Sunday, October 18, 2009

Graduate Student and Union Member: "We’re hoping to have a series of teach-ins on the campus"

On September 24th, hundreds of students, faculty and workers gathered at the flagpole on the University of California, Irvine campus to rally against recent decisions and propositions like furloughs and fee increases. One of the speakers of that rally, Dennis Lopez, a graduate student and member of the Worker/Student Alliance, was kind enough to offer insight on topics ranging from future demonstrations to a call for transparency with the UC system.

Q: I understand that you’re part of the Worker Student Alliance, how long have you been a member and when did you get involved?

A: I’ve been a member of the Worker/Student Alliance since it started which was about 3 years ago. It started as a collation of different campus organizations that where working with the Service Working Unit to get workers higher directory from the university. That’s how I got involved I was a member of another group called the Students For Peace and Justice, an ant-war social justice group, that’s how we got involved with the campaign.

Q: Why did you get involved?

A: I thought it was important to support the workers and their struggle for higher wages and benefits and better working conditions. They’re part of the campus community whom are invisible to the students and faculty and graduate students yet they’re such as an important part of the university and its daily operations and they contribute so much and I figure if were on a campus that advocates and encourages certain values; responsibility and respect, dignity and so on. I thought it was important that these individuals that are part of this community get the same treatment

Q: Was there anyone is particular person that inspired you to join in the Worker Student Alliance. Or was it that you just felt strongly about the cause?

A: Both. I felt strongly about the cause. I went to some of the meetings to meet some of the workers and having conversations with the workers themselves. They were describing what they were going through and why they were getting involved with this campaign and why they were going to start appealing to the administration. It inspired me to support them.

Q: What have you been a part of? Are there an important events coming up? Future meetings? In order to spark more awareness among students, faculty and grad. students?

A: The day of action of the 24th (September).There is this larger defend UCI Coalition, which I’ve been working with it, which is also a coalition of individuals and student groups like Workers Student Alliance. We have been doing some work-up organizing, we’re hoping to have a series of teach-ins on the campus, teach-ins, forums that will hopefully have faculty, students and workers discussing the main issues around the budget cuts. Hopefully, our idea is that it will involve sort of a lager picture analysis. Why is there a financial crisis? Why are they making certain cuts? But also a personal side to it. Students, workers and faculty can convey to the audience how it is impacting them directly, the cut backs.

Q: You spoke on the September 24th walkout. How did you prepare for the speech that day?

A: Correct, I did a little bit of research to inform myself on the issue of the cut backs and how it was affecting different aspects or different parts of the campus community. I wanted to gather some of the hard numbers. What exactly was the budget shortfall. Certain areas that were being cut and things like that. I did some general research, I also thought what were some of the important points to make. I don’t know if you heard my speech. For me I figured one of the most important things to get out of that day was that it is not just something that is happening on the campus or just the UC’s, that it’s part of a larger economic problem, part of a larger problem that has to do with prioritizing profits and the bottom line at the expense of the needs of workers and students and social services like education and healthcare … about how to draw that out and make the connection of the sort of picture here and locally and what we’re experiencing here, that is part of a larger struggle or movement that’s taking shape in other places

Q: While you were addressing the crowd, what feeling or emotions did you experience. What was the general vibe of the crowd? Do you feel that the audience was engaged? Did you feel any apathy?

A: No, I thought it was not just for my speech but all the speakers that actually the reception was really warm, that there was a lot of enthusiasm. Just the turn out itself, we estimated anywhere between 700 and 900 folks out there, students, workers and faculty members, which is a huge number for Irvine. That speaks to a curiosity as well as a concern over the issue. And I felt that the audience was very receptive to the things that the speakers where saying. I felt they were receptive to the points that I was making as well. I didn’t feel that there any apathy on the part of the crowd. I felt that maybe some of things that I was particularly saying were maybe new to the crowd. I made some criticism about the Obama administration and I think there is this sentiment that Obama represents change in the direction of the country. Some of the points that I was making that a lot of this recent decisions where very different from (former President) Bush. I think some of those points were new and were received by the crowd in various ways but I think overall the sentiment was a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of seeing eye to eye with the issues.

Q: In your speech what was the single most important thing that you wanted to convey to the crowd? What was the focus of the speech?

A: I think there were two, I think that one was this issue that where facing at the UC’s is part of a larger problem, a larger systematic problem that other students and working families are facing across the country and that we have to understand it in that way, that’s its part of this larger economic crisis. Part of an unequal economic system but as a sort of equally important point was the issue of solitary among the different groups. That this crisis and cutbacks are effecting all of us in slightly different ways but that the point is that its affecting all of us and that the roots cause of all of these cutbacks are the pretty much the same for all of us… the way that we are going to deal with them is that we need to build solitary and building a movement that unites us all to deal with these issues.

Q: While at the rally did you here anything new from the other speakers? Any important points that caught your attention that day?

A: Two that come to mind is MC Keith Danner's speech, a professor here. He mentioned a statistic that surprised me about fee increases he mentioned that fee increased for undergrads over the last decade have tripled which I think is pretty astonishing given that this is suppose to be a public institution and available to working class students. I thought that, that was a good point to make I thought that it drew all together the other connections and points. Also when some of the campus workers spoke, talked about how the cutbacks were affecting them, there was one worker in particular Lucio, who’s a landscaper here, who said when they fired him, its not that there just firing me but its like they’re firing my whole family, [it] has an effect on my entire family. .. it highlighted a larger and certain ethical side to this issue and that its all just economic and numbers, that we all have problems, that it has a real affect on peoples lives, families lives. That’s just something that stood out to me.

