As published in Viewpoint Magazine, Issue 3: Workers’ Inquiry | August 19, 2013
Reposted with permission by the authors
We are still finding lessons from the last cycle of California’s student struggle. Among them, the need for channels of student communication, an organization that could register and recollect insurgent knowledges to guard against the dangers of undergraduate turnover and opportunist intentions. In the fall of 2011 and again in the spring of 2012, the struggle was animated by radical rank-and-file activity, even when it was directed by the lackeys of the Democratic Party. And not once, but twice, did they sell out those same students for a pretty picture in the newspaper.
It is true that the construction of the California Student Union (CASU) began after the high point of struggle in the universities. But, unfortunately, this was not the only event that had cast its shadow over our union building. In the same spring of the first CASU conference, we learned about the massive student union in Quebec, and their strike against tuition and state repression (behind every fee hike, a line of riot cops). CASU has inherited Quebec, and more recently Chile, as not only union models worthy of repetition, but as goals to reach in their own right. Next steps are frequently discussed in reference to our Canadian counterpart, and the purpose of the union itself often amounts to a tactic, albeit a successful one, employed by the unions: a general strike.
The debates we’ve been having over horizontality and centralization have an important part in movement building, but arguments over organization have become a substitute for organizing the thousands of students across this state. The fact is that these conversations are not a prerequisite to the hard work of building a base and growing power. Sometimes, they’re even counterproductive.
Instead, CASU’s Regional and statewide meetings could be spent learning about the conditions we share across campuses and the positions particular to us. We could discuss the relationship of individual organizers to the diverse student bodies they hail from, and talk about strategies to build a base back at home. Instead, we’re obsessed with the bylaws of a relatively marginal organization, and the procedure for a possible strike vote, while we consistently gloss over what collaboration will look like in the six months before our next meeting. Maybe it’s time to reverse priorities; perhaps our conversations about structure could be informed by our strategy for growing the union across different campuses.
The authors do not believe the current strategy will not successfully build a union; students will not flock to an organization because it is an amalgamation of the radicals on other campuses across the state. They will join a union when the organization provides a way to advance the struggles students are always, already involved in. We need to stop pretending that CLASSE has all the answers; our association will be won by reading the pedagogies of the poor and pissed off in our own classrooms. What are our campuses fighting against, and how can we join that fight? We need shop stewards in every education struggle across the state.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a time and a place for conversations about structure; in fact, history shows that they’re important. Unionists in Canada stress the importance of codifying the improbability of bureaucracy through an insistence on the democratic character of the organization. But we should remember that the standards of transparency and direct democracy that CASU has correctly adhered to does not guard against all forms of bureaucracy. When CASU’s active participants shrink, our constructions become obstructed from the view of students struggling with debt, learning, police, and work in our schools. This becomes a cyclical process of growing irrelevance. When we obsess more over mimicking the structure of other organizations than we do learning about what will empower us and others across California, we’re just dooming our own association.
Undergraduate Unionists Around Santa Cruz and Beyond