US: Fighting to protect education and public services

California students and unions show way forward

“There’s no question this is extraordinary – the worst situation in 50 years.” That’s how Susan Urahn, director of the Pew Center for the States, described the massive budget deficits facing state governments across the country on ABC News. “We saw a $180 billion cumulative budget gap in 2009 and predict the same for 2010.”

At the forefront lies California – both in terms of the scale of the crisis and the movement developing to resist the cuts in vital public services, particularly higher education. Facing a $62 billion deficit in 2009, Republican Governor Schwarzenegger and the Democratic legislature carried out a massive assault on workers and young people.

Republican Governor Schwarzenegger unleashes wave of cutbacks

Higher education has seen billions in funding cut and thousands of faculty and staff laid off. Those remaining face furloughs, wage cuts, hiring freezes, huge increases in class sizes, reductions in course offerings, and cuts in financial aid.

In November, the University of California (UC) Regents approved a 32% tuition hike. Having no shame, the same regents gave themselves and other top administrators pay and benefit increases of up to 30%, on top of their already bloated salaries.

But what stands out against the background of these dreary facts is the bold struggle that has emerged against these attacks. The UC system, which has been at the head of the struggle, has been rocked by one of its biggest movements since the 1960s.

Determined Struggle

The movement erupted on September 24 with a strike and walkout by UC staff, students, and faculty, with thousands protesting across the state. This was followed by a statewide conference on October 24 with 750 people from all sectors of public education, from K-12 through the university level.

The conference voted to call for statewide actions on November 18-20 and a strike and day of action on March 4.

November student protest

November 18-20 saw a wave of protests, which continued into early December. The University Professional and Technical Employees union at UCLA and UC Berkeley went on strike, supported by the Coalition of University Employees union members and others.

Nearly 2,000 students converged on the UC Regents’ meeting at UCLA to protest the 32% tuition hike, along with local protests of thousands around the state. Following the regents’ vote, hundreds of students carried out occupations and blockades of buildings throughout the UC system.

Showing their true colors, university administrators who had previously posed as “allies” of students responded by unleashing police, including riot and SWAT teams, to attack and repress the protestors. Dozens were arrested, some facing trumped up felony charges of incitement to riot, while others face administrative discipline such as suspension from school.

Schwarzenegger Retreats

Feeling pressure from this movement, Schwarzenegger announced in January he would not make any further cuts to higher education in the 2010-11 budget despite facing a $20 billion projected deficit.

He also proposed a constitutional amendment that the state will never spend more on prisons than it does on higher education. The governor said that the state is currently spending nearly 11% of the general-fund budget on prisons and 7.5% on colleges and universities.

Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff acknowledged in an interview with the NY Times that “those protests on the U.C. campuses were the tipping point.” (1/7/10)

However, there are sharp limits to Schwarzenegger’s “concession.” His proposed budget relies on additional increases in student fees. At the same time, the cuts in prison spending are not based on reducing the number of inmates by releasing non-violent offenders but instead on privatising prisons and slashing funding for prisoners’ health care.


The movement in California holds important lessons for activists across the country. Most important has been the preparedness to struggle by students and workers, which they have demonstrated in their protests, strikes, student walkouts, occupations, study-ins, etc. Their audacity and dynamism has inspired activists across the country to take up the call for March 4 and has breathed life into the emerging movement against budget cuts.

A key strength of the movement has been its rejection of ALL the budget cuts, tuition hikes, and layoffs, as opposed to falling for the liberal trap of accepting that there needs to be some cuts and arguing about which public service should be defunded.

Activists have ridiculed the argument that “there is no money,” challenging the ruling class bias of Schwarzenegger and the Democratic legislature, who dismiss raising taxes on the rich and big business but drone on about “responsible” leadership when they slash funding for public services desperately needed by working people.

Organisers have pointed to the $700 billion (along with the trillions in guarantees) that the U.S. government handed out to Wall Street, as well as the trillions spent on the military budget and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If they can find this much money to waste, the federal government can afford to bail out the states to prevent any cuts to the social services and education we need!

There have also been widespread calls for increasing taxes on the rich and big business in California. The potential public support of such measures was underlined by the recent passage by 54% of two ballot measures in Oregon to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy.

Another promising element of the movement has been the emergence of popular democratic decision-making bodies for organising the struggle. At a number of universities and colleges, general assemblies of hundreds of students, faculty, and staff have met to discuss and debate their demands, what actions to take, and chart a way forward.

For the movement in California to win, it will be essential to bring the full power of the public education unions and the broader working class to bear. This will require a major mobilisation by the public education unions for determined struggle, including strike action, and linking the struggle to defend education with mobilising workers throughout California against the entire big business agenda of budget cuts and layoffs.

Unfortunately, while some of the unions have organised strikes, the majority have not. Activists need to step up the pressure on union leaders to organise for strike action. If the union leaders do not take the necessary steps, then rank-and-file workers will need to organise actions from below.

The developments in California – an economic and political crisis, a massive wave of budget cuts, and the beginnings of a fight-back – are an indication of the new situation U.S. society is entering. Huge upheavals and struggles are being prepared, out of which the ideas of struggle, solidarity, and socialism will grow by leaps and bounds.

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February 2010