Thursday, November 21, 2013

"Someone Else's Fight"? Why Yesterday's Strike at the University of California Matters

Yesterday, workers from two unions on University of California campuses were on strike.  One represented campus service workers and employees in UC medical centres.  The other represented graduate student employees.

In such situations, students—whether undergraduates or graduates—are pulled in conflicting directions.  On the one hand, they might wish to show solidarity with other members of their community.  On the other, they feel as though they cannot miss class and the opportunities that come with it.
There is a post doing the rounds on social media, apparently from an instructor to his or her students.  On the one hand, it is a thoughtful explanation of why the instructor (presumably a faculty member) chose to cross the picket-line, and why s/he thought that students should do the same.  There are some good, even powerful, thoughts about the relationship between higher education and the challenges of the future, as well as some interesting self-reflection on a political and social journey of an individual across time.
But it was also a bit sad to me, because it encapsulated some of the thinking, or the way of thinking, which makes our campus community so Balkanised in reaction to the threats it faces from bureaucratic overhauls, state divestment, instrumentalisation, and monetisation, all of which amount to privatisation by stealth.
 “We have 7 class days left until the end of the course”, the instructor wrote to his or her students, “Despite the fact that we’ve made good time and are likely to finish the syllabus with a few lectures in hand for review, class hours are valuable and your education is too important to just cancel a class if we don’t have to”. 
This is an interesting point.  Is one day of a person’s education more important than the opportunity to affect another person’s livelihood?  Is one of seven remaining classes in one semester more important than the opportunity to make a statement about the value of that education to them, a statement which, if made by enough students, might help to ensure that future generations of students also have the opportunity to benefit from such education when the institution which provides that education is under threat? 
The instructor continues, “Whatever the alleged injustices are that are being protested about tomorrow, it is clear that you are not responsible for those things, whatever they are, and I do not think you should be denied an education because of someone else’s fight that you are not responsible for”.
This, too, is interesting.  On the one hand, the instructor makes the point to students that their education is all the more important because of the manner in which our world has grown inextricably interconnected, problems intertwined as much as people.  The students in this class will share with their peers around the world the responsibility for meeting those challenges.  And yet this is accompanied by what is essentially an injunction to selfishness and myopia. 
It doesn’t matter what the injustices are, students are told.  In spite of the fact that they involve your neighbours, concern people who provide the support team for your educational experience, and are taking place on your campus in your community, they are none of your affair.  You don’t even need to know what they are to know that they are nothing to do with you. 
How can you reconcile the notion of globalisation—with its attendant interconnections, ills, and opportunities—with the idea that there is no connection whatsoever between different sectors of the community on a single university campus?
The letter ended on what was supposed to be an uplifting note.  “Society is investing in you”, the instructor wrote, “so that you can help solve the many challenges we are going to face in the coming decades....That is why I am not cancelling class tomorrow.  Your education is really really important, not just to you, but in a far broader and wider reaching way than I think any of you have yet to fully appreciate”.
But there are some problems with that mindset which masquerades as idealism but is really more like abnegation, disassociation, or disengagement.  Society is not, in fact, investing in our students.  If it were, society would be sponsoring their education, instead of requiring students and their parents to do so.  If society was investing in their education, they wouldn’t have to face the prospect of $15,000 per year tuition.  They wouldn’t have to face a wall of debt upon graduation.  And they wouldn’t face an economic climate which threatens even those students graduating from one of the country’s top universities with unemployment or underemployment.  They wouldn’t be receiving their education in overcrowded classrooms at the hands of underpaid graduate students and over-stretched faculty in under-staffed departments while working in under-funded libraries and under-supported labs.
And this is precisely the claim that workers from AFSCME and UAW were making in the strike that this instructor tells students represents “someone else’s fight that you are not responsible for”.  Those workers were making the argument that in order for the University and our society to succeed, there must be investment in the people who live, work, and study on that campus and in that society. 
Not only, as members of a shared community—whether in our University, our town, our state, our country, or our globe—are we all responsible in some fashion for one another.  But the fates of undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, staff, and perhaps that of our Republic of California, are all bound up in this struggle to persuade our community that the things we do here are important and worthy of collective investment.
One of our former Chancellors, Clark Kerr, wrote about the University as a “City of Intellect”.  And what are cities if not communities?  And no community can survive and flourish if its members live segregated lives, refusing to acknowledge one another when their paths cross, declining to adopt their neighbour’s struggle as their own, and failing to see how if one part of our community becomes embattled, we will necessarily be close behind. 
On crisp cool days like this one, Berkeley sparkles, up on its hill above the San Francisco Bay.  But that literal light is far less important in making our community such a beautiful one than are the bonds which we should embrace rather than repudiate by way of strengthening our community and our ability to provide for all of our members, thereby sustaining its soul and its mission.  


  1. This article does nothing to address the merits, or lack thereof, of the strike itself.

  2. That is correct. It is a response to the comments from the link above, which asserted that irrespective of the merits of the strike, students should not concern themselves with what goes on in their community.

  3. As a retired hs teacher, I was appalled at what the math professor wrote to his students. If nothing else, it perpetuates the elitism that may Cal students have when i comes to social issues. Social concerns are not your fight but learning an equation are. I hope his class gets through the syllabus and all the students do well on their exams. Social justice be damned. Turning a blind eye to social problems seems to have become an American way, one taught at our premier universities. Good Job.

