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Union hosts global voices

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No to neoliberal education

Trevor Ngwane, chair of the United Front in Johannesburg, spoke about the current crisis for organized labor in South Africa. He spoke about the need for workers to think about “a vision of alternatives.”
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For two days in March, members packed the PSC union hall to hear from academics and unionists from the city and around the world about the struggle of academics, students and other workers in the face of growing neoliberalism, privatization and anti-union campaigns at universities. The conference was viewed online by several thousand people and shared widely. Below are some of the highlights from the panelists.

Free college now

In South Africa we have a terrible secondary education system and therefore people start their first year of university at completely different levels. So decolonizing the curriculum also has to consider the pedagogical techniques we use that alienate the majority of our students because they don’t have the level of skills that we expect them to have.

English isn’t their first language, it’s not their second, for some it’s just a foreign language that they have to use. In terms of language, how then do we make the classroom a space that is conducive to learning for these students? How do we enable then, particularly in South Africa, a poor black child who is completely alienated by every element of the institution a chance to actually get through the university system? How do we set her or him up not to fail?

NEW REALITIES
The university can be used to justify the status quo, or it’s a space where we can think of new alternatives outside of the dominant ones. It’s a space you aren’t tied to by labor. Instead of waking up and going to work, you actually have a space to think. People need to be able to imagine different realities for what the world can look like and that’s not going to happen in an 8-to-5 job.

When students have space and time to think collectively, their critique of the university and the state deepens and their demands deepen. When the protests started, students were just demanding that the fees don’t go up as they do every year. But through occupation, through thinking and talking collectively and through deepening the critique, the call then became for free education. Then through further collective thinking it became for free, decolonized education.

Moshibudi Motimele,
doctoral student at the University of Witwatersrand

This is not a factory

We are now well into the fourth decade of neoliberalism, a program launched by ruling classes around the world to roll back the gains made by labor and working people. Central to neoliberalism is a direct attack on the wages and incomes of the poor, and a shrinkage of any public institutions dedicated to free goods and services to the poor. Of course universities, as one of the jewels in the expansion of public services, have not been exempt from this attack.

A UNIVERSITY’S MISSION

University budgets have not only become smaller in size, but universities have changed their agenda and harnessed it to the accumulation strategies of corporations, whether high tech or fast food. This rollback is global. It feeds on the fear of young people about their future, taking advantage of students’ desperation.

Working people have been engaged in a defensive struggle, trying to hold on in the face of a relentless struggle, and we need to shift from defensive to offensive. In New York, CUNY has already become a site of enormous organizing and struggle, and it is fortunate enough to have a faculty union which sees its responsibility as not just fighting for its narrow sectional interests. The labor movement has increasingly abandoned the wider social perspective. But PSC sees faculty as workers, reaching out to other trade unions for a common strategy around their demands.

Vivek Chibber,
Professor of Sociology,
New York University

Lessons from Greece

[In Greece] since austerity (2010), public spending on higher education has been cut by nearly 77 percent, salaries of academics roughly 50 percent, full-time faculty positions about 20 percent (and it is estimated that in the next five years another 40 percent of faculty positions will be lost). Over 150,000 university graduates have left the country to work elsewhere.

Lessons for the US: state reforms are increasingly impossible; austerity should be resisted not mainly on the grounds of economic self-interest but on the grounds of the value of knowledge; universities have to escape being tied to labor markets and speculative capital. It is not possible to do that as a reform; a radical break with the present is needed. The first order is to defend the real ideals and values of higher education.

Peter Bratsis,
Assistant Professor of Political Science,
Borough of Manhattan Community College

Community in Mexico

Oaxaca teachers struggle to defend public education against the 2012-13 Educational Reform of the Mexican government, which has resulted in 100,000 bilingual rural schools closed; utilities paid for by parents and school construction by private mortgages; the use of standardized test results for hiring, promotion and tenure of teachers, as well as massive firings, no education degree requirement for new teachers, and cuts in salary, pensions and health care.

