Marcy Rein, a retired member of Office and Professional Employees (OPEIU) Local 29, gives us an in-depth report on the struggle by students at the University of California to oppose draconian cuts that endanger jobs and quality education.
From a block away on Telegraph Avenue, you could sense the muffled rumble of the crowd on the University of California’s Berkeley campus Nov. 18. Getting closer, you heard the call-and-response of “Whose university? Our university!” from students, faculty and members of five campus unions gathered in Sproul Plaza. They had walked off the job and out of their classes to protest UC’s move to slash staff, salaries and services and send student fees soaring.
Members of University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE/CWA Local 9119) kicked off the day’s action with unfair labor practice pickets at 5 a.m. They joined forces with other members of the campus community for the 1,000-strong rally at noon. Three busloads of people headed straight from the rally to Los Angeles, where the UC Regents were set to meet the next day. They joined some 2,000 students and unionists from around the state to denounce the Regents’ plan to raise student fees another 32 percent.
Protests also flared at the UC campuses in Davis, Santa Cruz and San Francisco. Over the next five days, students occupied buildings on each campus. Police in Berkeley and Los Angeles used tasers and rubber bullets on the protesters and some 100 got arrested.
But these stormy November days marked just one stage in the ongoing fight to defend one of the top public university systems in the United States.
Says Kathryn Lybarger, a gardener at UC Berkeley and rank-and-file organizer with AFSCME Local 3299:
I tell my co-workers this is a fight to keep this place public, and keep it a place that respects union labor. It’s about the fight against privatization.”
While workers fight for their jobs and union rights, students like Catherine Fung, a graduate student at UC Davis and member of the Solidarity Coalition, are standing up for their right to higher education.
My mother always said her only hope for my brother and me was that we would have more opportunities than she had. Many of us at UC come from immigrant and refugee families, working families. We’re first-generation college students and UC for us is not just a school but the ability to build big dreams. I’ve watched the Regents triple tuition and fear that now entire sectors will be denied access to the university-and my mother’s dream will not be realized.
Organizers started strategizing for this round last summer, after UC’s Board of Regents announced 9.3 percent student fee hikes and began pressuring unions to agree to furloughs and pay cuts.
Mobilizations of students, staff and faculty swept the UC system and beyond on Sept. 24. UPTE, which represents a wide range of research and technical workers, called a statewide unfair labor practice strike that day as well. The Coalition of University Employees (CUE), the clerical workers’ union, struck in support. The other campus unions can’t go out on sympathy strikes, but service workers in AFSCME, lecturers in the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT) and graduate student workers in UAW 2865 all found ways to take part, as they did during the November actions.
The UC Regents showed nothing but disrespect. After students and workers waited patiently for hours to speak at the Nov. 19 meeting, the Regents extended their bathroom break for 30 minutes, according to UC-AFT President Bob Samuels. “Then the Regents cut off public comments, while several people were still waiting to speak,” Samuels wrote in his blog.
When our group at the meeting started to yell, “Let them speak,” not only did the regents declare their own meeting an “unlawful assembly,” but they brought up police with guns into their own meeting to arrest the people who wanted to speak.
The Regents’ response at that meeting mirrors their arrogant attitude toward the campus unions. UPTE, CUE and AFSCME have all filed unfair labor practice charges with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) over the university’s failure to bargain over layoffs and furloughs.
UPTE and CUE have each been in negotiations with UC for more than a year and a half. The university proposed a three-year wage freeze for CUE members, and tried to get the union to declare impasse. At the Berkeley campus alone, nearly 100 CUE members have gotten notices of permanent or temporary layoffs since July.
More than 300 UPTE members around the state have lost their jobs to layoffs, including three members of the bargaining team. UC wants to hike health insurance premiums by 10 percent, raise parking fees and cut pay by four percent to fund pensions. On top of these take-backs, which add up to about $150 per month, the university wants direct pay cuts of between four and 10 percent. UPTE has held off these cuts for its membership, but unrepresented workers have already been hit with pay cuts and furloughs.
