Saturday, March 20, 2010

US: Balance sheet on March 4th Student Protests and What Next

The protests of March 4th were bigger than the September protests last year. The militancy of the mass occupations last November was a step forward from the September protests. It was a step in a direction of seriously shutting down the universities. Yet the biggest achievement so far was what the students did in Santa Cruz, where with great militancy and determination they completely shut down the university. They were, it appears the only campus where a determined strike committee was formed in a conscious effort to shut the university down.

The Highway occupation in Oakland involved more people as direct actions than the occupation of Wheeler Hall at University of California Berkeley. The level of militancy was high but the situation was not right to draw the thousands who supported the Wheeler occupiers into action. Those who supported the Wheeler occupation would have done the same but were corralled by the rallies to off campus sites.

In general things turned out to be roughly as we expected them to be. A lot of anger, a lot of frustration: and what is more important a lot of militancy and willingness to go beyond the limited goals of the organizers.

The good thing about March 4th is that the protests went beyond California and extended to other areas of the US. The best known university beyond California is Hunter in New York City where protesting students were confronting nasty cops, and the students claim that they also confronted the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) that was working with the police to stop the militancy of the students ( ). 

The student protests are catching fire around the world with many statements of solidarity coming from students and workers' organizations around the world. Despite the participation of many individual teachers and other workers this was a youth and student action, the unions were not as involved as they were last year; none had organized actual strikes. The union leaderships kept the workers to a large degree participating in pickets before and after working hours.

East Bay and Oakland

In the immediate Bay Area it was mainly marches and rallies. Real effective strike actions were prevented from happening by the reformist organizers and the Left. From UC Berkeley (UCB) busses took about 800 students to a futile rally with Democratic Party speakers and day of lobbying in Sacramento to convince the class enemy to give more money for education. The main left organization that divert strikers to Sacramento and into the hands of the Democratic Party was Revolutionary Workers Group/Speak Out Now) whose politics are not that different the ISO's politics. Our group concentrated its efforts in Richmond and the East Bay. 
In Richmond we organized before March 4th a March on Chevron, the oil company with a refinery that ruins the health of thousands of workers and youth mostly black and Latino in Richmond. In the successful march in which young students from the middle school spoke, the united front raised the demand to expropriate Chevron under the democratic control of the workers and the working class community. The East Bay Outreach committee rejected this slogan as too radical. That was not the opinion of the police. The Richmond cops took no chance and they sent a strong contingent of cops to stop the multi-racial youth and the geriatric marchers from entering "private" property, i.e. Chevron!

The East Bay Committee played a critical role in the Bay Area. It is controlled by reformists and organizations with reformist orientation such as the Socialist Party, Solidarity (Usec) and Advance the Struggle who were against real strikes and occupations. Our constant struggle in this committee was against their reformist demands such as "tax the rich" which they modified (under our pressure) to "make the rich pay" after months of debates with our organization. But the main different was our insistence that we need to organize real strikes and occupations in UCB and Laney versus the reformists insistence on a day of marches and rallies. We know for sure that the East Bay Outreach Committee discouraged the students from UCB and Laney from doing occupations of buildings so that such occupations would not interfere with their planned rally in downtown Oakland. So while many students in UCB and Laney were in militant morning picket lines, everybody knew that 2-3 hours morning strike is not a serious strike and obviously the universities in the East Bay were not shut down. 

Yet despite the acrimony between HWRS and the majority in the Oakland Outreach Committee, we think that they did an excellent job for what they planned to do: to have a strong working class rally in Oakland that combined strong contingents of working class people and youth from the high schools mixed with the marchers from UCB. It was indeed a good rally well organized and very democratic in which the principle of no platform for bourgeois politicians from the Democratic party s was upheld.

For good reasons some of the youth were frustrated because they wanted more than a rally. They wanted to disrupt the system and try to shut it down. So a number of them went to the freeway 880 and they shut it down for an hour or so before they were chased out by the cops with a number of arrests and one serious injury (from falling off an elevated road). We, of course, salute the youth and defend them unconditionally against any attempt by the state to prosecute them. The subsequent discussions revealed that many onlookers stuck in traffic cheered the activists who included university students, high school students and union teachers. But we clearly understand that spontaneous actions at the last minute cannot be as effective as statewide planned disruption of the capitalist system, even though they were done in frustration over the lack of effective actions by the East Bay Outreach Committee. To shut down the system effectively we need seriously planned massive picket lines which means scabs are not allowed to cross them, massive buildings occupations and actions by students and workers which includes actions such as on 880.

