Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Board of Regents Public Forum-Come and Be Heard, By Yourself.

At the Board of Regents’ first public forum on Wednesday February 14th, four members of the board were present to listen to student suggestions concerning state funding collapse, the laying off of custodians and TA positions, and the future of our University. The board listened to the suggestions, or at least, they seemed to listen. That is, they were sitting down without earphones on. Other than that there was really no reason to believe that they could hear a word the students said.

And the students had a great deal to be angry about. According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, average tuition in the past 2 ½ decades has risen by 440 percent, which is more than four times the rate of inflation. At the University of Washington, state funds decreased from 401 million in 2009 to 212.2 million in 2012—nearly a 50% decrease, which has been made up through tuition increases and budget cuts. Nearly half of all student aid has been in the form of student loans, which gather enormous interest over time and cannot be eliminated even through bankruptcy. Even for students who demonstrate great need for funding, 40% of student aid reserved for these students is through student loans.

But the Board of Regents did not need to respond to these issues at all. They are simply not set up to care at all about student concerns. The Board of Regents is a body of ten people chosen by the governor, not the students, faculty or university staff. They make major decisions concerning supervision, investment and distribution of funds. To their credit, they used this power once to set in place a program that exempts tuition for those with part-time jobs (RCW 28B), and many students seemed to glorify them for this reason. Yet despite their power to enforce policies (such as exemptions) the board has so far been run by business elites chosen by Chris Gregoire, including airline-industry elites Bill Ayer and Pat Shanahan. This is one of many indications that the University itself is run as a for-profit business rather than a public education institution meant to support its greater community.

With no election process at all, and without any accountability for the Board’s actions, the crowd of students seemed to wonder: Will the Board even care what we think?

The answer seemed time and again, no. Despite tears from one speaker who could not afford to take care of her new-born child, the regents never said a word in response, making it clear that they only needed to host the public forum as an attempt to begin implementing what House Bill 2313 will eventually make mandatory: that public forums will need to be held once a year. The attempt seemed like an empty gesture--as merely a way of stating that they did not need to be forced to host a public forum, because they had one a year before they were forced to have one.

So the Board simply sat like golden statues receiving prayers, and the speakers were left with no certainty that anything was getting through. Even when the regents were asked direct questions like "how do you define public?" or "what have you done so far that meets student interests or participation?" there was not even a nod or a head-shake.

Why is education free in countries far poorer than the United States? Why do we have 150 administrators who get paid more than the governor? Why does our president make $800,000?

Speakers' questions only received ceaseless smiles and reminders that they were over their allotted three minutes. Soon speakers realized that the entire event was merely a gesture, signaled by the fact that few of the regents were even taking notes. The only purpose to speaking at all seemed to be in addressing the very audience who was meant to speak--not the regents, but the students, faculty and staff who cheered them on. A couple speakers acknowledged this directly, by reversing the microphone and turning their back on the regents to address the audience. If the Board would not listen, we would at least listen to ourselves.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

UW Custodians Fight Back!

On Monday, February 6, UW custodians, tradesworkers, and supporters rallied to save the job of a fellow worker who was facing termination for reasons that are at best spurious and at worst straight-up lies. This custodian just so happened to be one of those who militantly fought to stop cuts and manage abuse in 2009 and 2010. He is the 8th custodian organizer to be retaliated against in this way. This rally helped show that direct action can indeed get the goods -- the next day this custodian’s job was saved!

Contrary to claims of some who seem to think that immigrant workers are incapable of organizing themselves, members of the union representing custodians and tradesworkers initiated and planned the rally. It was not sanctioned by the union officials but by the workers themselves. FaDU and other student and community members and groups came out in support both because we believe in justice and dignity for all workers and because we know that our own struggle for a democratic university is bound up with other workers’ struggles.

Here are comments that several FaDU members and supporters made about their experience going to the rally:

Before this week’s rally, I had been aware of custodians’ recent struggles against the elimination of the swing shift, and to improve their working conditions by being allowed to take reasonable breaks and have access to appropriate equipment to prevent injuries that lead to chronic health problems. Listening to several custodians address the crowd on Monday, however, I was shocked by what I heard. I was surprised to learn that UW management is repressing worker organization by arranging work schedules around language differences. I was also surprised to learn that UW management is firing custodians without reasonable cause, only to keep those positions vacant and require the workers who remain to pick up the extra work, in addition to their regular responsibilities and without additional pay. Monday’s rally was powerful because it was a public declaration of the working conditions that otherwise seem to remain largely invisible to UW students, faculty and community members. As a graduate student at UW, I am really angry about what I heard on Monday and I am committed to making UW’s management of this section of its workforce more visible so that we can all hold UW accountable for its treatment of the people who work here.

