Movement Strategy

Madison, WI, Feb 18, 2011 (cc license shaggyisaac on Flickr)

The past week has seen an intensification of the fight over public sector work in the US. From our allies at Berkeley:

AFSCME is planning a solidarity rally in Sacramento this Tuesday, February 22nd. Vans or buses will hopefully be going from Berkeley in the afternoon, get in touch ( if you’re interested!

Amidst growing nationwide attempts to demonize public sector workers and their unions, Wisconsin has emerged this week as the first major battleground for the future of public sector unions. At least 30,000 workers and students have been out protesting in Madison for the last three days.

The newly elected Republican Governor revealed his radically aggressive attack on workers’ rights last week. His plan would increase pension contributions from workers to almost 6% of pay, increase the percentage of health care premiums that workers pay to 12.6%, and drastically limit collective bargaining rights so that unions can only bargain over wages (not benefits or rights), must renegotiate contracts every year and must seek recognition from their members every year, and would no longer be able to collect dues through payroll deductions. It’s not hard to see that these measures would effectively destroy public sector unions, whose operating budgets would hugely increase as their ability to protect workers hugely decreases.

Worse yet, faculty and staff at the University of Wisconsin would lose their rights to unionize completely–faculty just gained union recognition in 2009.

But if the Governor thought he could force this legislation through while public employees were stuck in a state of shock, he vastly miscalculated. Tens of thousands of public workers, including public school teachers, unionized graduate student assistants, faculty and students have been filling the streets of Madison and the Capitol building itself for three days now. They’ve gotten support from firefighters, whose benefits and collective bargaining rights were not threatened by the legislation. The teachers and faculty have the support of their students, who have been called the “soul of the protests.”

… [read the rest of the article]

We think it’s important as well to point out the racialized nature of the attack on public sector workers in mainstream political discourse. From a recent article from ColorLines:

As tens of thousands of public sector workers in Wisconsin turn Madison into Tahrir Square, I’m nagged by a question: How much of the current demonization of public workers is racialized?

Yes, I get that this is plainly a budget debate: States are broke and the new surge of conservatives in governor’s offices and legislatures would far rather cut pensions and benefits than raise taxes. And those politicians have convinced many struggling constituents that it’s their own pocketbooks versus the paychecks of public servants. That tension is heightened by residents’ frustrations with public services that have been so hobbled in recent decades that they often no longer work well—like, say, public schools.

I also get that, as many progressive commenters have noted, this is a straight out political fight. We’re witnessing the culmination of a decades’ long effort to destroy unions as the sole remaining check to corporate power in both federal and state government. Corporatists are plainly winning that fight, and the labor movement hasn’t always been its own best advocate. A Pew poll done in the first week of this month found public opinion of unions worse than it’s been in a quarter century—though, it found similarly historic lows for business.

But as governors and columnists have painted pictures of overpaid, underworked public employee in recent weeks, I have also seen the faint outline of familiar caricatures—welfare queens, Cadillacs in the projects, Mexican freeloaders. It’s hard to escape the fact that, in the states and localities with the biggest budget crunches (New Jersey, California, New York…) public employees are uniquely black.

… [read the rest of the article]

The struggle over public resources, public sector work, and social services promises to be significant all over the US this year. There are some difficult strategic and analytical questions we need to be posing. All over the country, eyes are turned to the struggle in Wisconsin. The fightback has been inspiring, but it remains to be seen whether victory is possible, what victory would look like, and how developments there will set the stage for other struggles this year.


An overview of some strategic questions facing us leading up to October 7’s day of action.

From Against the Current no. 148:

STUDENTS, FACULTY AND campus workers across the United States will kick off the 2010-2011 school year with an October 7 national day of action to defend public education. This day of action will attempt to pick up from where last year’s movement to defend public education left off. March 4 represented the broadest point of last year’s organizing, with strikes, major rallies and marches, and smaller local speak-outs taking place throughout California, across the country, and to some extent around the world.

Student activism frequently falls into a summer lull, and while endorsements for October 7 have been piling up, in many schools and communities organizing and planning is still incipient. Last year, the September 24 walkout across the University of California system came together during September, and we should expect a similar timeline this year.

Some argue that the student movement has been in decline since shortly after March 4. It is certainly true that no overarching structure has been able to bring people together across local areas, sectors, political differences, and organizing styles. In California, at a statewide level trust and joint work have declined since the October 24 conference, with unions, faculty, and different kinds of student activists essentially going their separate ways. Statewide coordinating bodies have been slowed down by sectarian infighting and dogmatic posturing.

