Reflections on the Shifting Terrain of Struggle
It is has been ten years since thousands of workers and youth shut down the WTO here in Seattle. Now the fight against budget cuts is once again laying the groundwork for a mass movement. One again young people and workers are in the streets asserting that another world is possible. In this piece I will analyze this dynamic, shifting terrain of political struggle.
This reflection comes in the wake of the March 4th National Day of Action to defend public education, which was a major leap forward here. A student strike at the University of Washington (UW) brought out around 700 students, workers, teachers, and high school students with an unexpectedly high level of militant energy, shutting down streets and almost blocking the freeway ( as you can see in this video).
As an organizer with the student-worker group Democracy Insurgent (D.I.) at the University of Washington, I wish to draw out some reflections and conclusions from our involvement in the struggle. I’ll start by tracing the struggles that lead up to the March 4th strike and made it possible. Then I will outline what March 4th shows us about the prospects and challenges for building a mass movement here in WA state and beyond.
(note: while many of my co-organizers would probably agree with what I lay out here, this is not an official position paper by Democracy Insurgent, it is just my own reflections).
Opening Shots: last year’s struggles for schools, not jails
The first signs of mass activity in the wake of the economic crisis came a year ago, in the late winter of 2009. The Seattle School Board and the new superintendent decided to close 5 school and 8 programs, mostly in working class communities of color. Parents, teachers, and students mobilized to disrupt school board meetings and to hold rallies and marches. While these efforts failed to stop the closures, they exposed the racist effects of the economic crisis and have remained a permanent source of agitation in communities of color. While this was going on, King County (which includes Seattle) was planning on building a $200 million dollar jail. The movement against school closures converged with the campaign around Initiative 100, which demanded funding for schools and social services, not prisons. Many progressive non-profits got involved with this campaign. Because of this groundwork the slogan “money for jobs and education, not for mass incarceration” rang out loudly last week on the picket lines at the March 4th student strike.
In the early summer, Seattle Public school administrators made more cuts, laying off many teachers, counselors, and other workers, which lead to larger class sizes. The teachers’ unions, parents, and students mobilized to disrupt a school board meeting but were unable to stop the cuts. Seattle teachers were discussing striking around these issues and others during their contract negotiations at the end of the summer but decided not to.
Teachers in Kent, which is a working class suburb to the south of Seattle, did go out in a powerful strike for smaller class sizes. They defied a court injunction to go back to work partly because working class parents actively organized to support their fight for quality education. This action is key because it highlights what happens when working class people and people of color are being pushed out of Seattle by rising housing costs (gentrification). They are moving into South King County to places like Kent where the public infrastructure is inadequate for the growing population and racial tensions are boiling. Some of my students have told me they mobilized to fight white supremacists in a town south of Kent a few years ago when they put up a noose at the school to intimidate people of color who were moving in. I imagine that the Kent strike will be the first of many actions to rock south King County where the organized Left and the nonprofits have relatively little presence. Working class struggles like this are necessary if we want to avoid a situation where people are pitted against each other to fight for crumbs from the crumbling public infrastructure.
The Kent strike inspired workers across the state. Now, as teaching assistants at UW face layoffs and increasing workloads and as undergrads pay more tuition for less instruction, rank and file TAs in UAW Local 4121 are looking to the Kent strike as a model as they mobilize for their own strike in early May against budget cuts. They are also framing their struggle as a fight for quality public education and low class sizes and are reaching out to undergraduate students and other workers for support.
We are All Workers: Custodians up the ante at UW
In the spring of 2009, rank and file custodians expanded pre-existing smaller struggles against budget cuts at UW, and began to give these struggles a mass character. UW custodians are mostly East African, Asian, and Latino workers and they are part of local 1488, one of the larger locals of WFSE, the Washington Federation of State Employees (part of the AFSCME international union.)
For over a decade, management had been trying to institute speed up of the work process, privatization, and various management strategies like Team Cleaning which increase managerial oversight by instituting an assembly-line style of work. Several rank and file custodians had organized committees on the shop floor to block these developments. In one building they set up an arrangement similar to what Antonio Gramsci once described as “internal commissions”; custodians would bypass management and the union bureaucracy to directly negotiate with students and faculty about what needed to be cleaned when and they would organize this work themselves. They got the job done well without mangers breathing down their necks and they enjoyed a higher level of democracy in the workplace which encouraged political education and an intellectual life on the job.
