Meditations in an Emergency

12 Feb

by Erin Conley

It’s hard to imagine that only a few months have passed since I sat down to write this essay about my political activation at UCLA. Since November, student-activists and union organizers across the UC have experienced a number of exhilarating successes in the public education movement. Though it seems like every day the Regents find new ways of undermining the mission of this university, we’ve put them on the defensive and forced them to confront students and workers head-on about the Regents’ conflicts of interest, their abysmal management of UC finances, and their penchants for ordering police brutality against students.

Like many of the campuses that played host to Regents for the scattered November meeting, at UCLA we interrupted deliberations, declared the November Regents meeting an unlawful assembly, and conducted our own Regents meeting by the people and for the people. When the Regents resumed business as usual at the January meeting in Riverside, hundreds of protestors from all across the UC and other area schools opened an intense new chapter of this movement. We stood toe to toe with UCPD, Riverside PD, and a squadron of sheriffs even as they shot at us with pepper-ball rounds and circled us with a low-flying helicopter. Again we disrupted the Regents and forced them to end their meeting, but this time we managed to make the police leave, too.

It’s safe to say we’re winning, but my impulse is to be cautiously optimistic. Small narrative shifts in the media and big losses on legislative items like the Millionaire’s Tax could set us back if we aren’t aggressively growing the movement. A strong union for academic student employees—a fighting union—remains critical to the sustainability of public education and the movement in California. We know there’s a link between the quality of life of educators and the quality of education that they provide. We know this because we live with the reality of overcrowded classrooms and meager pay every day. Our union is one of the very few forces upholding the mission of our public university, and it does so through forcing the UC to acknowledge our worth as educators and students. Because we do hold this power, however small, our union is capable of growing the movement by winning stronger contracts and increasing active membership.

But even if every single eligible academic student employee in the UC system were to sign a membership card and take to the streets, it wouldn’t be enough to guarantee long-term wins or a sustainable public education movement. We need to reach beyond the scope of our campuses and build cross-system and cross-sector solidarity with folks fighting against austerity measures in every arena of public services. How many students do you know at a CSU school? At a community college? At a technical school? How many workers from other unions do you know? How many government employees? Nurses? Janitors? Whatever the answer, it’s not enough.

I’ve directly organized with the ReFund California Coalition, OccupyUCLA, and UAW 2865, and through those avenues I’ve been a UCLA community liaison for Justice for Janitors and participated in the exciting new student-focused Southern California Education Organizing Coalition. I’m committed to building these relationships. It takes time. A lot of time. But it’s the most important thing we can do to save public education. If you want to join me, if you think the hours are worth it, take a look at the websites for these coalitions and organizations below. Only by standing together will we effect change.

Southern California Education Organizing Coalition
ReFund California Coalition
Occupy UCLA
Occupy Education California
Justice for Janitors


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