When Students Strike Back: The New Social Movement at the University of California

04/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On November 20th, a group of Berkeley students held Wheeler Hall hostage, and their first demand was to rehire 38 custodians. The administration and the media were confused by this request; they asked themselves, why do the students care about janitors? From the perspective of the UC administration, students should only be protesting against the escalating fees they are being forced to pay; however, students, unions, and workers have begun to form a new type of coalition that cuts across traditional class and employment divisions. By uniting around a group of diverse demands representing different social groups, the UC activists have pointed to the future of progressive social movements.

While many pundits and politicians have been arguing that the only political movement on the ground these days is the loose band of right-leaning tea partiers, the protests at the University of California offer an alternative political force. On the one side, we have the libertarian anti-government tax revolt that often takes its marching orders from conservative talk show hosts and Fox News, and on the other side, a coalition of university students, faculty, and unionized workers supporting equitable taxes and a defense of public institutions. This battle demonstrates the real fight for the future of the country, and like so many other things, it all starts in California.

The California Tax Revolt

We can trace the origin of the current tea party movement to the late 1970s when California led the way to a new form of tax rebellion by passing Proposition 13, which capped property taxes and required that new taxes could only be raised if 2/3rds of the state legislators voted for the increase. Since this time, not only has the limit on taxes reduced the available money for education and other public programs, but this proposition has determined the structure of Californian politics. Republicans in the state have learned that they can be elected to office by simply attacking any hint of raising taxes, and not only are they able to label opponents as "tax and spend" Democrats, but Republicans, who represent a small minority of the voters, have also paved the way for tax breaks for the wealthy and the deregulation of several industries. This anti-tax, pro-business ideology helped to land Ronald Reagan the governorship and later the presidency, and of course, Reagan, gained his conservative credentials by opposing the Berkeley student movement as governor; we are now witnessing a similar opposition between a conservative governor and a progressive student body.

Even though most people consider California to be a liberal state, the left coast has helped to create the current libertarian culture dominating American politics. Central to this libertarian mindset is the idea that the ultimate values are free speech and the free market, and anything that stands in the way between a person and his freedom is the enemy. One reason, then, why radio talk shows in California are the natural allies of the tea party movement is that these programs celebrate free speech by giving average Joes the ability to vent their populist rage to an encouraging audience. Moreover, since the hosts of these shows do not have to present any positive policies or support any specific politicians, they are free to attack everything and everyone.

The power of these radio talk shows should not be underestimated. In fact, in Southern California, politicians shake in their boots with just the mention of the "John and Ken Show." These two libertarian attack dogs will start a public campaign against any politician who endorses raising taxes or regulating businesses. By calling for radio Fatwas on Republicans who dare to even mention the possibility of raising revenues, John and Ken have been able to channel SoCal's libertarian rage.

A New Progressive Coaliton

In opposition to this anti-tax, anti-government populism, the students, faculty, and unions have been calling for the need to change the way the state votes on taxes and budgets. Led by the Berkeley professor George Lakoff and his California Democracy Act, the UC coalition has been arguing that the state should not be held hostage by the Republican legislative minority that has taken a pledge to never raise any taxes. While no one wants to pay more taxes, students have understood that the recent increase of student fees (tuition) by over 41% in one year is the same as a tax hike. In fact, while the wealth in California has become concentrated at the top, the richest Californians have seen their tax rates lowered. Meanwhile, since the state cannot raise taxes, and it must pass a balanced budget by a 2/3rds vote in both houses of the legislature, the only thing the Democrats can do currently is to cut the funding for education and other vital social services.

While pushing for higher taxes and more state funding may not seem like a radical gesture, the UC coalition has extended its political actions by tying the legislative stalemate to the larger issues of privatization and corporatization. Although the UC President Mark Yudof and the Board of Regents would like the students and the faculty to blame the state for all of the university's problems, the coalition has directed its anger in multiple directions and has effectively criticized both the state and the UC administration. For instance, when students protested the most recent move to raise students fees, they not only called for the legislature to restore the system's funding, but they also protested the regents decision to support compensation increases for top administrators.

The broader message of the UC coalition is that they do not think a public university should be run like a private corporation, and they also do not think that the most diverse and prestigious public university system in the world should be transformed into a boarding school for the super wealthy. What students fear the most, perhaps, is that their beloved university will simply give up on state funding, and instead will decide to increase its enrollment of high-paying out-of-state students and thus shut its door on Californians and the non-wealthy.

To understand what it means to privatize a public university and move to a high fee, high aid model, we san simply look at what has recently happened to other flagship public universities. As Peter Sacks has documented in his book, Tearing Down the Gates, in 1992, a third of University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) students were from lower-income families, but by 2002, only 13% were eligible for Pell grants. This precipitous loss of lower-income students also occurred at the flagship public universities of Virginia, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Between 1992 and 2002, the percentage of students receiving Pell grants at the University of Wisconsin at Madison went down 28%, while University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign went down 15%. Furthermore, after reducing its reliance on state funding by rapidly increasing its tuition, the University of Virginia saw its percentage of students eligible for Pell grants drop to just 8%.

This protest against the privatization of the university is fundamentally a rejection of the replacement of public values with corporate values. For instance, the students and many of the progressive faculty bristle when Yudof talks about the university as a group of buisnesses, and they do not think that the "fiscal emergency" should be used as a pretext to eliminate programs, lay off teachers, attack unions, and shrink the non-profit oriented programs.

Ultimately what has united this coalition is a shared dislike for an abrasive administration that continues to reward itself with bonuses and salary increases, while everyone else is asked to do more for less. Moreover, students, faculty, and unions are taking a stand against a thirty-year war on public workers, public institutions, and public spaces. This defense of the public is the only hope for our collective future.

March on March 4th

The next big move of the UC coalition is to hold a series of protests, rallies, and strikes throughout the state on March 4th. Under the general banner of "Defending Public Education, Defending Public Workers," this day of action will bring together teachers, students, and workers from K-PhD. The central demands are to stop the fee hikes, rehire layed off workers, increase enrollments, and bargain in good faith with the unions. The coalition is also asking to stop the re-segregation of education by protecting the educational opportunities of underrepresented students.

Not only is the UC coalition fighting to save public higher education in the state of California, but, this group of students, faculty, and workers is giving hope to all of the people who are not happy with the status quo. Recent protests and rallies in the UC system have spread throughout the country, and a new social movement is being born. While it is hard to sum up the goals and strategies of this political and social force, we are witnessing a rebirth of the idea that people can change history and improve the lives of others.