Last spring and summer, management used budget cuts as an excuse to restructure the workplace to break these and other forms of solidarity workers had built up over the years. These changes didn’t save much money, they were more about control and dominance. They tried to ram through Team Cleaning and they also tried to cut the swingshift, which was devastating for custodians who need to work at night so they could care for their families or work second jobs during the day. Management has also tried to turn students and professors against workers by laying off custodians, forcing the remaining custodians to work at an inhuman pace, and then blaming them when classrooms and labs aren’t clean.
Democracy Insurgent and the now-defunct Anti-Budget Cuts Coalition teamed up with rank and file custodians to fight back against this restructuring and the broader budget cuts students and workers were facing. Holding meetings during workers’ breaks, we organized several high profile demonstrations involving hundreds of workers. While student attendance at these demonstrations was relatively low, the upsurge of workers’ self-activity showed that budget cuts are not inevitable. When workers stormed the board of regents meeting they were fighting not only for themselves but also for students’ demands. The militancy they showed challenged the widespread sense that nobody wants to fight back and got students thinking about the need to organize themselves as well.
These actions also helped Democracy Insurgent expand. They showed that the custodians’ struggle and the anti-budget cuts struggle are key anti-racist struggles on campus and we brought around many students and workers of color, some of them international students, and many from working class backgrounds who wanted to support these efforts. Over the past 9 months we have trained intensively through study groups, mentoring, and building a sense of community and a common cultural life. We held a Women and Transfolk Retreat to train new organizers and have prioritized anti-ableism, queer liberation, and feminist political education. All of this has helped us develop a whole new layer of leaders among oppressed peoples who all played key roles in leading the March 4th strike.
The workers’ struggle ebbs but rank and file organizations consolidate
While we managed to stop the university from cutting the custodian swingshift, the informal networks of rank and file self-organization got scrambled by arbitrary transfers to other worksites. Workers also had to contend with ethnic divide and conquer which management and a handful of union officials encouraged. The president and vice president of the union local at first supported our work but when they felt rank and file workers were getting out of their control they tried to stop them from organizing and tried to prevent them from meeting with us or from doing actions that too harshly criticized management. These factors, combined with police harassment and the lack of a vibrant student movement made it difficult for workers to advance their struggle through student-worker unity.
At this point, the struggle could have died if we had not moved beyond a “student- labor alliance” politics. What happens on many campuses is student groups rally support for union struggles and then sometimes union bureaucrats return the favor, for example by supporting student groups’ calls for divestment from sweatshop produced apparel. This is all well and good but it can lead to some problems. Often union bureaucrats expect students to be subordinate shock troops for their own initiatives. They are asked to act either as secretarial functionaries or as cannon fodder for spectacular actions. When students refuse to do that they are then accused of “dominating” workers. Students’ guilt about their own class privilege is then used to demobilize them. They are told that the union bureaucracy represents workers and if they try to directly interact with the rank and file they will be taking up too much space and will somehow lead the workers astray. This stance overlooks some key factors – the fact that many students are working class themselves, and the fact that workers are not passive, foolish people who will be easily lead astray by people half their age! Also, the student- labor alliance model assumes that “student’s issues” and “workers issues” are somehow separate so that if students get involved in workers struggles it is only out of moral commitment, not common interests. But when it comes to fighting budget cuts, there is no easy separation between workers and students issues – we are fighting the same administrations that are trying to privatize our universities and bust our unions! So to fight the cuts, what we need are campus organizations that consist of both students and rank-and-file workers.
With this in mind, we collaborated with several rank-and-file custodian leaders to build International Workers and Students for Justice (IWSJ) in the fall of 2009. The goal of this group is to rebuild some of the shop floor organization that had been lost in order to fight the budget cuts and impending privatization of the workplace. IWSJ brings together rank and file workers and students independent of the union bureaucracy. We called a memorial for In Soo Chun, a custodian who had burned himself alive in front of the UW president’s office, and a protest against a particularly abusive manager and we successfully agitated inside the union local to pass a resolution to support the March 4th student strike (see below). Publicizing the AFCME local 444 resolution calling for strikes in California on March 4th helped us to do this; for a great discussion of the role of this resolution and the need for rank and file mobilization, check out Advance the Struggle’s blog.
