Berkeley Students and Workers Stay Hungry Together
Rufino Romero did not eat for 10 days. He went without even water for nearly 40 hours, yet his spirits are high. Romero is one of 18 UC Berkeley students and workers on hunger strike since May 3. Around noon that day, the group of mainly Latin@ and Chican@ students from campus groups La Raza, MEChA, and others presented their six demands and announced their hunger strike in front of California Hall, where top administrators have their offices.
The first of the six demands, calling on Chancellor Robert Birgeneau to publicly denounce Arizona’s racist SB 1070 immigration law, brought Romero into the strike.
But the solidarity he’s witnessed throughout the week has kept him hungry: two campus workers, members of AFSCME Local 3299, joined the strike on its third day, and other campus workers have come out to daily rallies. “I couldn’t imagine going through the ninth day without the workers,” he said.
What Romero witnessed on the morning of the seventh day kept him in a fighting mood. After campus police rousted about 50 strikers and supporters from the lawn in front of California Hall to have the lawn mowed, two AFSCME grounds workers refused to turn on the sprinklers, so that the protesters and their belongings would not get wet. Romero said that one of the workers shook strikers’ hands and thanked them for their protest.
Such acts are becoming the norm on the Berkeley campus. The hunger strikers’ other demands included a call for the university to rehire recently laid-off service and technical workers, drop all charges against student protesters arrested for fighting 32 percent fee hikes imposed by the regents in November, take responsibility for the escalation that led to police violence against student protesters and to the arrests, suspend the student code of conduct so it can be reviewed, and make UC Berkeley a sanctuary campus for AB 540 students. That state law exempted students from paying nonresident tuition if they have attended high school in California for three or more years and received a high school diploma or its equivalent. Undocumented students and workers are always at risk, and the strikers moved to protect them here at Berkeley.
Maricruz Manzanarez, a Local 3299 organizer who’s worked at UC Berkeley for 16 years, joined the hunger strike last Wednesday. Her co-workers have pitched in, bringing water, juice, vitamins, and moral support to the strikers. AFSCME custodian Ricardo Cason has been a worker on campus for 17 years. Yesterday he took out his lunch, but couldn’t bring himself to eat. “At least I can do something. I am not eating anything on this campus until this is over,” Cason said.
The chancellor did not acknowledge the strike, nor had any other administrator on Monday or Tuesday, even though the strikers camped out both nights. Two days into the strike, administrators agreed to meet with some strikers inside California Hall and then slammed the door in the face of a laid-off worker when she tried to enter the building.
That was a deal-breaker for the rest of the bargaining team. Negotiations broke down before they began. One student striker was thrown to the floor by campus police inside the building for attempting to leave when the worker was denied entrance. The administration tried in vain to limit the strike to a student issue.
But the UC Berkeley worker-student alliance has been growing toward an unbreakable, unified coalition. Graduate student and filmmaker Josh Wolf agreed. “The biggest thing that has threatened the administration is the workers working with the students,” he said. “It will be that much harder for them to fight.”
Finally, on Wednesday evening, Chancellor Birgeneau sent an open letter to the strikers. The basic message was clear: Start eating, these demands will not be met.
Other campus unions began to speak out at the public rallies in front of California Hall. Graduate students and other academic student employees from UAW Local 2865 spoke at rallies, blocked entrances to California Hall, and organized mass phone-ins to the chancellor’s office and the campus police demanding that the strikers be acknowledged and treated fairly.
The campus police continued to harass the strikers at night and made it known that they would be cited and arrested for “lodging” if they fell asleep while striking. On Friday a group of strikers was able to meet with Vice Chancellor George Breslauer. Instead of entering into good-faith negotiations, the administration attempted once more to divide students and workers, and asked for “clarification” of the demands, saying they were too broad. Far from a negotiation, this meeting left strikers dissatisfied.
The strikers held their line and continued through the weekend. Campus-wide support grew with each daily rally. On Saturday, AFSCME and its supporters picketed the School of Journalism graduation, part of the union’s wider strategy to inform all commencement speakers about the union's demands and ask them to boycott UC graduation ceremonies this spring. The boycott is driven by the union’s demands: rehiring laid-off service workers, restoring full hours to workers whose time has been cut, and dropping all charges against the student protesters.
Unfortunately, the School of Journalism’s commencement speaker, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, refused to honor the picket line. However, several graduates joined the picket line in their caps and gowns, refusing to attend their own graduation ceremonies. Other graduates wore green tassels (AFSCME's color) on their caps in a show of solidarity.
A full week after the hunger strike began, outraged strikers and supporters marched to confront the chancellor outside a dinner for student donors. The peaceful strikers drew attention from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, who sent police in full riot gear to bolster an already heavy university and city police presence outside the event. Two helicopters circled campus as the crowd grew to 200 people.
Once again, the strikers demanded a meeting with the chancellor, and once again he refused. Instead, the administration offered to meet with the strikers the following day if they ended their hunger strike immediately. A handful of strikers announced instead that they would now start a dry strike—refusing to take even liquids until the university negotiated with them in good faith. The group left energized and ready to continue the strike, and no arrests were made.
On day 10 of the strike, there were many reasons to believe that regardless of the university’s response to the strikers’ demands, important victories had been won. Workers and students stood together and many alliances and new friendships formed. Old bonds were made stronger by the strike.
“The administration's stonewalling is a clear sign that they are terrified of the combined power of students and workers, and they will do anything to try to divide us,” said Eli Friedman, a hunger striker and graduate student. “What this hunger strike revealed is that we will not be divided, and that we will continue to struggle together to make the university work for us, not for corporations, wealthy donors, and the military.”
And then, after 10 full days of the hunger strike, the chancellor announced that he was ready for a meeting. The strikers and supporters held a rally before the bargaining team entered California Hall. During the negotiations, each striker spoke about why they joined the strike and what they learned during their 10-day journey. Many of the strikers said that they were following their hearts, and found the strength to continue because of the outpouring of support from members of the campus community, the Latin@/Chican@ communities, and people from around the country and overseas. Letters of solidarity and support from student and worker movements from Brazil and Japan were read.
The hunger strikers officially suspended their fast during the negotiations by eating corn, a life-sustaining and symbolic food of many indigenous peoples of the Americas. One hunger striker remains fasting, and said he will break his strike on May 20 when he enters Mexico.
The bargaining team emerged from California Hall yesterday evening with agreements to set up task forces, including one on AB 540 students and workers, and another conducting inquiries into ways to support, retain, and welcome students of color on campus. But no promises were made that workers will get their jobs back. The charges will not be dropped for the students facing suspension.
As the sun dipped behind California Hall, the group gathered in a circle one last time. It was clear by the hugs, shaking hands, smiles, and bread-breaking, that real victories were won through the struggle. Students didn’t cave to the university's pressure, and workers respected and supported the student-led action. A community emerged from the strike, one that is ready to come back fighting in the fall.