Berkeley campus heats up

BERKELEY, Calif. – Chants of “Whose university? Our university!” rang from surrounding buildings as over 1,000 students, campus workers and faculty packed Sproul Plaza, historic protest site on the University of California campus here, for a noontime rally Oct. 7.

The gathering, part of a National Day of Action to Defend Public Education, protested campus cutbacks that have resulted in burgeoning class sizes, soaring tuition and fees, layoffs of faculty and campus workers, and students forced to stay in school longer, building up their student loans. Speakers also highlighted the contrast between bulging paychecks of top administrators and the meager wages of graduate student instructors and campus workers.

Among speakers was geography professor Richard Walker, who charged the university community is “being lied to” by the UC system and by state officials. “They tell you we have to cut staff and child care subsidies,” he said, “but where’s the list of vice chancellors being cut?” Walker warned that the plan “is to cut down on professors and bring in more teaching assistants.”

Meanwhile, graduate student instructors (GSIs) face serious pressures of their own. One such instructor, a young woman who teaches comparative literature, told the crowd that while she and other GSIs face added pressures from increased class sizes, they have been working without a contract since last April. The graduate student instructors are demanding a living wage – they say the $16,000/year they currently receive doesn’t begin to cover their living and education expenses, and subsidies of just $450 per semester don’t come near covering child care costs of GSIs who are parents.

“This is the same university that says graduate students are essential to the university. But they treat us as disposable,” she said.

Katherine Renfro, a member of University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE), told the crowd UPTE members have been working without a contract for two years. Accusing the university of “refusing to bargain in good faith,” Renfro said the UC system has been outsourcing jobs and cutting needed positions at the same time it imposes fee hikes.

Among the crowd were Ami Sugiarto and Eduardo Altamirano. Sugiarto, a linguistics major who is transferring to UC Berkeley from a community college, said she was promised significant financial aid, but with the crisis and nearly 100-day delay in California’s budget, what she has received to date “isn’t even enough to pay my registration fees.” She said she is now rethinking her education plans.

Altamirano, a student at Chabot Community College in Hayward, said he and others have been unable to get into some classes, while at the same time, classes have become more crowded.

Graduate Student Instructor Erica Levin, who teaches film and media studies, said as class sections are cut, instructors who used to work with 36 students are now coping with classes of 60 and 70. With the university pressing to keep enrollment high, undergraduate students are suffering most, she said.

“The university’s priorities are shifting away from education,” Levin said. “The budget issues are real. But access to classes and instruction should be a much higher priority.”

Students, workers and faculty also rallied at other California colleges and universities, including San Francisco State University, California State University East Bay, UC Merced, UCLA and others.

Similar protests spanned the country. In Minneapolis, University of Minnesota students rallied to condemn growing “corporatization” of the university, soaring tuition costs and the university’s growing preoccupation with securing funds for research. “It’s not your learning potential, but your earning potential, that matters here,” Professor Eva von Dassow told the crowd. AFSCME leader Phyllis Walker warned that when “front-line staff” are laid off, students also suffer. Student Courtney Bell said tuition hikes “are making it harder for students such as myself to come to the University of Minnesota and succeed.”

At Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, students, faculty and staff held a jazz funeral to protest state budget cuts, and in New York City, Hunter College held a die-in. The University of Georgia put on a “celebration of education” and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst staged a week-long walk across the state.

Photo: A section of the protest crowd at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, Oct. 7. (PW/Marilyn Bechtel)




Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes for People’s World from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986, and currently participates as a volunteer.