Graduate student workers inspired by the custodian organizing also decided to organize their own rank and file group of UAW members called For a Democratic University (FADU). Learning key lessons from the failed New York University Teaching Assistant strike , they started in the fall, long before the contract negotiations which are going on right now; this has given them six months to organize intensively and independently in their workplaces and departments to prepare for a strike. They also successfully pressured their union bureaucracy to support the March 4thstudent strike and they convinced several TAs and professors to cancel their classes or to hold them on the Quad, on the picket lines. Now they are mobilizing in their departments to prepare for a full-scale strike in early May; this will be absolutely necessary to stop the administration’s demands for massive layoffs, concessions, and overwork. We are going to agitate to try and turn this into a massive joint student-worker strike to shut down the university, similar to what the group Advance the Struggle was agitating for leading up to March 4th in California.
2010 so far: signs of an early spring?
This increased worker militancy is more sustainable now because students are finally starting to mobilize, opening up the possibility of a mass movement on campus. In December, news from the occupations and strikes in California began to inspire more students to get involved in organizing against the new round of cuts which the state legislature and Governor Gregoire proposed this session. Many groups and individuals, including IWSJ, FADU, and DI, came together to form the UW Student-Worker Coalition to fight these new cuts. This coalition is focused on direct action tactics and aims to involve large numbers of students and workers who are rapidly becoming politicized by the economic crisis. A similar political tendency seems to be emerging at Evergreen College though it is overshadowed there by the “Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing” insurrectionist tendency which occupied a Housing Community Center on February 20th. This insurrectionist tendency is not present at a large scale in Seattle so far, which means that proposals for militant direct action here are coming from more diverse sources, as I will explain below.
The Washington State Student Association and the various student government groups at WA state college and university campuses also began mobilizing, leading to a series of walkouts and rallies on February 5th across the state. The student government at UW and the UW administration have been constantly encouraging UW students to go to Olympia to lobby instead of organizing against the cuts on campus so they did not organize a walkout. In fact, they have not called a single protest on campus this year. The workers’ struggle on campus illuminated for us the importance of fighting both the statewide cuts and the implementation of these cuts at UW because it showed that the UW administration was targeting cuts towards the most oppressed layers of students and workers on campus, in this case immigrant workers.
Contradictions in Olympia: a revolution needs to be about more than “revenue”
While Democracy Insurgent has maintained our independence from the union bureaucracy and the student government lobbyists, actions these groups have taken recently have helped mobilize social forces which are contributing to building a movement. For example, on February 15th, WA state unions and student government groups from across the state called for a lobby day and rally on the capitol steps in Olympia.
A new layer of progressive union organizers, stewards, and officials has recently started to emerge in local 1488 and some of the leaders of this layer passed resolutions to support this rally. They organized buses to bring both workers and students to the capitol, overriding the wishes of the president and vice president who continued to oppose student-worker solidarity efforts. Some of this new crew of leaders see themselves as reformers and advocates of social democratic unionism: they want the union local to be a progressive force in WA state politics, fighting for all working class and middle class people.
We welcomed the chance to meet up with large numbers of rank and file workers on the buses and in the crowd at the rally. Instead of lobbying we passed out almost a thousand flyers to students and workers advertising the March 4th student strike at UW and a rank and file workers meeting in Seattle calling for solidarity from below across locals to fight the cuts and highlighting the need to do job actions not just rallies. People were very excited and receptive.
From what we saw that day, I would argue that the scene is very different from the situation in California in some key ways. Here the centrist Democrats are in power whereas in California the Republicans (Arnold and Co) are in power. The WA Democrats are held back from raising taxes on the rich by Tim Eyman and his Republican block in the legislature and by the limitations of the WA state constitution in similar ways to how the CA democrats are held back by Proposition 13 and the Republican block in the legislature. But the crucial difference is that the Democrats are ultimately the ones who have to take the fall for this deadlock here, not the Republicans – because they have the majority in the legislature AND the executive branch in their party, it’s harder for them to blame the cuts on the Republicans. That means the Democrats can’t agitate for popular mobilization against the cuts TOO MUCH because it could easily get out of their control and everyday people could start attacking them.
So they called the rally on the 15th in order to try to keep the unions and student government leaders in their camp. They were trying to co-opt the protests of rank and file workers and students into a call for “ increased revenue” to stop the budget shortfall. Some of them even called it a “revolution” against the “tyranny of King Eyman”. What this means in practice though is they are calling for raising regressive sales taxes on the working class, NOT instituting a statewide progressive income tax on the wealthy, which would require changing the constitution and actually doing battle against the Republicans. I also think that the Democrats are clearly in bed with the big liberal capitalists like Bill Gates who resides relatively tax-free in the Seattle suburbs. Gates and his friends are for funding social programs but through public-private partnerships like charter schools and turning UW into an elite research university (Bill Gates Sr. is on the UW Board of Regents). In other words, the WA state Democrats program is relatively hostile to social democratic proposals for things like free education and free healthcare for all. They will not respond easily to social democratic lobbying and union negotiations and it will take a mass movement from below that pushes the limits of capitalist legality if we want to win these demands.
