In recent weeks, the Bay Area has been roiled by anger and frustration with how the rich have grown richer while the rest of us endure underemployment, foreclosures, and deep cuts to public education and services, peaking with the Nov. 2 Oakland General Strike that drew more than 10,000 people into the streets to demand economic justice.
The Occupy Wall Street movement — and its many local manifestations, including OccupySF and Occupy Oakland — has been the main vehicle for those populist passions for the last two months, with the support of the labor movement. But now, student and faculty groups from California's three public university systems are about to get involved in the fight in a big way.
Student and labor groups allied with the ReFund California coalition are planning a week of action for Nov. 9-16, culminating that final day in demonstrations outside the California State University Board of Trustees meeting in Fullerton and University of California Board of Trustees meeting at the UCSF campus in San Francisco's Mission Bay.
Those protests aim to connect the problem of deep cuts and tuition hikes in the public university systems with the larger issue of wealthy individuals and corporations that haven't been paying their fair share. The coalition wants the boards to pledge support for a five-point action plan that includes taxes on the wealthy, removing commercial property from Prop. 13 caps on property taxes, restoration of cuts to higher education, a sales tax on Wall Street financial transactions, and pressuring banks to reduce mortgage debt on underwater homes.
Charlie Eaton, a ReFund California organizer from United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents teaching assistants at UC, notes that many UC and CSU board members also sit on the boards of major banks and corporations that have contributed to the current financial crisis and which have been in the crosshairs of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
"It's really a club of California's corporate elites," Eaton said. "It's about saying to these folks: if you aren't willing to actively support paying your fair share, or at least get out of the way, we can't let it be business as usual at the Wall Street institutions that you help run."
He said there's a direct connection between the actions of these corporate boards and lack of resources in California for public education and services, so it's only right that these powerful board members — from Regent Richard Blum, the investment banker husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, to Trustee Bill Hauck, former head of the California Business Roundtable — support the needs of the 99 percent.
"We'll be there to call on them to sign the pledge," Eaton said of the Nov. 16 meetings. "And if they aren't prepared to make that pledge, we're headed to the Financial District to make sure there is no business as usual for these corporations."
That day of action will echo the last ReFund California protest in San Francisco, the Sept. 29 "Make Banks Pay" march through the Financial District that was one of the first high-profile demonstrations involving OccupySF. The march was several hundred strong, targeting major financial institutions including a Chase Bank branch on Market Street that was occupied by protesters, resulting in six arrests.
When we asked Eaton whether the Occupy movement would lend its energy and numbers to these ReFund California protests, he said, "We're embedded in the Occupy movement, so it's not quite right to say it's something the Occupy movement might help with...I think the Occupy Wall Street movement shows we can make them pay."
Meanwhile, the next day (Nov. 17), Occupy Wall Street plans to march the 11-mile length of Manhattan in a day of action that will be supported by solidarity marches by Occupy encampments across the country. That is also the day that a two-campus strike is being threatened by the California Faculty Association.
"I think that day is going to be a busy day all around the nation," Kim Geron, a political science professor at CSU East Bay and vice president of the CFA, told us.
On Nov. 7, the CFA Board of Directors authorized one-day strikes for Nov. 17 at the CSU East Bay and CSU Dominguez Hills campuses to protest CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed's decision to withhold negotiated faculty pay raises. It would be the first faculty strike in the system since 1983, although a strike was authorized in 2007 but called off after a negotiated settlement.
After the vote, according to a statement put out to members, CFA President Lillian Taiz told her board, "We hope this carefully targeted strike, which symbolizes both our anger and our commitment to fairness, will lead to changes in his priorities and his positions. If it does not, the CFA leadership—and the CSU faculty we represent—are prepared to escalate the fight."
CSU spokesperson Mike Uhlenkamp said the campuses will remain open despite the strikes. "We expect it to be business as usual," he said. As for the pledge that ReFund California is seeking, "We don't get into advocating between taxing and not taxing," he said, saying that's a state decision and "we're not going to push them to make that determination."
Guardian calls to the UC President's Office were not returned by press time. A spokesperson for Gov. Jerry Brown, who is the subject of a student letter-writing campaign urging him to tax the rich and stop cutting public services, continued to blame Republicans.
"We too are deeply concerned about cuts to the state's universities and colleges, which is why the Governor pushed for a solution to our budget deficit that included extending revenues. Unfortunately, Republicans in the Legislature refused to even allow the people of California to vote on the measure, which could have helped prevent future cuts," Brown spokesperson Evan Westrup responded via email.
When we asked whether Brown was simply giving up, how he planned to deal with the problem, and why Brown has not followed up his campaign pledge to tax the rich with any proposals to do so, he wrote simply, "There are a number of ways to pursue additional revenue moving forward and these options are being considered."
Geron said there is a clear connection between problems in the CSU system and the hoarding of resources by the richest one percent of Americans, the main critique of Occupy Wall Street, a movement driven largely by current and recent college students.
"We are part of it. One of our slogans is we are the 99 percent and we teach the 99 percent," Geron told us.
While the CFU is focused on decisions by the Chancellor's Office — indeed, the strike is legally allowed only because the chancellor broke the contract by withholding negotiated pay increases — Geron said those decisions were made in a climate of deep funding cuts prompted by the state budget crisis.
"Obviously, the economic crisis is a lot of the reason why all this happened. It's part of a larger crisis that is going on about how to fund the public good, including higher education," Geron said. "Students are paying a lot more and getting a lot less. That's the heart of what's going on."
The UC Student Association is taking part in the ReFund California week of action, but has not yet voted to participate in direct action against corporations on Nov. 16, Executive Director Matt Haney told us. But he said that many UC students will still take part in that action, just as they've been taking part in the Occupy movement.
"It's the same frustrations. We have to get out there and start pushing this ourselves," he told us. "We need to show the state that things can't just keep moving along as they have. We have to put a stop to business as usual. The economic collapse is what destroyed the UC system."
Haney sees the student, labor, and Occupy movements starting to come together in a very natural way. "It has really put the wind in the sails of student activists to see the energy of the Occupy movement," Haney said. "There is a coming together of students and labor, and it's overlapping with the Occupy movement in a powerful way." *
Find details about the ReFund California Week of Action at www.makebankspaycalifornia.com .