Nevertheless, dispersion does not necessarily entail inaction. A large number of activists developed politically and organizationally over the course of the past year; a great many of them remain highly committed to this struggle and engaged in various kinds of local work. This dispersion may also protect a space for creativity which wouldn’t exist if the movement were overly centralized. Part of the “magic” of 2009-10 involved an unfolding and synchronicity of action which was not anticipated even by the organizers. That cannot be reduplicated mechanically; any given tactic tends to lose its capacity to inspire people’s imagination with rote repetition.

Read the rest on the Against the Current website.

We are stuck. The excitement of fall has resolved into dwindling numbers. How do we relate to this? Can we go ahead and organize the next day of action, the next in a series constructed around a model, “day of action?”

What do we desire? Of whom do we desire it? There’s that which we desire from the administration, but this is abstract. They are the tip of the iceberg of a larger power apparatus. We can only understand them through the archetype of “villain,” and other proposed understandings (“they are people too, and we can talk to them!”) get us further from rather than closer to the operative truth. We desire nothing of the tip, until the glacier itself begins to crack or melt. We should meet the next EVC with a poster depicting him or her as Darth Maul. Just another in a series, and ultimately a rather boring series the longer it went.

There’s that which we desire from our fellow students, from the people of Santa Cruz, from the people of California. And this is more vexing. What do we desire of them? We desire their participation. We want them to join us. We desire their desire.

And what do we do when we leave them cold, how do we react? Is there a certain jouissance in reading hateful comments on the Sentinel’s webpage? Or in Facebook debates with people who say, “I don’t care about you; I’m going to class anyway”? Or in mulling over how completely Mike Rotkin fails to get it? How do we get beyond this, if indeed we want to get beyond this? Do we want to try imagining ourselves as something besides jilted lovers, and is there something else? (more…)

New article up at Reclamations. Originally published in Against the Current, already it feels a bit dated.

1) A major new contribution to the analysis of the movement, by Advance the Struggle, has developed the conversation around the state of the student movement in California in some important new directions. While I don’t agree with all of their analysis, I do think that it raises some issues that we in the “mass-movement-building” wing of things need to take up. Some parallel questions are being raised in response to the Hunter College March 4 conflagration. Frankly, my political sympathies are almost entirely with the folks being criticized in this last piece, the so-called “movement builders.”

In the aftermath of the Hunter College affair, I had some very interesting conversations with anarchists; it is fascinating to me how little the socialist / anarchist split matters in terms of political methodology in the student movement today. On the “mass-movement-building” side of things one will find anarchists, socialists, some liberals and progressives, and a fair number of people who don’t claim one of those political camps; on the “adventurist / insurrectionist / occupationist” side of things one will find self-identified anarchists and communists and a fair number of people who don’t claim an overarching camp. I don’t think that we “mass-movementists” have successfully thought ourselves, and the piece above along with the ATS-initiated conversation in California offers us perhaps a dialectical opening to do so.


My last post generated some interesting conversation on Facebook. A couple of people posed interesting challenges, and my responses quickly became way too long for FB comments. I decided they were probably too long even for a comment on the original entry, so I made them into a new post. This post is a bit esoteric for this blog, but it’s a slow Wednesday: it’s either turgid analysis or a video response to Dave Kliger’s latest absurdity. If the latter is your cup of tea, here you go!

If you’re interested in some further considerations on economic context and the political bloc I suggested in my last post,  read on. (more…)

The question of what we are to do after March 4 contains several aspects. I will address myself here to one aspect: should we direct the predominance of our fire at Sacramento or at our schools’ administrators?

The Need to Avoid Getting Subsumed into Lobbying

I had the privilege of attending a report-back about March 4 put on by the ISO in San Francisco this past weekend. One interesting theme that emerged had to do with the need to avoid getting all of our energy channeled into lobbying Sacramento. We’ve talked about this question exhaustively in the UC wing of the movement, but I had the impression that things might be different in other sectors.

The UC has reserves and a large pool of money which could easily be reallocated given different priorities, which would radically ameliorate the current crisis and reverse the cuts / hikes of the past few years. But is that the case for community colleges, CSUs, and local public school systems? It was interesting to hear several activists from other systems (at least one from a community college and one from a local public school) say that they thought it was really important to keep the heat on their local administrations and not let the movement get subordinated to an administration-approved lobbying effort. While their institutions may be poor compared to the UC, they felt that there were significant questions of priorities, misspending, and administrative largesse or even possible graft which required greater accountability and transparency.

Short- and Long-Term Success

I agree with this entirely; at the same time, I think it’s important to think of this struggle as a multi-pronged one. Just to stay within the UC system for argumentative purposes here, since it’s what I know best, we can see this in terms of timeframe.

