** written with fatima & Tyler Zimmerman — the 3 of us are organizers with ¡ella pelea! but this is not an official position of that organization
At the University of Texas at Austin our rally and march on M4 was considerably smaller compared to the West – approximately 200 at its height – but since this was its first anti-budget cuts rally it was no small feat. Numbers can be less important than energy and militancy, and it showed on M4.
A SXSW Flavor
The smaller size is partly due to the fact that the effects of the recession are only just beginning to be felt in the state of Texas. Texas is one of the few states in the country that is not running a deficit, and has also been able to attract more businesses to settle and develop here due to lower tax rates. But along with this comes the under-funding of social services as compared to the rest of the country, which includes public education.
This can also be explained by the historical and regional contours of Texas as both a border state and a Southern state. Right on the US-Mexico border, Texas has the second highest concentration of undocumented immigrants in the country, following California, and is one of the few states in the country whose population is majority people of color. Along with other parts of the South and Southwest, Texas is also a Right-to-Work state, which means that collective bargaining rights for unions are illegal.
In this light, the strength of the Right in Texas needs to be taken into consideration. With the primaries recently over, Governor Perry — who has executed more people than any governor in the history of Texas, and who openly associates with secessionists and other opportunists responsible for the attacks on white workers as well — has regained the Republican nomination. More recently, conservatives have succeeded white washing the textbooks and curriculum in Texas public schools removing people of color movements, and painting neoliberalism and US Empire favorably.
These things combined have meant that there is a lack of working class institutions to carry on the legacy of working class militancy in the face of right wing hegemony. The fight to take back and defend public education takes on new significance as a means to rebuild this legacy and these institutions.
The Struggle at UT
Cuts at UT in the name of the recession and a flat state budget have really just begun. While this may seem that Texas is just starting to catch up to the rest of the country in terms of the crisis, the reality is that the rest of the country is finally being reduced to the standards of Texas.
The UT Board of Regents initiated another round of tuition hikes on March 3rd; tuition will go up by 3.95% for each of the next two years. The mantra of the UT administration has been “At least we’re not UC; at least we’re not raising tuition and fees by 32%!” But the fact is that tuition is still higher at UT, even after the tuition and fee hikes in the UC system.
Tuition at UT has gone up by over 50% since 2003, at which point tuition control was deregulated and placed in the hands of the Board of Regents, who are hand-picked by the governor.
But the cuts go further than just tuition hikes. Every department must cut their budgets by at least 5%, and the College of Liberal Arts is facing the brunt of this with $15 million in cuts. It should also be noted that the student body in the College of Liberal Arts has a higher concentration of women and people of color on campus.
Lecturers and teaching assistants are facing the bulk of the job cuts, which for students means larger and longer classes.
In addition to tuition hikes, the administration is slashing the Top 10% admission policy, which was a consolation policy that was meant to make-up for a defeated and then de-fanged affirmative action policy. It guaranteed the top 10% of public high school students in the state admission to UT, but this is being reduced to 8% with a proportional cap of 75% of the incoming class.
Currently, the administration is attempting to institute a policy that caps the duration of undergraduate education to ten semesters. This would make it near impossible for part-time, working students to complete their degree.
More recently the Cactus Café, a community institution based at UT that houses both a music venue for the vibrant live music scene in Austin and informal classes – including ESL courses – open to community members, has been slated to be cut as well.
So what does all this mean?
The UT administration calls these measure a program for “excellence.” They want to make UT more “competitive” and more research centered. But this is essentially a program to further restrict access to elite higher education, further making a reality a rigidly two-tiered educational system, similar to what has been happening throughout public K-12 education.
In a state with an extremely high school dropout rate, and hyper-competition for unskilled jobs, access to higher education continues to be seen by many working people as the only way out of a race-to-the-bottom global labor market.
The March 4th rally and march at UT Austin was primarily organized by the UT Stop the Cuts coalition. The coalition was initially called for by the ISO on campus and had been envisioned as a group. The tension between a group structure and a coalition structure has not been reconciled; we will talk about how this lack of clarity on structure led to a break down in communication on the day of March 4th.
Beyond the Trotskyists, there was a range of different political tendencies present at the planning meetings. Some unaffiliated students attended meetings, and The University Democrats were present to a limited degree.
The Texas State Employees Union was another major player in the rally. Given their semi-legal status, they could orient to the struggle as an insurgent union with more militant actions, but they tend to stick to lobbying the state legislature and petitioning the administration. Since union membership is not compulsory, only 8% of campus workers are part of TSEU.