San Francisco

In San Francisco the situation was somewhat similar to the East Bay. In this area the dominant left organizations are the ISO and Socialist Organizer (Lambertists). Both organizations oppose militant actions to shut down the universities. San Francisco State University (SFSU) is the most radical university in the immediate Bay Area. While the Left stopped the students from organizing an effective strike and occupations, the students tried to stop scabs and were very militant on the picket lines as they attempted to really shut down the university. We need to bear in mind that in both UCB and SFSU have many entrances and that only well organized mass picketing or occupations can shut down these universities. 

The frustration about the lack of a well organized strike, and the emphasis on marches and rallies was expressed by the student leader Anastasia Gomes who told the SF Chronicle that the students should have stayed and defended the strike instead of marching to San Francisco civic center. But the union bureaucrats with Alan Benjamin from Socialist Organizer made sure that the strike turned into a long march from the SFSU and other SF colleges to the rally orchestrated by the labor bureaucracy. While there were more than 5000 people at the rally the speakers mostly offered the usual standard reformist solutions by the Labor Council in San Francisco with the views of the union bureaucracy as advocated by Benjamin and company. 
Indeed Socialist Organizer and other reformist organizations wanted to turn the March 4th protests into a campaign for the Democrats. They tell the masses that what we need is to get a proposition to overturn the 2/3 majority in the legislature to adopt a budget, so that the budget can pass by the simple majority of the Democrats. Sure, we support democratic reforms. But the massive attacks on workers and students have nothing to do with the problem of 2/3 majority. In fact the Democrats, including the liberal Democrats voted for the current budget that unleashed these massive attacks through budget cuts.

Santa Cruz

Without a doubt the most successful actions took place in UC Santa Cruz. This was the only place where the students shut down the university completely. Santa Cruz is known historically to host the most radical students and the students showed again that this reputation is not for nothing. They organized and came prepared to shut down the university. They were equipped properly to stop scabs and any traffic of students or cars into the university. The cops and the school administration could not stop the students. The administration had to concede defeat and closed the campus down for the day. We can all admire and learn from the determination and the collective action of the students. A strike is the basic tool of the students and the workers. It only works if it is organized well. It is the basic organ of class war, and to win we need to understand the power we are fighting against and tactically organize the strike accordingly. The Santa Cruz students have, however, an important advantage over many universities. There are only two roads by which students, workers and traffic can get into the university. The students shut them down tight and that was enough. Despite the logistical advantage, the students showed us that a determined strike committee enforcing its own discipline and centralization could mobilize a solid strike!

What is next

The movement is clearly at a cross road. It cannot continue as a protest movement for ever. The main argument of the majority of reformists and centrists is that the state has the money and the problem is that the capitalist state is greedy and the politicians want to give the money to Wall Street. From this logic it follows that protest movements like in the 1960's are sufficient, since all we need is to put pressure on the capitalist politicians to give the money to human needs instead of giving trillions of dollars to the bankers and their wars. This is a incorrect and a misleading understanding of American capitalism today.

American capitalism is in a steep decline as expressed by a world crisis that will not be replaced any time soon by an extended or robust period of boom. It is true that the capitalist system always has its priorities and it always favors the bankers and their wars. But the money that goes to the bankers and war is not American money, since the US has the biggest debts in its history as the US is losing its competiveness to countries like China. Chinese imperialism is on a rise. It (and other powers like Japan) finance Wall Street debts to reign in the recession in hope of preventing it from turning into a full blown depression. Because of the rising relentless competition between the imperialist powers American imperialism must inflict an historical defeat on the American working class to gain back its superiority and to maintain profitability. The US has lost its manufacturing base without which it cannot remain the top dog, particularly since its main rival (China) has the advantage from the super-exploitation of its own labor that the US national production does not have.

To compete in this race to stay the top imperialist dog the ruling class must enforce brutal attacks on the students and workers. This is why HWRS keeps on telling the activists that to defeat the attacks we must have an indefinite general strike by students, teachers and state workers who absorbed the worst attacks (15% cut in salary and benefits and it is going to get worse). This is the objective reality and it requires a massive response against the attacks by the bosses and their state. Yet we must recognize a major factor. To organize such a strike the union bureaucracy must be ousted and replaced by democratic rank-and-file bodies and delegates of state workers, teachers, the oppressed and students' bodies. Only such coordinated bodies can organize a sustained general strike. Without this a sustained or even one day general strike is not possible.