Over the short to medium term, the UC could ameliorate or entirely reverse the fee hikes, program cuts, and reduced accessibility of the last, say, two years by halting construction, trimming administrative largesse, and tapping into their reserves. And this idea is not pie-in-the-sky idealism; perhaps minus the administrative largesse part, big university systems around the country did exactly this to get through the economic crisis last year. UC did the opposite, actually increasing its spending on new construction and loaning around $200 million to the state last year for construction projects.

The fact that they basically got away with this is testament to the complete lack of transparency in the system and UC administration’s willingness to use the state’s fiscal crunch as an excuse to implement priorities which have probably been consciously or implicitly in the works for years. I’m not saying it’s a conspiracy, but I do think that UC administration has treated the crisis as an opportunity to starve programs they didn’t really like anyway and expand others. (more…)

I’m writing this while recovering from a good, long, and successful day on the picket lines at UC Santa Cruz, where, over the course of the day, more than a thousand students, workers, and teachers successfully blocked the major entrances to campus, shutting down most university business for the day. Students gathered as early as 4 AM (with a larger infusion arriving at 5) in order to form picket lines before day shift workers arrived for work.

Most union contracts with the UC require workers to come to work in the event of a strike; many workers wanted to honor the student strike and join the protest, but could not do so contractually. (Several campus unions endorsed the day of action and participated in the protest, though they could not legally strike.) A vibrant picket, solidified between 5:30 and 6 AM, was enough to interrupt business as usual, keeping most workers away. (Picketers allowed health center and childcare workers to cross their lines.)

Shortly after 6, campus administration began sending emails, text messages, and recorded phone messages to students, staff, and teachers encouraging them to stay away from the main entrances to campus. Administration and police gathered some workers in clusters and tried to drive them in vans or make them walk them onto campus.

While in a few cases this succeeded, mostly the strikers responded quickly to each rumor of a new entrance or path being used, sending flying squads of 10-25 people to throw up new pickets and reenforce others. By mid morning, the administration had given up on conducting any semblance of business as usual, telling workers at home to stay there and sending home most of those gathered at locations around the outside of campus. Around a thousand people, if not more, participated in the day of action.

A ubiquitous urban legend on campus says that UC Santa Cruz was specially designed to be resistant to effective student protest, lacking a central gathering place such as UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza. Our university on a hill lacks a good location for mass symbolic action to become visible to the broader community, but its location is quite a boon for the direct action aspect of a strike. There are only two primary entrances to campus; a handful of additional entrances provide difficulties for administrators’ attempts to circumvent pickets.

Comprehensive reporting on March 4

Around the state (and, to some extent, around the country and around the world), the March 4 day of action brought attention to austerity programs in public education: budget cuts, fee increases, and declining accessibility especially for disadvantaged students. A few early writeups of the day’s events can be found around the web: Socialist Worker’s Day of Action Journal, an aggregated page from Occupy CA, a wrapup from Angus Johnston’s Student Activism blog (this is fairly rudimentary, but I imagine Johnston will post a more detailed wrapup and evaluation sometime in the next few days), and a collection of links from thirdworldjournal.

Over the next few days and within the next couple of weeks, student and teacher activists will be evaluating the impact of March 4 and thinking about next steps for the movement. Therefore, my own comments here are rudimentary. I’m sure my ideas will change after I’ve heard more detailed and qualitative reports and after I’ve participated in some of those conversations. Nevertheless, it is the nature of blogging to offer preliminary, tentative views on a thing which is not yet fixed.

March 4 and the development of a movement

First, how does March 4 represent a development of this movement? One dynamic appears to be a broadening of the movement, particularly outside of the University of California system. Actions took place throughout the state in public schools (K-12), community colleges, and on California State University campuses.

The September 24 protests and the actions around the November 16-18 UC Regents meeting last year were large and in many cases militant; they drew a great deal of media attention nationally and forced a response (albeit a tepid, problematic, and reversible one) from the state’s political leaders. However, last year’s actions were limited to a relatively small sector of public universities: the UC campuses and a few Cal State campuses, with a small handful of other, relatively isolated locations doing something. March 4 achieved an impressive level of social saturation throughout the state. A significant percentage of Californians with a family member in school had some level of contact with an action on March 4 – probably short of a majority, but not so far short of a majority that the question is not worth asking.

One anecdote: a lecturer with whom I’ve worked told me that a discussion about March 4 and educational equity was held in a reading group based in her church. The church is relatively conservative one, albeit in a mainstream, liberal denomination, in Redwood City, a Silicon Valley suburb which is hardly a hotbed of radicalism.

This breadth extends beyond mere numbers, as well. Students of color have been represented in this movement from the beginning, but last year’s actions did not, for the most part, engage large numbers of students for whom education itself is precarious. Last year’s actions also did not reflect the movement / mobilization culture that has characterized previous student of color organizing in California (perhaps most prominently in recent memory, the movement around Proposition 187, a series of high school walkouts, and student organizing around May 1 in 2006 and 2007).

