City College of San Francisco: What strategy will defeat the privatizers?

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The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) has been attacking California community colleges since 2001. In July, 2012, it bombarded City College of San Francisco (CCSF) with austerity demands and closure threats. An interim chancellor and the Board of Trustees endorsed ACCJC’s business-oriented vision and immediately began budget slashing.

But faculty, present and former students, and community activists erupted in anger. They organized a coalition, mounted loud protests, and enlightened many on the ultimate privatization designs in this urgent struggle.

What’s the best way to wage this battle? That’s what Save City College Coalition (Save CCSF) deals with on a daily basis. And Bay Area Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women, instrumental in bringing together students and faculty in Save CCSF, are key leaders in these deliberations.

Forging a broad-based fight. The Save CCSF coalition worked from the outset for an inclusive, grass-roots opposition that united students, faculty, community organizations, staff workers, labor unions, and parents. They won over San Francisco voters, who overwhelmingly passed a ballot measure to fund CCSF.

Faculty have leaped to the defense of students, the progressive mission of CCSF, and their own jobs and union, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 2121. Drawing in non-faculty classified staff has been difficult, because they’re demoralized by the unwillingness of campus union leaders of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 to fight back during the last several years of severe austerity cuts.

FSP and RW have been spearheading the effort within the coalition to build ties between members of the two unions. These two main unions don’t have a history of collaboration. But solidarity is critical now, because of the looming fight over union contracts.

Already, ACCJC’s threats of closure have extracted pay cut and layoff concessions. Aggressive rank-and-file opposition and strike preparation would show that campus faculty and staff workers defend the unique programs and services that they provide at CCSF.

Both AFT and SEIU leadership have been reluctant to aggressively defy the corporate agenda of ACCJC. This behavior is tied directly to labor’s chummy relationship with the Democratic Party. Obama’s Department of Education is directing the “reforms” of the sham accreditors. Union ranks will need to demand that their own leaders fight hard against ACCJC and its union busting.

Getting to the root of the problem. A crucial debate among the Save CCSF activists is how broadly to characterize this struggle politically. That question of course affects what actions to take.

Much of the early efforts were focused narrowly on pressuring the Board of Trustees to use money from Proposition A to avoid the draconian cuts demanded by ACCJC. “Save City College first” was the thinking. “Address the sham accreditors and pro-capitalist ringleaders later.”

FSP argues that this emphasis on ballot measure funds makes the crisis seem like a fiscal one, instead of the political issue it really is. In the same way, the national “deficit, debt and sequester” takeaways are political, not financial. So it bodes well that on April 30, the California Teachers Federation and AFT 2121 filed a complaint with the ACCJC, opposing the accrediting commission’s false claims and abuse of authority. The union rightly intends to also file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, which is under heavy fire by other groups organizing to rescue public schools across the country.

Save CCSF’s online petition is directed at California’s governor, who has the power to halt ACCJC’s assault. It calls on him to reject the sanctions, and to urge CCSF’s Board of Trustees “to restore cut classes, programs and services, defend collective bargaining, and reverse lay-offs, salary cuts and other take-aways.”

An historic institution. Seventy-three percent of City College students are people of color. The college has eleven campuses, whose diverse programs were the product of civil rights gains in the 1960s and ’70s. They include African American, Asian American, Asian, Latin American and Latino/a, Philippine, Labor and Community, and Women’s Studies, as well as Disabled Students. Many program chairs are actively involved in the fight to preserve and expand a system that has served the most oppressed. The administration recently tried and failed to remove department chairs, undoubtedly because of the growing opposition movement. Not surprisingly, ACCJC dismisses diversity departments as “boutique” programs.

Reporter Lisa Gray-Garcia of Poor News Networks sharply refutes such bigotry in her April 1 article in the San Francisco Bay View. “As a formerly houseless, very poor single mama, my life was truly saved by the affordable education, support services, free childcare and so much more I received at CCSF. … Like the sudden closure of 52 public schools in Chicago and more across the country, … the orchestrated and systematic attack on CCSF … is an act of violence against our poor and working class communities of color.”

Already, Save CCSF has accomplished a great deal. It exposed the lie that City College is a financial failure. And it revealed the larger political campaign by Wall Street to privatize public education and bust school unions.

Save CCSF coalition’s work is cut out for it. The administration will surely use ACCJC’s final report this summer to weaken resistance and looming union contracts while most of the faculty and students are absent. Publicizing and protesting ACCJC and management demands, and building the movement to preserve CCSF is the job at hand.

As longtime City College chemistry professor and FSP Bay Area activist Bob Price puts it, “The corporate agenda for privatizing public education, implemented by the Democratic Party at both the state and national level, is the root cause of the crisis at City College. Others across the country are depending on CCSF to hold strong.”

More stories on the fight at CCSF are available in the FS archives; search by subject under the Education heading.

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