Improving quality and accessibility of education

UC student-workers union continues the fight for public education

In recent years, much has changed in the learning and living conditions of students and workers at the University of California. Since 2008, undergraduate students’ annual tuition rates have risen more than $4,000, housing and health costs have spiked, campus workers have faced layoffs and cuts to their pension plans and class sizes have increased. These changes have caused students and workers to experience the University of California as a less welcoming and supportive place. The university now makes those of us who work and study here even more indebted, anxious and exposed to precarious living conditions, while at the same time closing its doors to increasing numbers of high school graduates.

As our conditions of learning and living have been degraded, university administrators have increasingly shut their eyes to the realities of our lives and have walled themselves off from public scrutiny and input at critical moments — such as when they have decided to impose tuition increases or pension reductions on workers and students. Students, workers and community members have been able to hold some of these changes at bay, realizing a multi-year tuition freeze and ending caps on life-saving health care. They’ve done so by working together across sectoral lines and building broad-based movements for public education that have forced university administrators to take seriously the needs and desires of those who currently work and study on UC campuses as well as those who hope to in the future.

While UC students and workers have relatively few formal mechanisms through which to advance their interests or to shape administrators’ actions, various groups of workers on campus do have rights to bargain collectively with the university over their conditions of labor — rights won through past generations’ concerted unionization campaigns and strikes. At the moment, a number of campus unions are bargaining with the university, and health service workers represented by AFSCME 3299 recently went on strike in defense of quality patient care for the students and communities they serve. Another campus union, the UC Student-Workers Union, which represents more than 12,000 graduate student instructors, readers and undergraduate tutors throughout the UC system, is entering into bargaining this summer. These are the primary face-to-face academics whom students regularly encounter — particularly in their first few years. We are members of the bargaining team for the UC Student-Workers Union.

Last month, our union made public a list of contract demands that we think will improve the quality and accessibility of public education at the university. We are committed to realizing smaller class sizes for UC students, to ensuring that student workers who perform much of the primary teaching labor at the university are fairly compensated and to challenging the governor’s and regents’ rush to impose online-based education on our universities. Following the release of our demands, university management is legally required to hold a forum at which they respond to our demands. At this forum, members of the public are given the opportunity to comment on our upcoming negotiations. In order to encourage broad participation by affected students, teachers, workers and community members, our union offered to co-host a public forum at the UCLA campus in early June. Management refused our offer and instead tentatively scheduled a forum on the afternoon of June 6 at one of their large office complexes in downtown Oakland — away from any UC campus. Then, last week, management rescheduled the forum for a day earlier.

It seems that management would rather host a forum removed from UC students and workers — perhaps because they’d prefer that their proposals not be subjected to much public scrutiny. But given that the future possibilities of high school students around the state are shaped by what happens today at the university, that parents of UC students care about the quality of their children’s education and that people all over the state have demonstrated their commitment to quality, accessible public education for all, we are confident that no matter where UC administrators hold public forums or whether they switch dates at the last minute, people in surrounding communities will take time to share their views about what students and workers in California need from their public universities. For this reason, members of our union are coordinating with Bay Area community groups, teachers, high school and college students, campus workers, faculty members and others affected by UC administrators’ decisions to hold a people’s public forum on June 6 to demand that administrators listen to all those who are concerned with the state of public education in California. Together, we will shape a positive vision for the future of public education in our state and continue to help build broad-based movements to make this vision a reality.

If you would like to join us during the afternoon of June 6, please contact [email protected] We will gather at noon at Oscar Grant (Frank Ogawa) Plaza, march to Snow Park by 1 p.m. and hold the people’s public forum at the UCOP-Kaiser building in downtown Oakland. We hope you will consider joining us.

Amanda Armstrong is a graduate student instructor at UC Berkeley. Jessica Conte is a graduate student instructor at UC Irvine. Cody Trojan is a graduate student instructor at UC Los Angeles.