Q: Speaking of tuitions, did you attend any UC school as an undergrad? Did you have any financial? How can you relate to current students tuition raises?

A: As an undergrad I did not attend a UC school, but I attended Cal State Fullerton for my Bachelor’s degree which you know is facing some similar issues, so I can relate, as an undergrad the fee were relatively low although I come from a working class family so it was a little default to figure out how to pay for it but now with the Cal States the fees have increased at the same rate, as here at the UC’s they’ve also tripled their 32% increase passed in July so there fees are sky rocketing for this year and a lot of students that I know are unable to afford it. I know that I was an undergrad I would have not been able to afford that. It’s somewhat of the same issue again the UC regents are voting in November on these 32% increase for students here. Cal State students got it in July its likely that undergrad and grads will get it in for the second half of this year, the next academic year.

Q: Do you know any students or families personally who will be affected by the raise in tuition's? More loans? Longer work hours?

A: There students in Worker Student Alliance who are having trouble paying for things, are trying to work more or looking for second jobs. I was actually talking to a
student earlier this week who was telling me he was worried because his financial aid was coming through yet. It seems like there were certain issues that, they had with reductions, changes with the requirements for the financial aid. Unfortunately, I do not know what exactly what the issue was, he was very worried about that, because if it didn’t come through he wasn’t going to be able to pay for all of the fees, he was a little concerned about that. And I know a number of students that work even before this crisis, that worked as a way to pay for school and now are finding it difficult even working to pay for school, trying to figure out ways to come up with extra cash. I think other students take out loans, which is not a good thing either, almost every student across the country now when the graduate with a bachelor’s degree, also graduate with a big debt around their neck and this is only going to make it worse because part of what they’re seeing is an increase in fees, a slight reduction of federal and state aid. There’s even a reduction in loans but loans are still what most students are given through financial aid, even if they get the loan to pay now then issues becomes when they graduate four years from now or five years. Are there going to be jobs out there for them to pay those loans back? So it’s a mounting problem were seeing that even extends after graduation.

Q: Yourself being a graduate student from the school of Humanities, many are calling for some Humanities and Art Programs to be cut, since they can do “without it.” Many other UC schools have cut out some of these programs. How do you feel about the Humanities and Arts programs shrinking and not any of the science programs not being affected?

A: That is a reality and has to do with the fact that a lot of funding for Humanities
comes directing from the school and the state, that comes in internally. And that the sciences sometimes get grants and financial support outside of the university and the state. Or through corporations, I think in general it’s a mistake. I think that the Humanities is important to students education on campus. It provides the skills needed for critical thinking and critical writing for a lot larger understanding of how you as an individual relate to the world at large. It also offers an understanding of the humanistic and intellectual thought that is important in developing the understanding that of our own society and were we stand and how things work and so on. I think cutting of the Arts is taking a very important experience to the students to be able to gain excess and be exposed to different types of artistic expression on the campus is important because its something that is not relatively available outside of the university. So in all of these ways it’s a mistake.

Q: Instead of cutting out programs like the Arts and Humanities what things could be cut from the budget? What things are unnecessary?

A: That’s a difficult question to answer because… we really shouldn’t be looking at cutting educational resources, we shouldn’t be cutting students resources, we shouldn’t be cutting staff, faculty or workers. What we really need to do is reassess the priorities that we have both within the UC system and largely within the state if not the country, that education needs to be a central priority and that we need to be sure that there is enough funding for educational… that education show be a right for the many and not a privilege for the wealthy few… when we talk about the budget cuts and the cutbacks its not a question of where, we’re going to cut, but why isn’t there money to fund education in one of the biggest states and one of the largest economies in the world, in one of the richest countries in the world right now. Why is it that now that we have money to bail out banks, corporations and to fund wars in the Middle East but we don’t have money for education. By cutting programs, is the wrong approach to, I think we need to ask larger questions about priorities of why the money isn’t here in the first place although I’ll add if we do need to cut anything I say we need to cut some of the salaries for top distractions, Mark Yudof, makes twice a much the President, 800,320 year, and that’s not including the perks he gets.

Q: What is your opinion on the talk of billions in reserve of “unrestricted” funds? A myth? Reality?

A: That’s a good question, this is one of the problems that we have, their not enough transparency in the budget. But a group of people claim it’s there, so the President claims it’s not there, it restricted. At the day of the end what ends up happening is a “he-said-she-said” type of a deal... We need more democratic decision making within the university at a local level to figure out these things. I think if it is there, the claim of some unions, then I don’t understand why the office of the president would rather fire workers, staff, furlough faculty and would rather cut student services. Then use these funds, me question is what are they saving it for? Again, it goes back to the issue of not enough of our participation in the decision making process.

A digression from the topic cut out….

Q: Have these budget cuts and furloughs effected you in a way? Financial wise? Work load wise? Personally?
A: I was fortune to get teaching assignments this quarter, because a lot of people aren’t getting teaching assignments, which is a concern since certain classes are being cut, I was one of the lucky few in that sense, its at least for now not affected me negatively individually. It does affect me more on the level sharing in the difficulty with other graduate students, workers and so on.

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