  4. Nice piece, thanks for writing. It's my first time on this blog and it looks pretty interesting. Will be reading more of your pieces.

  5. I absolutely agree, Jeff. It is a sad day when University students choose to ignore picket lines set by people who devote their time and energy into enabling their education. I wonder how many of those students realized how shortsighted and selfish they were being as they ignored the strike zones on the way to a non-essential class?

  6. "[...] It is a response to the comments from the link above, which asserted that irrespective of the merits of the strike, students should not concern themselves with what goes on in their community."

    I have trouble determining where this is stated in the Professor's e-mail. Although he opted to proceed with instruction for the course, he did not make attendance compulsory for the students. Now, if had threatened the students with punitive measures like "docking their final exam score," then that would be cause for concern.

    1. Read his email closer then. You'll get it.

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  8. I went to Cal 2009-2012 and watched my campus turned into a circus by off-campus hippies and protestors and strikers and bored students who were perpetually discontent with this or that ("Education should be free!"? Who told you that?). There is a harmful, hypocritical culture of protest at Cal, and honestly I just can't sign up to fight everyone else's voluntary war. This teacher made it a point to emphasize that solidarity is not compulsory, which I applaud--it is a far better attitude than the strikers and protestors who held my education hostage with walkouts and protests and building occupations that amounted to hollow media gestures in imitation of the 1960s rebel culture that made Cal famous in the first place.

    Talk about "segregated lives" and "community" all you want, but don't expect everyone to then adopt your problems as their own--as a Berkeley undergraduate then and as a grad student in Berkeley now, I've got my own things to deal with, difficulties you don't know about because I'm not arrogant and egotistical enough to make them your problems too.

    School is hard. Making it to class is hard and juggling a family and research is hard. PAYING for classes is harder. I'm not going to fork over thousands of dollars of tuition each semester, only to have employees of said institution guilt me into skipping what I paid for because they are unhappy with their contracts or paychecks. I have responsibilities to people who don't live on campus. I have a life outside of campus. You should try this. It might help you gain what adults call "perspective." Despite your waxing poetic, the dissatisfaction of some employees does not amount to a statewide or global crisis.

    The system isn't perfect, and in many ways many of us are doing our best just to hold it all together--which is exactly why I don't need your grievances added to my payload. When employees strike, they throw the tuition of paying students right down the toilet; it is pure hubris to imagine that the students should simply join them in a show of campus solidarity--how about you do your job out of respect for my education, instead of demanding I sacrifice my education out of respect for your job?

    Thanks a bunch.

    1. Why should the idea of free education be so ridiculous? Clearly most people think that K-12 education should be free. Why not college? It used to be. Maybe the students you denigrate heard from their parents about how education at Berkeley was once free. It used to be free throughout UC, and is free in many other parts of the world. In fact, at a true public university, education would be “Free” at the point of entry, because the point of something being public is that society as a whole sees some value in investing in its youth in order to benefit from an educated/skilled/thoughtful population.

      Could you point to examples of how asking the state to invest in its public institutions is either harmful or hypocritical? The teacher’s primary point was not that solidarity was compulsory, but rather that awareness of your community is unnecessary. You appear to at least know about some of the issues that are taking place, and having examined them from your own perspective, you have decided that the welfare of others on the campus is not important, or not important enough to take you away from your work. That’s a sad attitude, but at least it’s more valid that the teacher telling students that they don’t even need to know what strikers are talking about to know that it’s none of their business.

      The larger point is that permanent employees or graduate students going on strike is not a “voluntary war”, it is people trying to protect themselves. They didn’t start this. You could say the administration started it, or you could say, more accurately that the state did, when it began taking resources away from the campus while piling on more responsibilities. Our point is that we could do a much better job of holding the system together if we were given the resources to do so. I don’t think we should settle for mediocrity. And what you characterise as “hollow media gestures” are the reason that there has been a tuition freeze for a few years now. Cal was famous long before the protests to which you refer so contemptuously. But then it was famous as an example of what a good public university system should be: it was free, it was becoming more democratic, and it was opening itself up, in terms of freedom of speech and in terms of access to the public.

      When GSIs protested last month, it was to a large degree about how their own working conditions impact their ability to educate their students. That’s not “throwing tuition down the toilet”, it’s explaining that students are short-changed for the tuition that they are paying (and that their parents did not pay if they went to university). Nobody is demanding that anyone “sacrifice their education”: simply that they take a moment to think about the conditions in which they are being provided an education, and recognise that the work of people is necessary to their education, and that it might be worth caring about the situation in which that work is being done.

      You wrote that “School is hard. Making it to class is hard and juggling a family and research is hard. PAYING for classes is harder. I'm not going to fork over thousands of dollars of tuition each semester, only to have employees of said institution guilt me into skipping what I paid for because they are unhappy with their contracts or paychecks”. But it is precisely because juggling all those responsibilities are things that many people here do that we are asking for a system which accounts for those difficulties and doesn’t make getting an education this horribly expensive and stressful experience. The idea is that if education were properly funded by the state, you wouldn’t have to pay so much or anything at all for classes, and you might not have to work while going to school.