In response to UPTE’s unfair labor practice charges, the PERB issued a 30-page complaint against the university on Nov. 22. The Board found strong enough evidence to take UC to a hearing on numerous charges of bad faith bargaining. Those included refusing to bargain over layoffs, furloughs and holiday closures; canceling and sabotaging bargaining sessions, and direct dealing. PERB also found that UC “engaged in blatantly coercive speech containing both threats and promises of benefits.”
The AFSCME unit at the Berkeley campus took the hardest blow. UC laid off 38 custodians, and imposed furloughs that cancel out the 4 percent across-the-board pay raise they won in their new contract, signed last January. The members face speedup as well as pay cuts, as management expects them to pick up the load carried by their laid-off coworkers.
“It’s very stressful,” Lybarger said.
Layoffs among lecturers and graduate student workers are harder to track, because the university treats them as disposable labor anyway, according to Katherine Lee, a lecturer in the English department and rank-and-file member of UC-AFT. Lecturers can only get job security after six years in the system and graduate students work semester-to-semester. Between them, the lecturers and grad students teach the bulk of the basic courses that have borne the brunt of UC’s 10 percent cut in course offerings. The arts and humanities have suffered most; UCLA is cutting its whole writing program, Samuels said.
As Lee puts it:
Students who didn’t come to college with basic skills will suffer. This includes students who come from high schools without strong curricula, schools that might not have advanced placement and honors classes available. Many are students of color, immigrant and low-income students.
Having fewer course offerings means classes will be overcrowded, or even unavailable. Students may need to stay in school longer to complete requirements—or drop out because they can’t afford the higher fees.
Jason Williams, a UC Berkeley student who transferred from one of the local community colleges, says he’s already $26,000 in debt.
I know a lot of people in my situation, and a lot of them won’t be back next semester.
The 32 percent fee hike the Regents approved at their Nov. 19 meeting will take effect in two installments, on top of last summer’s 9.3 percent increase. Students returning to UC next fall will be paying 45 percent more than they did in spring 2009.
This doesn’t have to be. UC administrators say the state’s budget crisis has forced them to raise fees while cutting jobs, pay and services. But the university gets only 4 percent of its funding from the state. A federal stimulus grant of $716 million offset more than half of the $1.2 billion in state funds cut this year.
UC’s medical centers, extension programs, housing and parking services bring in just over 40 percent of its budget. The medical centers alone brought in $4 billion in profit in the last fiscal year. But funds go to construction and to the ever-growing administration.
Tanya Smith, president of UPTE’s Berkeley local says “the problem isn’t money—it’s priorities.”
At the same meeting when the Regents raised student fees, they handed out big raises for top administrators.
Smith was aid off when UC chopped staff, and spent her last day of work on the picket line.
But on another level, it doesn’t matter if UC could survive on its own resources if public education isn’t funded, from K-12 on up. We’re all in this together.
The other branches of California’s public higher education system-the community colleges and the California State Universities-depend much more heavily on state funding than does the UC system. The CSUs have lost more than $1 billion in state funding since 2008 and community colleges lost $935 million last year. CSU students also got hit with a 32 percent fee hike for the 2009-10 academic year, on top of 10 percent increases for 2007-2008 and 2008-2009. Community college students are paying an extra $6 per unit for courses and facing drastic overcrowding in classes as enrollment balloons-some 250,000 were turned away from classes this fall.
Students and workers from the CSUs and community colleges joined those from the UC campuses in the Sept. 24 strike and walkout, and activists already are organizing for the “March Forth” rallies in Sacramento and Los Angeles in defense of public education on March 4. (See www.AgainstCuts.org for more info.) To help build the spring actions, the union for CSU faculty called an “E-march” on the state legislature in Sacramento, which you can join at www.calfac.org.
Asked about the most encouraging thing that happened during the November mobilizations, Katherine Lee said, “actually seeing people’s perspectives change.”
Her AFT contract wouldn’t let her strike when UPTE members walked out-so Lee took her English class to the picket line.
They talked to workers for about a half hour.” A lot of them didn’t know what a picket line was before, but they started to think critically about the issues. As part of their assignment, they also had to talk to people who weren’t on the lines-but after that half-hour, they didn’t want to cross. Their conversations laid the basis for solidarity.