In California some union bureaucrats were willing to use short symbolic strikes as a battering ram against the Republican administration but here they will not likely do the same against a Democratic administration without significant rank and file pressure. In Olympia on Feb 15th, the unions and the student government types did not present a program that was independent of the Democrats. Their slogans were focused on fighting the “all cuts budget” and “funding the future” by supporting liberal democrats’ calls for increased revenue. This is really unfortunate because they’re basically calling for increased taxes on working people. This gives a lot of social and ideological ammunition to the right wing teabagger/ anti-tax crowd who rallied earlier in the day against increased taxes. The way the media ended up spinning the day of action was “anti-tax protests vs. pro-tax protests”. This is a disaster for the unions and student government groups. Basically in the short term it opens up possibilities for the Right to co-opt working class anger against the elites and discredits the unions’ claims to be working class fighting organizations in the eyes of many. It gives ammunition to the classic right-wing attack on public sector unions – the claim that they are “entitled” state workers demanding too much from low-paid taxpayers. That’s why we need to put forward an independent perspective that we are fighting for democratically organized public education, health care, and social services for everyone not just for students and state workers.
The leadership of the anti-budget cuts rally timed it carefully so that there wouldn’t be clashes with the teabaggers. I’m not sure why but my guess would be because the Democratic Party leaders don’t want to initiate open political confrontation with the Republicans and are still trying to be bipartisan, sort of like the national party is doing under Obama. So far the unions in general have gone along with this; some locals have directly confronted the teabaggers, but all of them should be out there getting in their faces and attacking their anti-immigrant, anti-worker message. It seemed there was a sentiment among at least some layers of the rank and file yesterday that this needs to happen. I saw some teachers march by a group of teabaggers and shout at them and when I talked to them they said “look at those assholes with their fancy private school dresses and suits.” I imagine that the liberal leadership is afraid that a direct confrontation with the right would unleash too much rank and file energy from their own crowd which could get out of their control.
The Social Democrats have nowhere to go except to the rank and file
It did seem that there was a significant social democratic tendency to the left of the Democrats on the 15th and it seemed that some of the liberal trade union leaders were worried about this tendency getting out of their control. Basically, this social democratic milieu looks something like what emerged in California this fall when progressive trade union leaders organized strikes coordinated jointly with student government and progressive coalitions. Yesterday there were signs calling for taxing the rich and a lot of the crowd was responsive to our chants calling for money for education not war and occupation. We were one of the few groups independent of the democrats/ union bureaucracy/ student government who came with a megaphone, banners, flyers, etc. so we were able to lead a large segment of the rally, maybe 700-1000 people or so in chants. I don’t think all these folks are as militant as DI or IWSJ are, I just think that they are social democratic leaning and there is a vacuum of social democratic leadership which we were basically filling by calling for things that the social democrats would otherwise be calling for, like student strikes and cross-local workers solidarity meetings (of course our vision of cross-local solidarity is rank and file based, not based on coalitions of progressive union officials like the social democrats’ vision would be).
A week after this rally, the old business-unionism oriented president and vice president were suspended from office pending investigation. This has opened up more space for the newer progressive / social democratic leaders in the union to start organizing and building coalitions because they are no longer held back by conservative leaders. Some workers see this development as linked to IWSJ’s long term rank and file organizing. As one custodian put it, we forced the union to “get off it’s ass and do something.” Many workers wanted to be involved in the anti-budget cuts struggle with us and the old leadership’s hostility to this helped discredit that leadership. The newer leaders’ coalition building with us has helped them solidify their position in the union and in turn it has helped us reach out to more rank and file workers. On the same day the old union officials were suspended, the union voted to support an IWSJ member’s resolution to endorse the March 4th Student Strike and to mobilize workers to join the picket lines after work or through using their vacation time.
The rise of more social-democratic leadership in Local 1488 means that we finally have more coalition partners and can begin doing wider-scale and deeper mass organizing on a united front basis. Rank and file workers who had been intimidated into silence by the previous president are starting to mobilize again, feeling that they can once again use the union structure as a shield from management retaliation. Many custodians and tradespeople came out to the picket lines on March 4th. They were very excited to see so many students out there striking and it raised very clearly the question of when workers would be able to strike too.