The Anthropology Graduate Students Association was also a key player. They represent a militant group of students (many of whom are TAs) who are trying to maintain the people of color majority and activist orientation of their department in light of conservative restructuring due to the budget cuts.
The struggle over the content and direction of the rally, and the movement at UT began during the speeches.
Early in the program a representative from the Texas State Legislature spoke attempting to rally votes for a so-called progressive wing of the Democratic Party. The crowd quickly lost interest. Next, a representative from the Graduate Student Assembly attempted to defend the UT administration, and instead point fingers at the state legislature. He was heckled and shouted down by a number of folks in the crowd. There began a stark contrast between the official channels of protest and dissent on the one hand, and the militancy of the crowd on the other.
Afterwards, a number of speakers from groups that could be seen as an informal tendency of militant student groups that are largely women, queer and people of color spoke. This includes MEChA, the Student Farmworker Alliance, and ¡ella pelea!
¡ella pelea! had been pushing hard to have more students, and more women and students of color speak about the patriarchal and white supremacist nature of the cuts, in contrast to the Trotskyist and liberals who were campaigning for more professors and politicians to speak.
But as these three organizations spoke to the white supremacist and partriarchal content of the budget cuts, some students in the crowd objected. Two white students in the crowd began to yell “White people are working class, too! What about white people?” when a speaker from ¡ella pelea! spoke about the struggles of people of color against white supremacy and the need to carry on that legacy in our organizing today,
This is speculation, but it is possible that their comments are indicative of a libertarian right-left political mix that is prevalent in Texas and particularly Austin. These notions that paint us as racist for invoking the traditions of Black and Chicano Power are dangerous. When people of color want to talk about our histories, we don’t have to give a shout out to white folks.
It should be noted that working class women and people of color demands are tied to the broader working class, including white workers. White supremacy and patriarchy divide and socially control the working class, which makes the entire class weak. Feminism and Chicanismo need to be considered as boons for white workers.
The crowd on that day was largely people of color, and had a high militant energy. At its height there were 200-300 people in the crowd. On the one hand, many organizers of the event had low expectations for turnout, with 50 people being a hopeful estimate. In that light, the turnout was a success.
On the other hand, UT is a campus of 50,000 students and 20,000 workers, faculty and staff. It is likely that the crowd represented a “militant minority” on campus and does not represent the general attitude on campus. From reading the student newspaper, one gets the impression that the majority of students are aware of the cuts and against them, but are generally disillusioned with student government and official governance structures, and don’t see the point in organizing against (what appears to them as) an inevitable course of events.
Leading up to the 4th
Weeks before the fourth there had been discussion in coalition meetings over the route of the march alongside conversations about what the rally and march were supposed to accomplish.
The question was whether or not we would have the numbers to pull off a successful march. Some of these groupings wanted to march around the UT Tower – the main administration building on campus that houses the president’s office – while others wanted to march through the Tower as a symbolic display of power, only if we had the numbers.
If we went into the Tower, TSEU was advocating that they present their petition to the UT president on behalf of the entire coalition. !ella pelea¡ on the other hand was advocating that each group be allowed to present their own demands. One of the reasons we pushed for this was because the Trotskyists, liberals and union representatives refused to talk about coalition structure or method. Instead, the tyranny of structurelessness precluded any discussion of common political agreement and demands between coalition members.
We were also pushing this because !ella pelea! does not organize along the lines of petition politics. Change does not occur through appeals to the rulers’ conscience. Victories are won by building real working class power form below that confronts, challenges and places demands on the rulers. In Texas the essentially illegal nature of worker organizing demands that the laws be challenged, with the eventual goal of breaking them. This needs to be reflected in both content and form.
¡ella pelea! sought to deliver a list of demands along with the crowd, and facilitate this experience of confrontation between the anti-budget cut movement and the ruling UT administration. It was agreed that each group would be allowed to carry out its own plans, and if we had the numbers we would be flexible in determining the march route.
The Main Event
After the speakers, a march commenced that has precipitated a debate within the coalition over tactics and strategy. As soon as the march began there was a stark disagreement between coalition members over both what was needed that day, and what was possible.
When the march began, some were pushing for a march around the Tower instead of through it. But without any other coalition members at the front of the march, and after already announcing our intentions, ¡ella pelea! lead the march through the Tower, instead of around it.