With March 4,  there are some signs that students of color organizing may intersect with the September 24 student movement, or, put another way, that a sector of the movement centered around students of color and educationally disadvantaged students may emerge. Many mobilizations at less-elite universities and colleges were student of color led, and reports I have heard from the gathering in Sacramento suggest both a diverse attendance and some of this movement culture.

In comparison with last fall, the direct action aspect of the movement was a bit quieter this time – though this statement must be qualified. The UCSC strike was successful enough to interrupt the operation of a university for an entire day; this is a kind of direct action. Activists in Berkeley and Davis took their protests to the freeways. One could argue about whether this form of action is “direct” or “symbolic,” but it was certainly militant and it aroused an immediate police response. There was a sit-in at UCLA, and there were occupations at UC Irvine and CSU Fresno.

What’s the next step?

One lone blogger can’t propose too much in advance of the conversations which need to happen. Some activists are talking about May 1 as the next target date for a big action of some kind. The spacing is probably about right for a May 1 action, but the details of it, and what happens outside of that big action – besides a lot of outreach – also need consideration.

We can’t just do the same things we’ve done before over again and expect them to be just as successful or more successful as they have been in the past; the slight tailing off of excitement around occupations probably shows this. If our goal is to build a movement which can actually challenge the social organization of education and the hierarchy of who receives it and what it looks like as a function of / producer of race and class strata – if we take our shared notion of free public education for all seriously, at least as a meaningful limit concept – then we are still at the very beginning.

Even at a seemingly more tangible level – reforms we could win that would reverse austerity programs such as budget cuts, fee hikes, and declining accessibility, this is a multi-pronged struggle, and we’re nowhere close to meaningful victories yet. UC administration still refuses to admit that a major aspect of the problem in the UC system lies within their priorities and decisions, not merely within the state funding system; we are a long way from getting them to accede to any major movement demands. At the state level, to address the long-term defunding of public education, as well as other public goods, we would need to overturn or at least overhaul Proposition 13, which limits the ability of the state to pay for anything. Most mainstream politicians, including the leaders of the state Democratic Party, don’t want to touch this. To achieve something of this magnitude, we would need to build a movement still much broader than the one we have now, one which could begin to articulate a new, movement-left pole of political attraction within California politics.

We need to think bigger than just the next day of action and how it might be larger, broader, or more militant than the last one. We need to think bigger to keep the movement growing. People will participate in an action or two because they are angry, but to keep going over the long term, they have to believe that there’s a plan to win, a way that collective action can lead to the changes we want. A big action or a series of successful, militant actions give people hope. However, if we just try to repeat them, active supporters will quickly become disenchanted. In the current historical moment, political hope tends to metastasize back into despair unless it is fueled with excitement.

Therefore, we need not just another big day of action or another series of occupations. We may well need both of those things, or something involving analogous levels of mass participation and militant direct action, but we also need something else: a blueprint for an effective campaign to force decision-makers to accede to meaningful demands and a vision for building a movement with the scale and power to make changes that are currently out of our scope.

Activists are already debating these questions. At meetings over the next week or two, they will plan next steps. I have heard that a statewide conference is in the works, to be held in Southern California sometime in April. General assemblies and large conferences – and, for opposite reasons, blogs – are imperfect tools for the collective honing and putting into practice of strategy. General assemblies and conferences tend to be exercises in compromise and avoiding the bombastic excess of an ego-driven few who like to hear themselves talk; they do not lend themselves to the development of a nuanced strategy. Movement theory and strategy have been developed and shared in this movement mainly via blogs and zines. For this movement, these media function as something like the 21st century equivalent of the 18th-century political pamphlet; ideas can be thrown up, discussed, and countered rapidly. The final product of a blog or a zine reflects the perspectives of an individual, in conversation with others, or a small collective; they are not by themselves a good vehicle for collectivizing strategic conversations across sectors.

We need to develop a movement apparatus capable of developing these conversations in a nuanced way, putting out a strategic vision including immediate campaigns and an audacious vision of how we get from here (a new, vibrant movement without the power to enact its vision) to there (a larger, broader movement, which would have the scope and militancy to enact aspects of its vision or to create conditions in which other aspects of that vision become “self-evidently necessary” to leading social groups).

I believe the movement needs, essentially, something like a movement-wide strategy committee. Such a thing could only be productive if it could coexist with the ethos and practice of autonomous action on the part of independent groupings and the reality of cross-sector diversity which constitute great strengths of the movement. A strategy committee would be in tension with the culture of the movement, but could this tension be productive, creative tension rather than a squelching which would lead to disunity and fragmentation? What do we dare risk – not only in the streets, but in ourselves?

This piece was originally posted on the Solidarity Webzine.

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