This could happen sooner then we initially thought. We didn’t call for workers to wildcat strike on March 4th because months of intimidation and retaliation had really broken down morale and direct action on the job did not seem like a possibility. However, in the weeks leading up to March 4th the legislature decided workers’ health care premiums could be tripled and their share of health care insurance costs could rise from 12% to 30% because the legislature had moved money out of their health care fund to pay for other expenses. This, combined with proposed furloughs and local grievances triggered short wildcat strikes in several locals elsewhere in the state the past few weeks, when workers walked out for an hour or two and set up pickets. The WFSE statewide (Council 28) website posted reports of these wildcats right alongside coverage of the March 4th strike at UW and portrayed all of these actions as part of an uncontrollable wave of rank and file anger . Could there be a possible wildcat against budget cuts at UW, perhaps in coordination with the impending Teaching Assistant strike in early May?
I could see the emerging social democratic layers inside WFSE eventually call for strikes to fight for healthcare and public education for all and if they do that we should support it. However, any militant social democratic force inside the union will eventually run on a collision course right into the higher up bureaucracy of the statewide Council and the AFSCME international which we need to prepare for. It is unlikely that strike resolutions will get passed without tremendous rank and file pressure and independent organizing by groups like IWSJ. In what follows I will explain why.
Social Democracy involves building coalitions of progressive trade unionists, student leaders, and progressive left-electoral blocks. It involves essentially trying to install a more progressive leadership, rather than building wider and deeper layers of militant rank and file leadership. It is basically what former Black Panther Aaron Dixon called for in his keynote address at a recent UW-Evergreen anti-budget cuts organizing conference. It is what Dixon tried to build when he ran on when he campaigned for senator on the Green Party ticket. Socialist (Trotskyist) groups like the ISO and Freedom Socialist Party are friendly to Dixon perhaps because they think that they can work with him to help build some sort of new labor party or something similar to the old, early 20th century Socialist Party of Eugene Debs. I do think that conditions are ripe for the formation of such a front because the Democrats’ grassroots base is weakening and the Democrats are ideologically in shambles.
However, I think there are three reasons why this is not likely to happen: 1) the AFL-CIO bureaucracy is wedded to the Democratic Party to the point where I don’t think they can move independently of the Democrats unless there is mass rank and file insurgency that threatens to fracture the AFL-CIO itself. It would take something at the scale of the CIO general strikes in the 30s to rupture the bureaucrats’ alliance with the Democrats. And if a workers’ mobilization at that level breaks out nowadays in this time of deep ecological and social crisis I hope we would be fighting for more than simply defending the remnants of the New Deal. 2) The US electoral system is so rigid that it makes it nearly impossible for social democrats to win elections, even locally. 3) Because of the recession the elites’ profit rates are down so they are less willing to simply dish out funds to social democrats in order to co-opt movement energy or stave off deeper revolts. In the 1930s they could borrow money to finance the New Deal but now the US deficit is already gigantic after billions of dollars of war spending and bank bailouts and at a certain point too much deficit spending will threaten the government’s credit and credibility. Therefore, we could see more direct repression in the future and fewer attempts to buy people off through reforms. Behind every fee increase there is a line of riot cops waiting as folks in California have learned.
So given these realities, I think the social democratic forces will run up against serious obstacles that will prevent them from solidifying into a coherent progressive leadership. I imagine that any local social democratic leaders will become renegades in the eyes of the statewide union leadership who will probably try to reel them in so that they don’t upset WFSE’s relationship with the Democrats.
That’s why I think it is still crucial that rank and file workers and students organize together independently even of our progressive coalition partners among the union leadership. We need to be able to maintain independent fighting organizations like IWSJ and FADU so that we can continue to organize when social democratic leaders are either co-opted or silenced by the union higher ups. If progressives end up getting kicked out of union offices I hope they will come around and join rank and file organizing efforts, realizing that it is the only way to achieve their goals. I think this is a perspective that more and more of the social democratic workers are starting to realize by the sheer force of events.
While I can’t develop it here, I imagine that the same type of dynamic might emerge among student government leaders. Maybe some of them will come over to our side but the bureaucracy as a whole will be unable to join coalitions like the Student Worker Coalition the way they have in California because to do so would totally ruin their future political careers (in contrast, in California their highly compromised “movement leadership” can help their careers).
