At one time, California set the bar for the nations idea of what public education was supposed to look like. Nowhere was this ideal more evident than in the states network of public universities, especially the University of California (UC) system. UC was never perfect: there was never free tuition, full funding, or open admissions. Still, it provided educational opportunity virtually unrivaled in the U.S., up to the end of the last century.
Education Under Attack
Sadly, public higher education in California has been attacked over the last two decades by corporate politicians and highly paid, unaccountable board trustees who seek to balance state budgets on the backs of students and workers. The result is thousands of layoffs, skyrocketing fees, and misery for Californians.
This past July, faced with a $26.3 billion budge deficit, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger approved a $15 billion dollar cut in state spending, including $6 billion from schools and $3 billion from colleges (Christian Science Monitor, 07/21/09) – while refusing to raise taxes on the very richest Californians.
While students, faculty, and university staff are made to pay the price for these budget cuts through tuition hikes, furloughs, layoffs, and increased class sizes, the UC Regents approved pay and benefit increases for themselves of up to 30% on salaries which already ranged from $200,000-$400,000! This followed a series of similar increases in July.
United in Fighting Back
In response, the University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE), which represents over 12,000 employees at the ten UC campuses, announced a strike for September 24, 2009, to protest the compounded injustice of statewide cuts to education budgets and the unchecked greed of the UCs leadership.
Thousands of UC faculty, students, and staff joined together in solidarity with this walkout to shut down campuses all over the state. The UC Student Association and over 1,200 faculty members endorsed the walkout. The Coalition of University Employees, representing over 13,000 staff statewide, voted to not cross the UPTE picket line.
The sympathy strikes and community outreach during these actions need to be seen as shining examples for other unions, particularly in the public sector. We need to depend on natural allies such as other workers and people who use these services, rather than focusing on lobbying politicians.
The action of September 24 shows that there is energy to fight back against cuts to social services. The historic coalition of labor unions, teachers, and student groups can be a model for the struggle moving forward. Still, we need more mass action. To win lasting change, we need to demand federal funding instead of expensive wars, occupations, and corporate handouts. We must call for increased taxes on corporations and the rich to pay for social services, like free higher education for all.