoffs, furloughs, and a possible fee hike.

On Sept. 24, 2009, groups organized strikes and walkouts across the University of California system, including an estimated 5,000-person protest in the legendary Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley.

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