Many union and student government leaders have turned on the tap of mass mobilization to fight Olympia’s cuts but they will try to turn it off again once the legislative session ends and it no longer serves to support their lobbying efforts. However, in a time of crisis like this, workers’ and students’ self-activity is not something that can simply be turned on and off just like that; the mobilizations which the bureaucrats have encouraged could possibly get out of their control. More and more student and worker militants need to continue building grassroots organizations so that once the bureaucrats pull back we’ll be the ones who will be left carrying the torch and then we can run with it. I could see rank and file students and workers who were politicized and energized by the past few months of agitation (including the 4th) starting to work with us. Then, as the cuts are implemented and people get pissed off about it, we could see new rank and file upsurges.
So what approach should we have to social democratic union and student government leaders in the meantime? I don’t think we should needlessly antagonize them or call them out just for the sake of calling them out even though we have obvious disagreements about whether change comes from above or from below. I think what we can do is push them as far as possible to implement their social democratic tendencies because doing this further exposes all of the contradictions I’ve laid out here. We can encourage them to keep mobilizing the rank and file to fight the cuts and can hold them to their word, trying to explain to them the limitations of trying to make the bureaucracy more progressive. Every action they call we can use as an opportunity to flyer, talk to workers and students, and to build up independent rank and file fighting organizations. At some point some of them will have to go back on their word and they’ll start opposing these actions and then we should call them out and continue to organize independently. If this happens, other social democrats will probably want to continue fighting and they will realize the need to rely on rank and file power as they start to clash with the bureaucratic higher ups… this could open up cracks in the bureaucracy and makes it easier for rank and file workers and students to seize the initiative. In any case, we need to maintain our organizational independence from progressive union officials while working in a friendly united front coalition with them against the cuts.
If the crisis continues to escalate over the long haul we could see the kind of polarization emerge that has emerged in Europe. There liberal and social democratic parties and union bureaucracies have been unable to chart a course independent from center-right neoliberal ruling parties so the famous European social-democratic welfare state is in total crisis. Former social democrats are becoming revolutionaries seemingly overnight. This has opened up space for mass insurgent rank and file worker and student movements like what we are seeing now in Greece. Could this be on the horizon in Washington State? We’ll see…
March 4th: students of color take the lead
I can’t go into depth here about what specifically went down on March 4th at UW but the experiences we went through here certainly gesture in that direction. Democracy Insurgent will publish a piece shortly which summarizes the key events and analyzes them, drawing conclusions for future organizing. I will add a link to it here when it becomes available. In the meantime I would like to highlight some key developments on March 4th that illuminate the shifting terrain of struggle.
First of all, the strike was lead largely by students of color. Activists of color in For a Democratic University, International Workers and Students for Justice, Democracy Insurgent, and MEChA were prominent leaders in terms of giving speeches, leading pickets, and doing media interviews. Many of these leaders were also women. What was even more striking was that hundreds of students of color who haven’t yet been involved in organizing against the budget cuts came out and many of them spontaneously assumed leadership roles, leading chants and proposing forms of escalating militancy that went beyond what we expected to accomplish as organizers. Many of these students are the rank and file members of officially recognized student of color organizations. These groups have ties to the administration and student government. However, these students came out fighting on the 4th even though the administration and student government have been telling everyone to go to Olympia to lobby instead of striking. This is a huge step forward for the entire campus.
The key question now is what organizations and coalitions can be built to keep the mobilization going so that folks don’t just go back to accepting business as usual. We need to keep laying out an anti-racist strategy so that students of color active in the official groups recognize that they have stronger allies among campus workers, grad students, and high school students fighting to get into UW than they do among the UW administration’s official diversity managers. We need to show that these managers’ role is to give legitimacy to an administration whose privatization policies basically amount to racist attacks on students of color.
On March 4th here was a dynamic interplay between high school students of color who were attending the strike to fight for access to UW, undergraduates of color, and workers of color. Folks were all sharing each others’ signs and were chanting and dancing together and responding to each other’s speeches, forming a very energetic contingent on the picket lines. At one point, an East African custodian delivered a speech to a group of African American students from the Black Student Union who responded enthusiastically; it was a powerful moment of pan-African, internationalist solidarity which has boosted the confidence of many of the people involved.
I think that in many ways the situation at UC San Diego (where students of color are facing a tremendously hostile racist environment) really highlighted the need to fight for access to UW. Many students realized we need to prevent the decline in student of color enrollment that could come with the tuition hikes. As fewer and fewer students of color attend UW the climate will become more and more hostile; if we don’t stop the cuts UW could end up looking like UC San Diego. The Black Student Union’s sit-in at UCSD also showed the power that students of color have when they expose the administration’s phony attempts to manage diversity at their expense. They lead students to walk out of an official administration teach-in saying that what we need now is ACTION, not more talking.