But the great response of anger and determination shows that we can shut down the universities if the reformists and the Left are removed from standing in the students' way. To shut down the universities we need, of course, the workers' and faculties' support. If there is no official union approval the rank-and-file must organize their own strike committees with the students. We know that the workers will not cross a firm picket lines even if their union does not call a strike.

We have the forces to shut down the universities and keep them shut indefinitely until the basic demands are met. But first we need to agree that this is what we want. Our forces must be united. That means no busses to Sacramento that will weaken the strike and divert it into a rally to pressure the Democrats -- a totally defeatist strategy. It also means A STRIKE IS A STRIKE IN WHICH THE UNIVERSITIES ARE SHUT DOWN. We cannot shut them down if we divert thousands of students to marches and rallies outside the universities. Doing it means that we will not have the forces to shut them down: eventually most students will realize that the movement is only channeling their anger into protests; they will become demoralized and the movement will decline. High school students should be mobilized to either strike and occupy their own schools or join the strikes at the local colleges which they hope some day to attend. In the event that solid strikes can not be mobilized at all the schools contingents should converge on the campuses that the state wide strike committee designates as priorities. 

SO UNITY WITH THE DETERMINATION TO SHUT THEM DOWN IS THE MOST IMPORTANT INGREDIENT FOR A FUTURE SUCCESS. It will have to be centralized and de-centralized. What do we mean? We need elected bodies of delegates from each university, union, and high school to coordinate the state-wide strike and ensure that it is done right. By de-centralized we mean that we need local creativity. In a real militant and powerful strike each university needs to take the local conditions into consideration. For example, we saw that in Santa Cruz there are only two entrances. So blocking them with massive pickets may be enough. But in places like UCB and SFSU there are many entrances and areas through which scabs can walk in. So shutting the universities down depends on how much mass picketing the students will have. It may be necessary to use a creative combination of picketing and occupations of key buildings that guarantee that classes are not functioning. 

We must bear in mind that many students and workers went to work and to classes because they did not see that March 4th was about a serious strike to shut down the universities until the demands are met. When it becomes clear that this is what we are seriously doing, many of the hesitators and the cynics will join us. And finally, HWRS insist that only an indefinite strike could force concessions from the ruling class. Those who say that we cannot pull together are giving up in advance. If we remain a small minority on this, we tell the students and workers: Don't believe the reformists and the Left. One day of action at a time will lead eventually to a defeat. The ruling class uses it as safety valve to release anger. But if we remain a minority we are willing to go through a "test". If the majority wants to build for just another day of actions, lets make this day a test of our strength by shutting them down for real.

HWRS think that we need few powerful demands for a broad united front that will draw hundreds of thousands students and workers who will be willing to participate in a general strike until the demands are met. We need demands that can unite the many students and workers who are determined to shut the schools down until the demands are met. We all agree on basic powerful demands. They can be adopted as we suggest or iin the way the delegates of students and workers resolve to make them.
Down the regents the watchdogs of the capitalist state! 
Open the universities to the working class! 
For open admission and free tuition! 
Student, faculty, staff, parent, and working class community control over the entire public education system, from preK-12 through graduate school and adult education! 
No layoffs and furloughs in the universities and the state! 
Rehire all laid off staff and faculty! 
Restore the budget cuts in the state! 
Stop all layoffs of state workers and all the attacks on the unions and the oppressed! 
Down with Race to the Top and privatization schemes! 
Make Education, Full Employment and Health Care basic rights!

HWRS believes that demands like these can unite and energize the movement. It should always be made clear, however, that even these basic demands cannot be won by electoral or legislative means. In fact, even an indefinite strike in the universities can only fully win its demands when it becomes the launching pad for a general strike by all workers in the state. What we need is to mobilize a massive general strike in which faculty, staff and students unite to occupy the schools, and then create democratic general assemblies under whose authority the institutions are reopened and administered. Such a demonstration of the power of direct action would serve as a catalyst for government workers in the strangled social service programs, and private sector workers in failing industries, to do the same. When workers and students come together to forge organs of direct democracy and to challenge the bosses' control of our institutions and economy, the government of the bankers and speculators is exposed as both vulnerable and unnecessary. Only a revitalized and democratic workers movement linked to the students, the oppressed, and the unemployed can build the democratic rank and file organizations necessary to oust the capitalist system and form a workers' government.

Dave Dov Winter HWRS

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