At the lead of the march, however, with no other coalition members in sight, we lead the crowd through the Tower, taped our demands to the doors of the budget office and then left the building chanting “Whose university? Our university!” The entire way through ¡ella pelea! was explicit that the demands and actions represented our group and not the coalition as a whole.
Afterwards, the University Democrats were suppose to wrap up with a speech but were curiously absent.
Whose University? Whose Movement?
A debate has ensued that raises a host of questions.
The liberals, Trotskyists and union reps have insinuated that the march through the Tower was undemocratic because it violated the consensus of the coalition, and that it was adventurist because it endangered the jobs of workers and the status of international students.
The question of democracy in a movement and in the middle of a demonstration is contentious. Do the plans of the organizers trump the energy of the crowd, or can the crowd push past what was planned for the day?
There’s a dialectical tension between organizers and movements. On the one hand organizers need to build infrastructure and develop strategies and methods for the tasks of the day, but this isn’t the same as planning every minute and every stage of the movement.
Movements make their own leaps and engage in spontaneous acts of self-activity and self-organization. At the same time, organizers need to be there to encourage and defend those actions.
At UT, There were two things that facilitated the decision to go though the Tower. First, there was a breakdown in coalition structure. No other groups in the coalition came to the front to take leadership of the march. Second, the militancy and energy of the crowd left us to think this was the appropriate course of action. We believed we needed to be flexible, and the conditions and the will of the crowd were pushing for something more. In addition to this, we believed the energy of the crowd needed to be channeled into a confrontation with the university, however symbolic.
The question of security for workers and international students is an important consideration. On the one hand organizers should not allow movement members to be sniped by the authorities, and they should not propose actions that they cannot defend, but at the same time there is always some amount of risk that is unavoidable.
As these debates have only begun, it is unclear how the union reps, liberals and Trots understand these tensions. This parallels the national debate in the movement over the agency of oppressed and working class people in contrast to the fact that they may face heavier consequences than white, middle class organizers, for instance.
On the one hand, the degree of confrontation of a direct action needs to be taken into consideration. Marching through the Tower and taping the demands to the doors of the budget office seemed to be an appropriate confrontation. The building is generally open to the public, and a march is not the same as a sit-in and nowhere near being an occupation.
On the other hand, workers and international students can make up their own mind over what risks they want to take. We have our own agency. Some conservative elements in the movement, however, have drawn the opposite conclusion: that people of color, workers and international peoples cannot engage in and defend militant action. This negates our peoples’ histories and legacies, and instead treats us as helpless victims. Historically, there have been at least two forces who have echoed the latter sentiment. First, we have the worst elements of the white, male Left who have treated women, queer folks and people of color as political footballs. Second are the middle class women and people of color whose class position militate against the direct democratic and working class politics in feminist and people of color movements. They have as much an interest in destroying these movements as other sectors of the ruling class. The middle class leaders who told black youth to go home instead of organizing and fighting the cops in the Oscar Grant revolts are just one example.
Conversations after the march with workers and international students have revealed that they thought the march was appropriate.
We believe the action was a success for two reasons. First, the coordination of the Left that took place at UT is a rare event indeed, and one that should continue. In light of a growing student and worker movement around education, there is a serious and urgent need for different parts of the Left to work together. Across the country, we have seen the crossing of sectarian lines and new formations being thrown up through the anti-budget cuts struggle, showing that it is through movements and mass organizing that the Left will regain its former strength and relevance.
At the same time, the March 4th action at UT was a success equally due to the new layers of students that emerged in the course of the organizing. Some of the layers took the form of AGSA; since it is composed of people who are both students and workers, they overlap with TSEU and demonstrate the very important crossover between the student movement and the labor movement. MEChA was also representative of a layer of very vocal, majority women of color students. International students, through these groups and as individuals, were also an important part of the course of events that day.
In addition, the willingness of students and workers to confront the administration, breaking what has been considered acceptable rules of engagement, by marching through the Tower and challenging business as usual at the university, has created a militant spark that will hopefully catch during the rest of our struggle at UT.
This was the first big splash for the student movement at UT. It was a strong turnout for a first major action. We will continue to organize and do the legwork of building a stronger base in order to heighten the level of struggle and resistance on campus in the following years. In order for that to happen, though, we must organize with larger and larger numbers of students and workers from the most oppressed layers that will have the force to make demands, take militant action and win concessions from the administration.