March 4th: a new society invades the old
The Student-Worker Coalition had planned to picket for a while and then if there was enough energy we planned to march through academic buildings. After that we were considering setting up pickets at the entrance to campus. What happened ended up going far beyond these plans. We did end up marching through academic buildings and we even marched through a large lecture hall still in session encouraging folks to walk out. When we announced that folks in California had stopped traffic on main streets and highways, students in the crowd started chanting “take the Ave!” referring to University Avenue, a main street near campus. Making our way off campus and onto the Ave, we effectively shut down the main streets entering campus, bringing traffic to a halt and occupying key intersections.
The crowd seemed to be at its largest as we moved up the Ave towards 45th, another main street in the University District. With the mass of people and upbeat energy, a lot of people started agitating to occupy Interstate 5 (I-5) and some Student Worker Coalition members including DI members backed this proposal. We turned onto 45th and stopped at the intersection of 45th and Brooklyn (on the way to the freeway). We blocked the intersection for about half an hour at this point to hold a general assembly and to take a vote about whether to continue to the freeway. There was a debate amongst the crowd over whether or not we should continue to I-5 or whether we should march to UW Tower, a UW administrative building nearby. There was some confusion because some of the advocates of taking the freeway just meant that they wanted to occupy the off-ramp to block access to the University District, NOT block four lanes of oncoming traffic but this wasn’t made clear to the majority of the crowd. We also ran into logistical problems because our megaphones were not loud enough for everyone to hear. Perhaps more people would have decided to do this if it had been clearly proposed as an exit ramp occupation/ picket line instead of as a march into oncoming traffic, especially since at that point our numbers had decreased to about 200 people. We tried to clarify this in a second general assembly outside of UW Tower, where three different proposals were laid out. One, to block the offram. Two, to storm UW Tower. Three, to return to campus by way of the north entrance, block that intersection for a while, then march back to the Quad and march through the buildings as we had originally planned. The third proposal won out and we followed it.
Throughout these moments of agitation, a cross section of the crowd including many women and people of color, were involved in agitating to take over the streets and the freeway. Many of these students were entering this struggle for the first time or had only been involved in lobbying or calling their senators to stop the state cuts to UW. Many workers who for the past several months had been unwilling to come out to actions were also there with us blocking intersections. In this sense, March 4th represents a dialectical break and leap forward beyond where the campus was at a month or two ago. The first action the Student Worker Coalition called back in January had only about 80 people but this time around 600-700 people began to push against the limits of capitalist legality.
This shows that we can no longer proceed according to a neatly mapped out, pre-planned model for escalation. We don’t need to go through every step that the movement in California went through back in September and October when they were just getting started. What has happened in California the past 6 months has had a tremendous impact here and we are skipping many of the steps folks down there took and jumping right into the middle of the fight at full force.
Many activists used to smaller numbers campaigns based on predictable escalation were overwhelmed by the sheer weight and the sheer militancy of the crowd. March 4th really showed that from now on we cannot take anything for granted and we need to prepare for the most unexpected outbreaks of mass self-activity. Some of us in Democracy Insurgent, building off of similar experiences with spontaneous actions during protests against Israel’s siege on Gaza, had attempted to prepare our coalition partners and co-organizers for this possibility. That helped the Student Worker Coalition balance its well-thought out plans with the need to embrace new layers of leadership that emerged spontaneously. However, debates continue over our embrace of spontaneous leadership. What constitutes a democratic movement? How assertive should organizers be about directing the crowd? How can we continue to support the leadership of oppressed people? Is this done better through embracing spontaneity or through deciding which roles people will play ahead of time and then sticking to this?
What will it take to actually Occupy Everything? Mass strikes are a place to start…
I do not mean to celebrate spontaneity just for spontaneity’s sake. There are forms of spontaneity that fail to advance the struggle and forms we would oppose; in the case of March 4th Seattle though, the spontaneity we experienced helped bring new layers of students into the struggle. It is crucial to emphasize that spontaneous militancy and direct action here is coming from everyday students and workers, many of them women and people of color; it is NOT coming from the insurrectionist “occupy everything, demand nothing” tendency because that tendency is not very widespread in Seattle, at least not yet. I hope that as militancy increases we can start to cohere a different tendency, independent of the liberals and bureaucrats on the one hand and independent from the insurrectionists on the other hand. What happened on March 4th points in this direction.
