Saturday, November 26, 2011

General Strikes, Administrative Acquiescence, Union Contracts: the Already Privatized Public Education


      The reason behind Monday's general strike is simple: UC Regents are holding a teleconferenced town hall meeting ahead of their rescheduled vote on tuition increases. Given the timing of the town hall's public forum (immediately before the tuition vote, therefore leaving regents no time to reflect upon student grievances) and its organization (Skype-style, limited access, one hour period at only four of the ten UC campuses), last week's general assembly approved (with 99% of some 2,000 votes) direct action to shut down both the vote and the sham forum. Because the public forum is merely a ploy by the regents designed to give the illusion of democratic participation, we have decided to make our grievances heard -- on our terms.
    My problem, however, is not that I teach at Monday 8:00 am, but that I work for a unsympathetic department (University Writing Program) and under a compulsory union contract that bars me from striking. Using the logic of capital, our administration claims that as instructors "we are ethically obliged to hold class for the students who wish to be there." Translation: because students have already paid into a privatized UC system, they are guaranteed receipt in the form of educational services. By refusing to provide this product for my student-consumers, I withhold their rightly purchased commodity.
   But this is precisely the logic (and concrete manifestation) Monday's activities are intended to subvert. As we attempt to push back against the increasing privatization of the UC system, departments and union contracts,  both deeply entrenched within the gears of a capitalist education paradigm, restrain the voice and power of student-lead activism. By "ethically obliged," our department chair intends (knowingly or not; I suspect the later) an obligation not to our students, but rather to the smooth operations of privatized education. We are obliged to offer a service to paying customers. We are obliged to ensure that the logic of capital is not ruffled, that our students' tuition will not be wasted on activities wavering from the our student-teacher business contract (our syllabus).
   And this is not merely a matter of administration discretion. Certainly other departments have worked with their faculty to ensure actual ethical commitments are met. For example, my parent department, (English) has approved a department-wide "sick day" on Monday. Why? Because tenured faculty and graduate student employees university-wide work under union contracts that prohibit strikes. Negotiated by the UAW, my own contract not only prohibits my ability to stand in solidarity with the majority of my students, but also demands my compliance. Whether or not I pay dues, whether or not I willing opt into the union, I must work under this contract. No compliance, no work.  Working under an administration unwilling to stand up for its students and alongside its employees, I am handcuffed into either teaching/serving my students (most of whom will not be there anyway) or risk losing my already precarious graduate school funding. My choice is to some degree this reductive: either continue the logic and operations of a privatized education or suspended that logic and operation and potentially lose my job.
     This personal dilemma is indicative of more than the tenuous employment status of a graduate student. Rather, it displays the degree to which our public universities are already privatized. Humanities departments churn out the logic of capitalism to defend their acquiescence as if it were some moral high ground. Union representatives are forced to accept contract provisions against striking just to ensure a living wage for their workers. And when our public university students rise up against privatization they face not simply the challenge of lowering tuition or ousting belligerent chancellors. They face modes of thinking and institutional structures deeply enmeshed within the operations of capitalism.

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