Building a Student Union

by Students for a Democratic University (SDU is at UC Berkeley) member Honest Chung*

Tired of protesting? Surely many have seen, or even participated in, their share of rallies, occupations, pickets and other demonstrations. Some have been big; some have been small. Some are disasters; some actually get an effective message across and are successful — for example, stopping the 81 percent fee hike last year through Occupy.

Ultimately, though, what is the point of protesting, and why do people organize for protests? Protesting for the sake of protesting goes nowhere. Any protest must have two general conscious goals in mind: to educate the population on a message and then to convince them to join a mass movement out of that message. Protesting is not about picking up a picket sign and chanting slogans for a couple hours and then going home. Protesting is about joining a movement and continuing to push the message of the movement until that message becomes a reality.

Last year with Occupy the message was clear: Stop the 81 percent fee hike. And that hike was effectively stopped because a movement was constructed out of it. However, as is symptomatic of the student movement in recent years, one of Occupy’s limitations was that it had no clear vision going forward beyond simply stopping the fee hikes.

With the Occupy movement as a whole more or less gone, and with national elections to soak up people’s attention in its place, the general climate on campus has become more docile. There is no fee hike for this semester, but there may be hikes depending on the result of the elections. As a result, many are anxiously waiting or spending their time campaigning.

However, campaigning for “good” results in the elections is not a good strategy to reverse the attacks on public education. Republicans and Democrats have been pushing policies of austerity — i.e. cutting programs while making average people pay more — all throughout the United States. Only two weeks ago 30,000 teachers in Chicago went on strike because of the policies of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat and also President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, which have led to schools closing and poorer conditions for students and teachers.

With this track record people should not be surprised when cuts come, regardless of the outcome of the elections. Yes, this also includes if Proposition 30 passes. Let’s not forget that after the tax increase initiative was co-opted by Governor Jerry Brown, resulting in the current Proposition 30 plan, Brown “unexpectedly” discovered the budget deficit in California was actually nearly twice as large than originally thought. So, even the $9 billion in revenue from Proposition 30 will not cover this new $17 billion deficit. The situation with Proposition 30 is a good example of the age of politics in the austerity era. Pass Proposition 30 and take fewer cuts, or don’t pass Proposition 30 and take more cuts.

However, we should not accept this rhetoric that cuts are unavoidable and necessary. The Chicago teachers’ strike allowed hundreds of laid-off teachers to gain back their jobs. Recently, students in Quebec, led by a student union called CLASSE, launched the longest student strike in North American history because of proposed hikes in tuition from roughly $2,200 to $3,800. Through this strike, which is a form of mass mobilization of people and direct action, the hikes were stopped, and the ruling party in Quebec was kicked out in new elections. This whole situation is only a result of the fact that Quebec students actually went on strike, which was made possible through their student union.

Here, in the U.S., our fees are extraordinarily higher compared to Quebec. Is this a result of no money? California, alone, is the eighth largest economy in the world. The money is there; it’s just not being put where it should be. And that is because in the U.S., compared to places like Quebec and many others, we lack the ability to launch effective and organized struggles. We lack a student union that so many countries around the world have.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t have one. A student union will only exist here if students actively build for one. With that said, student activists throughout California have already begun this discussion last year. In Berkeley, the group Students for a Democratic University has been involved in these discussions from the beginning. And on Oct. 20, a statewide student union-building conference will be held at UC Berkeley. We invite everyone to attend and participate in building a student union here. Because the message we all need to understand is that cuts are going to keep coming, and we can only depend on ourselves to push an alternative to austerity.

If anyone wishes to talk to SDU about anything, we’re likely to have a table out at the tree between Wheeler and Dwinelle halls.

* This article first appeared in DailyCal (UC Berkeley campus newspaper) on September 28,2012


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