An Open Letter to the Evergreen State College and Beyond!
I urge everyone to honor the Tuesday, May 28th 2013 strike of the Student Staff Support Services Union. These Evergreen workers have bargained for more than 16 months for a just contract, where they would be treated with respect. They are requesting a small increase in pay and that they cannot be fired at the will of their supervisors but only for just cause. Not having this basic right makes people less willing to speak and challenge injustices as there might be retaliation.
This is an important struggle to support. I will be picketing the campus and urge you to do so. I wish the Evergreen administration had already accepted the contract and settled and still hope they do but more pressure is needed on them.
First, winning the contract that the student support staff union is negotiating for will improve the lives of the 57 workers who are covered which will reduce turnover and improve support services for students. Winning a just contract will build morale of this staff. This contract is important in and by itself but this issue and Tuesday’s action is about more than only that.
Second, this just struggle is bringing together students, faculty, classified staff, food service employees and the student support staff in a way that has never existed on this campus. This campaign will further cooperation and solidarity in a way that can make this campus a better and more democratic place. This could lead to a united effort to work for an Evergreen State College where there is quality education that is affordable and accessible, where decisions about the future of this school are made democratically, where employees receive a living wage and have some decision-making power, where Evergreen can be more involved in the struggle for a more just and equal and sustainable society. Winning a just contract will build morale and show that progressive change can be won. It could help the classified staff and food service workers win wage increases. A victory here, which may not happen on Tuesday, May 28th although I hope it does, will also be a step toward Evergreen becoming a more progressive place which it claims to be but often falls short. To win, may take continued and sustained actions past Tuesday, May 28th, 2013.
Third, unions have been on the defensive for over 30 years. Less than one out of eight workers are members of unions. There has been a corporate offensive against private sector and increasingly against public sector unions, e.g., Wisconsin, 2011. By its refusal to accept the very reasonable demands that this union, Local 443 of the Washington Federation of State Employees, (WFSE) is trying to get for its first contract, the Evergreen administration is sadly part of this reactionary movement to weaken or destroy public sector unions.
Why unions are quite weak and losing membership is not totally caused by the corporate and right-wing offensive against them. There are also internal reasons. Unions have become increasingly bureaucratized and top down, not controlled by the rank and file, and unwilling to break from the Democratic Party no matter how pro-corporate and pro-austerity the Democratic Party is. Unions are a necessary part of that struggle, as much today as in the 1930’s, in order for working people to have decent wages and benefits, for reformist and more fundamental and transformative economic and social change. We need visionary unions that are social movement and social justice oriented and willing to strike and do direct action. The major participation by the members of the student support staff union in organizing the union and to gain a decent contract is a step in that direction. Hopefully it will inspire union and non-union members at Evergreen, in the government and in corporations to form this type of democratic and social movement union or change the nature of their current labor union in this direction.
Fourth, public higher education is under attack– note the decreased funding of it all over the country. At Evergreen tuition now covers about 60% of the costs per student, up from about 33%, 25 years ago. This is a form of privatization of education and wrong. To return to a situation where State Universities are mainly publicly funded will require a winning struggle for increases in taxes that are progressive, e.g., an income and/or wealth tax. To do this a strong and bold movement that unites the many against the few and is willing to take risks is necessary. The movement that is growing at Evergreen and that has Statewide support can be part of that effort. A victory in this struggle will show the value of mobilization and striking and making demands and will hopefully continue to work with other grassroots groups for fair taxes, health care for all, child care for all, a living wage, reducing the prison population, climate justice, and free and high quality education from Kindergarten to graduate school.
A just contract will be a victory for the Student Support Staff Union, the Evergreen State College, for all working people and the labor movement and for higher education. We are living in a period where the right-wing is on the offensive and many people feel that economic justice is unattainable and that struggle is futile. A victory will be an educational lesson that social change can be advanced by organizing and activism.
Not crossing the picket line, picketing, writing a letter to President Les Purce and the board of Trustees all help this important campaign. Please join the picket line Tuesday, May 28th between 7: 30 A.M and 7:30 P.M. whether or not you are an Evergreen staff or student. Come to the rally in the middle of the Evergreen campus between 11:00 A.M. and 1:00 P.M.
I urge the Evergreen Administration at this late date to accept the demands of the Student Support Staff Union and not further tarnish Evergreen’s reputation. Its reputation as an institution committed to economic and social justice, that treats its workers and students fairly is being put to the test.
Si Se Puede!
Peter Bohmer has been an organizer and participant in the struggle for social and economic justice since the 1960s. In recent years, his political activities have taken him to Venezuela, Cuba, Greece and a number of US cities. He teaches political economy and has been a faculty member at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. since 1987.