What I heard from custodians on Monday was that there are some arbitrary decisions taken by UW management in making temporary assignments to various buildings, or to purposely overwork a custodian by doubling their responsibilities during a particular shift -- and these may be calculated to send a punitive message (and not to improve cleanliness or make the work more efficient, etc). It makes the custodians more vulnerable. Complaints about custodians under those conditions might provide a basis for management to begin this 3-stage disciplinary review process (which i have to say i don't clearly understand). One more level of this, too: by not rehiring additional workers after a firing or a resignation, etc, there seems to be a gradual increase in the overall share of the work that custodians do on campus, possibly opening up the possibility of more disciplinary actions leveled at particular custodians.

Also it was clear that several rank and file workers are confident and ready to fight and they want to organize broadly with other people on campus, to become more visible as Anna said, and to collaborate with other workers. They are doing this with or without official WFSE say-so. This (as well as the awesome news of the retraction of the firing threat) is a good sign that we should celebrate.

Listening to story after story of ways in which UW custodians are subjected to intimidation and unjust working conditions on campus, I found myself reflecting on how I can best stand in solidarity with the struggles they are facing. I was particularly interested in one conversation with a UW undergrad and a UW custodian. The undergrad spoke to his complete lack of political efficacy in our two party system to make change. The student was disenchanted and promoted withholding participation in our current political structures . The custodian agreed with frustrations of our current political framework, however felt as though there is a sense of personal power that comes along with believing in something and taking action. He advocated education on issues, public protests, and voting for the "lesser of the two evils". The custodian repetitively begged the question: "But what are you for? You keep saying what you are against-but what are you for?" The student could not come up with an answer.

I think that question in an important one to keep in mind- especially as we are faced with important labor struggles on our own campus. As a community, what are we for and how can we best achieve that? What does a truly democratic university look like and how can our autonomous political decisions and behavior (both on and off the campus grounds) affect life at the university? I would love to see a space for collective visioning of democracy on campus. A space for collaboration and creativity to express solidarity with different struggles our community is facing and practice the kind of democracy we want to see.

Part of UW’s strategy for eliminating custodian positions is to shift more of the labor of clean-up to people that the university doesn’t have to pay. Hence the “self-serve” garbage and recycle bins in some building offices and similar stations for cleaning library computers. Make no mistake, FaDU does not believe that UW students and faculty are above cleaning up after ourselves. But this is not about democratizing work, it’s about cutting jobs. Maybe someday there will be no such thing as a custodian or a student, and we will all share responsibility for cleaning, for learning, and for sharing knowledge, but in the meantime the self-cleaning stations illustrate just one of the effects of ever-increasing austerity in our education system.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Canadian Teaching Assistants Preparing to Strike

Graduate student workers at University of Toronto, who are members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 3902, have rejected the tentative contract between their union and the university and are poised to go on strike on February 24. Like UW's Academic Student Employees, grad workers at UT have faced dramatic speedup in the form of increased lab and class sizes in the last four years while simultaneously dealing with major cuts to funding for advanced students.

Read more about CUPE 3902's fight here.

All power to the rank and file!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

UW General Assemblies

Last night, University of Washington students, staff, and community members held the first UW general assembly. This was a public meeting that created an alternative space for both discussion and decision making. The GA allows for democratic decision making, from the ground-up, about what affects us as student and workers at this public university. Last night, we discussed campaigns we'd like to see happen at UW, including a student debt strike, a boycott divestment sanctions campaign at UW against Israeli apartheid, and logistical details about how to proceed with future GAs.

Missed last night's GA? Minutes are posted on the UW GA website. Be sure to check out this positive coverage in UW Daily, which includes interviews with For a Democracy University Members Chris and Ariel! Note an error in the article: FADU is actually an interdisciplinary group rather than exclusive to the English department.

FADU hopes you will be able to join the second GA next week on Tuesday, January 17, at 5 pm in By George Cafe in the basement of Odegaard.

For a Democratic University