The debate going on in California about whether or not the insurrectionists should have occupied the highway in Oakland is very different than the debate here about whether we should have blocked I-5. Here, the drive toward the highway was not the result of organized insurrectionists breaking off from a larger march. It was something that emerged from what was (at least at one point) a majority of the crowd. If anything, those who backed the idea of the freeway occupation are the student counterpart to the furstrated social democratic workers I mentioned earlier, folks who are tired of following labor laws that are stacked against them and are starting to consider wildcat (unauthorized) strikes as a viable option. So too are students open to taking risks to advance the struggle. Folks who would previously have been trying to push the Democrats to the left are getting fed up with how unresponsive the system has been do their efforts and now have only one place left to go: into the streets, where they are joining radicals and revolutionaries in mass, democratic direct action.
In these actions you can see the outlines of a potential new society breaking out in fits and starts. There was an almost magical sense of exhilaration on March 4th as hundreds of strangers started to see themselves as part of a community for the first time. We realized that when that many people unite and move together the normal rules don’t necessarily apply.
For a brief moment we had a sense that we can be self-governing. We tried to hold general assemblies in the streets, right in the middle of intersections blocking traffic and shutting down business as usual while we practiced a form of insurgent direct democracy, voting with our feet and our voices, not with surveys and Roberts Rules of Order (as a friend of ours who spoke at the rally once put it, “who the hell is Robert and why the hell do I need another man telling me how to talk?”) For a moment we had the confidence we could really take back this campus and these streets and make them our own.
However, as quickly as it came, it passed. As much as the insurgent democracy in the streets shows glimmers of a new society, it is also deeply flawed, caught in the contradictions of the old society. Folks in the back of the crowd were frustrated because the bullhorns were weak and they couldn’t hear what was happening and many of them started leaving. The front of the crowd which was so confident about taking the highway looked around and noticed our numbers had decreased. During the vote, it seemed that a narrow majority of the crowd wanted to pull back from blocking the freeway so organizers on the megaphone called for this with the resolution to come back next time bigger, stronger, and more prepared. When folks went back to class and to work the next day I’m sure some kept that resolution in mind and others repressed it and went about their business forgetting all of this ever happened. Some walked away energized about the possibility of direct democracy, others walked away excited but also confused and disoriented, and others felt that all this democracy was just getting in the way. This shows we still have a long way to go and we need to keep discussing how we can move forward together.
The insurrectionist Occupy Everything folks live for moments of spontaneity like what we experienced in the streets here in Seattle. But for them that’s it, THAT moment itself is the revolution. They don’t have a sense that we could live like that for hours, for days, for years, for our lifetimes, but only if we actually organize campaigns and movements that build off of these moments. Only if we learn from their successes and failures, weaving them together in the art of insurrection, to the point where we gain permanent community control of our workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods. To the point where everyday people govern, and governing itself is the art of democratic direct action. That is something that working class people of color understood when they fought for control over education in the 1960s, and it is a lesson we are learning again today. The insurrectionists don’t understand that after that moment of spontaneity you need to regroup withthe new folks who were activated and who activated each other in the crowd during an action, and you need to organize with them, train together, and build new institutions of struggle like rank and file strike committees, general assemblies, internal commissions, workers’ newsletters, and united front coalitions. In the wake of March 4th that’s where we turn: to a month of April full of outreach, education, debate, organizing, and agitation aimed at further rupturing the hegemony/ dominance of all the forces which are trying to cut up and enclose our future.
Months of patient, painstaking, seemingly boring work went into shaping the conditions under which March 4th could explode. And we will need to do a lot more of that to get to the point where we CAN actually Occupy Everything. What does it mean to occupy an entire campus? It means to shut that campus down through a massive general strike, and then to re-start a process of democratic education on the picket lines which goes far deeper than anything we will ever learn in our classes. It means to show through mass student-worker solidarity that this campus cannot run without the cooperation of everyone who cleans its toilets and grades its papers.
Teaching Assistants at UW are aiming to strike around May Day for low class sizes and quality democratic education for all. If undergraduates, custodians, other workers, high school students, and community members join them then we will take a decisive step toward making UW into a truly public university. We might be able to turn this into a community center for the entire city, a place where knowledge is produced by everyday people, infusing wider and wider struggles to resolve this deepening economic and political crisis on OUR terms, not those of the elites. If we can pull off a worker-student strike at UW in early May then we’ll be living out the vision of the WTO protests 10 years ago, showing each other that this is what democracy looks like.