by Ben Carroll
This article first appeared in Workers World newspaper at workers.org
Raleigh, N.C. — Nearly two years since tens of thousands of students and workers occupied the Wisconsin state Capitol and a year since Quebec’s students started a months-long strike that defeated austerity measures, students and other North Carolina youths held an organizing conference to discuss plans to build a fightback to stop severe anti-people attacks here.
The conference, organized by the North Carolina Student Power Union and titled “Retaking Our Schools, Remaking Society!” was held at North Carolina State University. Nearly 200 students and representatives of other social movements, some from out of state, braved hours on snow-covered and icy roads to join faculty, workers and undocumented youth organizers from all over the state for the Feb. 16 discussions.
Loan Tran, a member of Charlotte-based United 4 the DREAM, told Workers World, “Our concerns as we entered the space were about uplifting the struggles of undocumented students who are forced to pay four to five times the amount that documented students pay for in-state tuition while being denied federal financial aid and first choices in schools and in courses.” The youth-led migrant justice organization is working with others to win an in-state tuition campaign for undocumented students.
“The conference was a great opportunity to talk about how our struggles — migrant and non-migrant, undocumented and documented — intersect,” Tran continued. “When the battle is done for tuition equity for undocumented students, if we don’t struggle together now, students will still be facing unreasonable tuition and tuition hikes, cuts to ethnic studies, and gender and women studies, among many other austerities. We share the vision for fair and just education that focuses on our needs and our community’s needs over property, corporate power and productivity defined by capitalism.”
Building a fighting student movement
Against the backdrop of student and worker uprisings opposing austerity across the globe — from Chile to Quebec, to Spain, Egypt and elsewhere — much of the discussion throughout the day focused on how to build a fighting student movement in North Carolina that can link up with broader struggles for justice.
“We are here to build a powerful student voice with which our public officials, whomever they may be, must contend,” said Hannah Allison, an N.C. State student, at the opening of the day. “We are here to win real representation for ourselves and other students, more than just one seat at the table.”
The conference’s keynote speaker was Rushdia Mehreen, an organizer with the Quebec student union that led the strikes there last year. She shared the lessons the group drew from its organizing experience, and how it ultimately won by broadening the struggle from fighting the specific tuition hike to disrupting the flow of capital and linking with other movements.
N.C. State student Bryan Perlmutter, one of the conference organizers, told WW: “The conference was a resounding success. Students from more than 14 universities, two community colleges and representatives from many different organizations showed that they’re committed to building a powerful movement in North Carolina. We are going to take on the challenges we’re faced with now and build power and organization for the long haul. The future of struggle looks bright.”
Right-wing takeover steps up austerity
North Carolina, similar to states across the U.S., is in the midst of an unprecedented political crisis following a right-wing takeover of state government.
Art Pope, the multimillionaire CEO of a chain of discount stores, is a close ally of the Koch brothers, the billionaire Tea Party funders. Pope has used tens of millions of dollars to buy candidates and fund a network of far-right groups to advance his reactionary and racist agenda. An outspoken enemy of public education and social services, Pope was appointed by the new governor, Pat McCrory, to write the state’s budget, due for release in mid-March.
Since coming into office in late January, the new Tea Party legislature and governor quickly mounted serious attacks on working people. First, they gutted unemployment benefits, seriously cutting the maximum weekly benefit amount, and then reducing the length of time workers can receive these benefits from nearly 80 to between 12 and 20 weeks. They also removed the state from the federal extended unemployment benefits program. They plan to cut off Medicaid benefits to 500,000 working people by rejecting federal money to fund the program.
Gov. McCrory has made numerous statements attacking public education and funding for gender studies, African-American studies, and other university centers and departments that serve oppressed students.
North Carolina is already a right-to-work state and collective bargaining for public workers has been illegal under a Jim Crow-era law. Now Tea Party politicians have proposed three amendments to enshrine these and other anti-worker initiatives in the state constitution.
The right wingers also plan racist voter ID legislation; the complete dismantling of state boards that regulate the environment and education, and replacing all current members with corporate-approved ideologues; severe budget cuts; eliminating the personal and corporate income taxes; and raising the sales tax through the roof, among other attacks.
The lines in the sand have been drawn as clear as day. Faced with these attacks, students recognize their important role in helping develop a mass resistance and the need to develop a broad united front to take on the right wing.
“This is a fight for our futures,” Tyler Copeland, a student at the University of North Carolina — Charlotte, told WW. “These right-wing politicians want to cut public education and services down to the basics, and force us to go deeper into debt to the banks without any real prospects for skillful jobs for our generation. It’s going to take a strong, clearly focused effort to alleviate this mess and help bring together many different social movements. This conference shows that that movement is possible and coming to life.”