Perspectives on our Student/Public Education Work: Resolution Adopted by the 12th National Convention of Socialist Organizer
The main focus of Socialist Organizer student members over the past years has been the fight in defense of public education (against cuts, fee hikes, re-segregation, etc.) We have played and continue to play a central leadership role at UC Berkeley, SF State, and City College of SF (as well as Skyline in past years) and within Occupy Education. Most recently, our intervention was key to channeling the energy of the Occupy movement into a mass democratic movement with concrete demands on the campuses (Occupy Cal, Occupy SFSU, Occupy the Capitol, etc.) — these struggles successfully defeated the proposed 32% fee increase on the UC and forced Governor Brown to significantly change his tax initiative. We should be very proud of our work — which has demonstrated the critical role that Socialist Organizer can play in the direct class struggle.
Nevertheless, the sell-out of the Millionaires Tax and the decline of the Occupy movement has left the public education movement at a relatively ebb. The two major organizing efforts currently underway are the efforts to build a student union and Save City College of SF.
Our position on building a student union is that this is an important and necessary goal given that students currently lack an authoritative voice to organize and negotiate with the admin and state. But it is necessary to go step by step patiently in this direction, on the basis of the actual conditions within the movement. This perspective is contrary to the voluntaristic approach, which argues that now is the time “to go on the offensive” and appears to be pushing the tempo of building the student union too far and too fast, given the current conditions. It is also contrary to the essentially agnostic “wait-and-see” approach.
We are still largely in the phase of educating our campuses about what a student union is (how it’s different from our current organizing, how its different from student government) and accumulating experience in our efforts to take the first steps towards building local student unions.
What it posed at this moment is creating a formal, but still relative loose, statewide network that can link together activists at different schools who are fighting against austerity in public education and who, in this process, are engaged in the long-term process of building student unions at their schools. It would be premature to come up with a formal structure that each school must follow for the proposed union — more experience must be accumulated to see what forms work or don’t work, and what are the most effective means to actually build student unions locally.
Likewise, we should argue against any tendency to divorce the fight to build a student union (as a goal “in itself”) from the concrete struggles for the student’s demands. It is only through the mass mobilization for our demands that a student union can actually be built. The main obstacle at this moment is the low level of mobilization in schools across the state, which significantly limits the immediate possibilities for organizing student unions on the ground. To build a student we should have a dual approach, both looking to engage in a direct organizational campaign from below where possible and also seeking to run student union slates in campus elections. Which approach to focus on at a given depends on the circumstances. A upturn in the struggle would immediate pose the possibility of moving in a more concrete mass agitation/organization campaign to sign people up for the union, hold general assemblies, elect local representatives, etc.
At the same time, this approach is not at all contradictory with the need/possibility of running radical “Student Union” slates for student government elections, on the platform of mobilization of the students (in unity with staff and workers) against the cuts, and the dissolution of the bureaucratic/subordinate structures of student government and their replacement by genuinely autonomous student unions. As long as the “official voice” of students is the student government, this will be a major obstacle to the creation of real student union — i.e., a permanent, democratic, autonomous structure that is seen by the student body and administration as the legitimate collective voice of the student body. Key to this tactic is running slates that are actually willing to break with the official practices of student government (this will likely result in major “constitutional/political” clashes with the administration); our approach has nothing in common with the liberal approach of current student government. It is necessary to patiently explain the difference between a “Student Union” electoral strategy and the traditional liberal one.
(Resolution Adopted by the 12th National Convention of Socialist Organizer)