Where We are, How we Move Forward

by Wes Strong

Close to two hundred gathered at San Francisco State University on October 30th to discuss and plan future actions in the struggle to defend public education. Activists set forward an action plan, established a set of demands for the movement, and established a continuations committee to help build for future conferences and actions. Many see the results of the conference as a step forward, providing more clarity to the struggle and beginning to answer some questions that should have been tackled much earlier.

The conference succeeded in setting out a plan of action which includes actions at the UC regent meeting later this month (16th – 18th), a national day of action March 2nd, a follow-up conference on March 12th, along with several other actions. They have established a set of demands for the movement in California. On Sunday, they also established a volunteer based continuations committee that will play a role in building for future actions and conferences, hopefully providing some continuity on a statewide level in between these actions. These resolutions were a step forward and dissuade any lack of confidence that came out of last April’s conference in Los Angeles.

Certainly, many expected to handle this in LA in April, but for several different reasons, this did not occur. There was little time for discussion on strategy because the basic questions needed to be answered. There were several times where people were frustrated with the procedure. Frustrations built up more than they should have with the conference being mostly in plenary sessions. It is more important for conference organizers to consider this point and mix the dynamic of the room up more in the future.

Workshops and sector breakouts are a great way to facilitate this process, as are creating dynamics where discussion is more horizontal in structure and not managed in a top-down lecture styled model. Breakouts and workshops can often spark discussions that can’t happen in the larger rooms. These spaces also are more welcoming to people who may be weary of speaking in the larger meetings and can help bolster confidence and get more people involved in the larger discussions. The Halloween weekend conference in California was a significant step towards clarifying aspects of the movement, which will hopefully result in a renewed desire and energy among those in the state to pour into this work going forward.

A Movement in Retreat?

A trend that continued to come up time after time in conversations I had with people in California was that there was an overall feeling that the movement was in retreat. Of course, if we are comparing October 7th with March 4th and this conference with the conference of October 2009, then it is easy for us to come to this conclusion. However, these differences should not weigh us down in our organizing. If we look at this correctly, it gives us a clear picture of where we are at. Movements that strike a common chord often catalyze massive support at the beginning with large turnouts. This does not mean that all of that energy is or could be consolidated into an ongoing movement, especially when victories seem few and far between.

One of the biggest factors to the decrease in numbers is the relative absence of union involvement, aside from the involvement of a few locals. As unions seem to have put most of their energies into Get Out the Vote (GOTV) efforts, they did not mobilize their members for October 7th and have not been as involved in the ongoing struggle. There is also a new class of students at university that may be new to this struggle and likely have not been active on this issue before. If anything these conditions should tell people that the organizing needs to continue and escalate and that the serious questions of strategy and purpose need to be part of the evolving movement.

The movement is not in retreat. Nationally, October 7th was a step forward. Actions in many cities grew out of March 4th which energized existing campaigns or sparked new efforts. In places like Milwaukee, Atlanta, Massachusetts, Louisiana, Illinois, and so on are now engaged in building ongoing campaigns to fight back against the budget cuts. Internationally, the struggle is even more of a pitched battle. Throughout Europe, South America, and parts of Asia, struggles against austerity measures have had some serious successes. Students in Greece, France, Argentina, and several countries in southern Asia have mobilized tens of thousands. We must continue to build this struggle and reach towards the successes of our brothers and sisters overseas. The biggest question that approaches us now is how we get from where we are to where we need to be.

Bringing the Struggle Forward

Working people are under attack, and thinking that we can just elect our way out of this problem is a failed strategy. At the core of this struggle are those who organize with a rank and file basis to confront the school administration and push on union or official student leadership. The graduate student instructors (GSIs) forming a rank and file caucus at UC Berkeley are helping to fuel the movement in California. Chicago Teachers took back control of their union local based on this strategy. They won the election because they had teacher, parent, and community support. The local is now a big player in fighting for public education in the city. Unions may not have mobilized for October 7th, but these grassroots, rank and file organizing campaigns did, and they are what keep the struggle alive. The victories of these struggles have a lot to teach student activists who engage in this work. They show us how to build power and win.

The future of the movement depends on our ability to reach out to workers, unions, and new people. The future will be determined by our ability to critically analyze where we are at, reach out to new people, identify the issues that affect them the most, and engage in ongoing campaigns targeted at winning on these core issues to build student, worker, and comunity power. This strategy has the dual effect of increasing confidence of those involved and proving that in struggle, we can win. Our broad goals should be to build unity through differences, foster creativity with discussion, and create a movement that is multi-faceted and attracts people of different backgrounds through its diversity and proven ability to win victories big and small.

The struggle to defend public education is part of a struggle to fight back against austerity measures being implemented by the rich neoliberal capitalists with the desire to redesign society to serve only their interests and limit popular democratic control. This is a common struggle of public sector workers against cuts, struggles of workers in general against policies like NAFTA, struggles of urban communities against the dismantling of social services, and so on. All of these come from attacks on working people, brought on by those in power. The only emotion that seems to move those in power is fear. They know that they are tiny compared to us, and when they fear losing their power, they move to the left. It should be our goal to find ways to build power that is looks realizes we need to build an alternative pole of power that pushes people to the left and offers a different narrative.

The movement to defend public education has grown from the explosion of activity in California last fall, to a national and international movement as bonds between all these levels continue to grow. Now we are not acting by ourselves, but beginning to act in unison. Activists in California will be organizing around the UC regents meeting November 16th – 18th. November 17th is the Global day of Action for Education. Actions continue to happen throughout the world as part of the Global wave of actions for education forwarded by the International Student Movement platform (ISM). There is plenty going on to be inspired by, it’s our job to organize and build power to win, and help spread this narrative of struggle. It’s our job carry the struggle forward and build the power we need to win.

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