BERKELEY, Calif. - Despite looming finals and the oncoming holidays, students, staff and faculty at California's public colleges and universities continue to protest soaring costs, staff cuts, class reductions, stalled contract talks, layoffs and benefit cuts. Two of the latest rallies took place Dec. 15.
On the University of California's campus here, postdoctoral and other researchers and technicians represented by the University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE) and the United Auto Workers gathered for a noontime rally, part of a day of informational picketing at all UC campuses.
Matthew O'Connor, a member of the UAW bargaining team negotiating a first contract for post-doctoral researchers, said the union has met with university administration 53 times since the university recognized the post-docs' union over a year ago. But, he said, talks are still stalled because the university is using the state's budget crisis to demand a multiyear contract with no pay increases and costly health care takeaways.
UC is a national leader in getting grants to fund the university's research program, more than doubling its grant revenue in the last 12 years, O'Connor said. Since grant funds can't be used to fill in for missing state funds, and most grants provide for salary increases, "UC is trying to hide behind the budget crisis to deny the post-docs fair compensation."
Alameda Labor Council head Sharon Cornu put the researchers' situation in the perspective of the broader campus struggle as she told the crowd that all the unions on the Berkeley campus - including research, clerical, maintenance and building trades workers - "are fighting to fulfill a promise of public education" because when the state and the taxpayers built the system, "they said a public education was a promise to be kept, not a profit to be made." The researchers' work places them "on the front lines of economic development and the knowledge economy, and it is a travesty that UC remains the worst employer in California," she added.
Before the rally, Joan Lichterman, a writer and editor in the School of Public Health and UPTE member, said a mass movement is needed "to educate people about the importance of public education." She also called for changes in the state constitution to make the university less autonomous, and said more funding must be accompanied by more transparency and accountability.
Last month the UC regents voted to increase fees by 32 percent. The state university system has experienced similar recent hikes, and community college fees have just been raised by 30 percent. At the same time that new top administrators have been hired at ever-increasing salaries, faculty and staff have been subjected to "furloughs" and layoffs, and class offerings have been cut back, forcing many students to enroll for additional semesters in order to meet degree requirements.
All this was on the minds of students and supporters who gathered later the same day at Oakland's Laney College, part of the area's Peralta Community College system. A single mother described the "Catch 22" situation she faces as she seeks to study so she can get off welfare, but finds her chances for education imperiled by fee hikes and cutbacks. "I have children in the K-12 system," she said. "How can I promote education to my children, when at the community college level they're bailing out on me?"
Wandra Williams, just laid off after 20 years coordinating tutoring services, pointed to another widely-cited problem: "How can you lay people off and you're advertising to hire new administrators, new staff people but you're laying people off?"
Meanwhile, in Sacramento, the state capital, last month, the Public Employment Relations Board issued a 30-page unfair labor practices complaint against the university over its bad-faith bargaining with UPTE. The clerical and maintenance workers' unions have also filed unfair labor practices charges.
Attention has also been focused on California's Master Plan on Higher Education, a nearly 50-year-old document that promised the top 12.5 percent of high school graduates places in the UC system, and assured the top one-third places in the state university system, with community colleges free and open to all. Calling the fee hikes "a failure to uphold the vision of the Master Plan," California Federation of Teachers Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Smith last week told a joint legislative committee that "the idea of California's community colleges and universities as existing for the public purposes of promoting the common good, improving individuals' quality of life, and improving the economic and social wellbeing of our communities is being lost as a consequence."
Students, faculty and campus workers are increasingly focusing on March 4, when system-wide protests are planned throughout public education, from elementary school through higher education.