Politically, there has been a wave of strikes, marches, encampments and civil disobedience which paralyzed the reform in some states like Oaxaca. The response has been government repression by militarized police: violent destruction of encampments, arbitrary arrests and detentions, the “disappearance” of teachers, and, on June 19, 2016, the Nochixtlán Massacre in Oaxaca, when 200 were wounded and six killed. There has also been a wave of administrative repression of teachers through withheld salaries, frozen bank accounts, and arbitrary firings.

The pedagogical struggle is a grassroots-based strategy led by teachers and parents who run community-based schools on alternative educational principles. The schools were developed by popular assemblies, and feature collective work, indigenous languages as the language of instruction along with Spanish, and respect for indigenous knowledges in a decolonized classroom.
Mayem Arellanes Cano, Oaxaca teachers’ union

Workers at ‘crossroads’

It is an honor to stand before you tonight here in New York and talk to members of a great union. Yours is a social justice union that knows that to win the struggle inside the university we must go outside the university to harness the power of the broader working class…. That is why my being here, our being here from South Africa, Mexico, Turkey, India, etc., is not only an honor but it is a duty and a necessity. To move forward we have to build international links and networks of struggle and solidarity.

It is clear that the South African working class is at a crossroads. Workers can go forward putting their trust in populist big leaders because they promise quick and easy solutions that do not require any effort on the part of the workers. Or they can choose the path of struggle, where they rely upon themselves and their class brothers and sisters for solutions.

ALTERNATIVE VISIONS

The path of struggle requires a vision of alternatives: a vision of a different kind of society, a society of giving and sharing, of compassion and solidarity. A vision that reaches beyond my identity, my organization, my immediate issue, that goes beyond my neighborhood, my college, my university, my city, that even goes beyond my country. It is only behind such a vision that we can build a power that can match the power of the capitalist class. Just as you know from building your union, to build such a power needs time, effort, patience and persistence. But it is the only way forward because capitalist power can no longer provide solutions.

Trevor Ngwane,
University of Johannesburg,
Chair of the United Front

For a united front

The importance of academics’ struggles in Mexico is that we are the sector of the population which can be the glue to consolidate a great national united front, a great movement for the deep transformation of the state. The waves of progressive movements that passed though Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil and Uruguay need not end, but perhaps peak in Mexico in 2017-18.

Mexicans may show the people of the United States, suffering from a ruler you don’t deserve, that we are not only your neighbors, we are your allies in the struggle for a better world. The teachers’ struggles in Mexico will transcend borders to link hands with the struggles of US teachers.

María-Teresa Lechuga, instructor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico

The colonial struggle
This week, the government suggested that the University of Puerto Rico should take a $1 billion budget cut within three years, that is $333 million per year (more than a quarter of our budget), raise tuition by 30 percent, reduce health benefits by 23 percent and pension benefits by 40 percent, and increase tenure-track course load to 15 credits per semester (it is now at 12 credits). Even if seven out of the 11 campuses were closed or privatized there would still not be enough money to sustain university operations; only the School of Medicine would be able to sustain itself.

Non-tenure-track professors (docentes sin plaza or “contract professors”), now the majority of academic staff across the university system, will suffer the most. I and many of my colleagues are looking at a 75 percent salary slash. My personal contingency plan is to start doing Airbnb regularly, and by next year, I will depend on Airbnb as an irregular but main source of income.

Antonio Carmona Báez,
Puerto Rican Association of University Professors

Solidarity with Turkey

What can be done for the Turkish academics who have been fired under Tayyip Erdogan’s emergency decree? First, we need international support for the organization Academics for Peace, many of whose members were fired for signing a petition against the renewed war on the Kurds. Second, Turkish universities still need collaboration with international universities. Those who acted against the the basic principles of freedom of expression and academic freedom should be punished by not supporting them, not doing projects with them, and so on. Universities who stood firm with academics should be supported.

Third, those colleagues who have been expelled need financial support inside Turkey. We need to find a solution which can work inside Turkey until their travel restriction is lifted.

Kerem Altiparmak,
Professor of Human Rights Law,
Ankara University