How to Build a Student Strike

My assessment of the successful student strike at UCSC on March 4, 2010. First published at socialistworker.org on March 18, 2010.

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WELL OVER 1,000 students participated actively in a successful student strike at University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) on March 4. This was the only campus that shut down completely for the Day of Action to defend public education, and it was the first time that a student strike closed UCSC for the entire day.

How was the strike organized? A small group of people started planning for March 4 immediately following protests in November as the UC Regents pushed through a 32 percent fee hike for next year.

We had all participated in the militant and inspiring actions on November 18-22 at UCSC, when hundreds of students occupied and held two campus buildings for several days. But we emerged from those actions with a sense that the protesters remained somewhat isolated from the wider body of students, faculty and campus workers, and that we had a lot of work to do if we were going to bring more people into the movement for March 4.

We understood that if we were to remain true to the statewide call for a strikes and protests on March 4, we would have to agitate among students and workers on campus on a much larger scale than before. We had progressed past the stage where small, militant actions could inspire people–we needed to go out and organize people.

Part of our preparation was political, theoretical and educational. We organized a series of study groups called “How to Win a Strike,” in which we read about and discussed mass struggles like the Minneapolis Teamster Rebellion of 1934 and the Oaxaca teachers’ strike of 2006. Socialists from different political traditions, anarchists and unaffiliated radicals came together in these study groups to assess and learn from past struggles.

We were also fortunate to stand on the shoulders of a strong organizing tradition at UCSC. In particular, we took the April 2005 strike by campus workers in AFSCME as a major source of inspiration.

Prior to that labor action, the Student and Worker Coalition for Justice spent weeks talking to students about the strike and building support through a strike pledge campaign. These activists successfully mobilized hundreds of students to join the picket lines–we decided to adopt a similar model.

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THE MARCH 4 Strike Committee emerged initially from the UCSC General Assembly in December and started meeting regularly in early January.

The first couple of meetings attracted only a dozen or so people, but the group maintained its commitment to building through an open and democratic approach. Every meeting of the Strike Committee was advertised publicly. We discussed and adopted a method of voting and decision-making that allowed for maximum possible input and participation from everyone involved. By late February, between 50 and 70 people regularly attended committee meetings.

The Strike Committee built relationships with campus unions. From the beginning, members and staff from American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 2199, which represents lecturers and librarians on campus, and United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865, which represents graduate student teaching assistants, actively participated in the Committee.

In turn, representatives of the Strike Committee attended meetings of University Labor United, the coalition of campus unions. We distributed thousands of copies of an open letter to campus workers explaining our goals for March 4. Without the solidarity of the AFT, UAW, AFSCME, Coalition of University Employees, University Professional and Technical Employees, and the Faculty Association, our strike would not have been possible.

The Strike Committee also reached out to student organizations. We approached the student government early on and persuaded it to pass a resolution in support of March 4. The student government eventually donated money to support the action.

Members of the Strike Committee also mobilized in solidarity with African American students during the “Real Pain, Real Action” protests against racist incidents at UC San Diego–and attended a teach-in on the Dream Act put together by immigrant rights activists on campus. A working group of the Strike Committee organized a well-attended “Solidarity Forum” to discuss issues of race and racism on campus.

In order to build these relationships, it was vital for the Strike Committee to have a clear political message for March 4. Many students still believed that blame for the cuts lay squarely on the California state government, and that we should focus our efforts only in Sacramento–or they believed that militant action never worked.

The Strike Committee adopted seven demands that focused on both Sacramento and the university administration–and used them as the basis for successfully convincing thousands of people that the strike was worthwhile.

But the strike pledge campaign was by far the most important aspect of outreach for March 4. For six weeks leading up to the strike, members of the Strike Committee went out all day, every day, and asked students to sign on to a pledge in support of the action. This gave us the opportunity to convince people that a strike would be possible, necessary and effective.

By the eve of March 4, we had collected around 2,000 signatures on the strike pledge and had talked to thousands more students about the plan for the day. We started to get a sense that this was going to be one of the biggest protests in UCSC’s recent history.

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THE STUDENT strike itself was a well-coordinated operation.

We had received word that the administration would attempt to smuggle workers onto campus as early as 5 a.m. Before dawn on March 4, hundreds of strikers were already blocking the entrances to campus. As the administration tried to sneak the workers past, across fields and along dirt roads, we used cell phones to coordinate squads of flying pickets, and successfully prevented their entrance.

It didn’t hurt that the workers themselves were incredibly sympathetic to our cause, and not overly enthusiastic about trying to cross the picket lines!

Throughout the day, nothing moved on campus without our permission. We had devised a system of passes so that Health Center staff could get to work, and parents of young children could get to and from Family Student and Faculty Housing. As a result, many families showed up on the picket lines later in the day.

Picket captains were vital to our success on March 4. The Strike Committee had chosen people for these positions in advance–they had the authority from the committee to coordinate the lines and keep the campus closed. They played a crucial role in the early-morning game of cat and mouse with the administration. We also had means in place to handle media contacts and legal observation.

In keeping with its traditional modus operandi, the UCSC campus administration tried to vilify student protesters by any means necessary.

Early on the morning of March 4, Executive Vice Chancellor Dave Kliger sent out a message to the campus, accusing picketers of violence and claiming that we were armed with “clubs and knives.” He was referring to a couple of incidents in which irate drivers attempted to force their cars through the ranks of peaceful picketers. We were lucky that the worst outcome of these incidents were a couple of minor injuries and a broken car windshield.

In fact, because we had done such broad outreach before March 4, very few people tried to cross the picket lines, and thus the mood was overwhelmingly celebratory rather than confrontational. Local media coverage reflected this, even if some national outlets merely echoed the UCSC administration’s line, rather than investigating the real story.

Coming out of March 4, we still have a long way to go. The protests since September 24 of last year have completely shifted public consciousness regarding cuts to education, forcing even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to acknowledge the importance of student power.

Following March 4, we now have something that looks like a real mass movement, with tens of thousands of committed participants across California and the nation. But we haven’t yet come to close to stopping the cuts, let alone democratizing and remaking the education system.

We need to continue to build our organizational strength at the local level. To paraphrase the organizers of last year’s National Equality March in Washington, D.C., at UCSC, we weren’t just organizing to March Fourth; we were March-Fourthing to organize.

The March 4 Strike Committee trained a new layer of student militants, and the group will continue to function as an important organizing center on campus. The movement needs grassroots committees of this sort to develop on every campus, in every school and in every union. We also need more regional and national coordination of the struggle, and should get ready for the statewide conference to assess March 4 and discuss next steps.

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