Occupy Carbondale Illinois
by Sarah Lewison
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Occupation and Popular Education
How the National #Occupy Movement Lifts All (local) Ships
Quite soon after Occupy Wall Street erupted as a presence in Zuccoti Park and our consciousness, people in Carbondale Illinois began to discuss its local relevance. This is a geographically remote area, where there is a great forest and rolling hills covered with orchards, and factory-fields of corn and soy. There are also many people who are unemployed or barely making it in their small businesses. The larger factories in the region have mostly closed or have gone to where labor is cheaper, and the only expanding industry now is coal mining. This is home to generations of working class people whose labor brought wealth to the cities; farmers, miners and factory workers.
Today the largest industries, however, are in education, health and service work. In Carbondale, Southern Illinois University (SIU), an Illinois State public research university, is the largest employer, followed by a hospital, another health care provider and then Wal-Mart. There is a high rate of poverty, many live month to month on social security, food stamps and part time jobs; the many check cashing and instant loan stores on the highway that passes through town attests to this. Carbondale and the Southern Illinois region are ideal places to build power among the 99%. This is also, however, a place where people tend to keep to their own neighborhoods and beaten paths,
and where it is people likely feel more comfortable going to Wal-Mart than to the Interfaith Center where Occupy Wall Street meetings were held.
After-rally solidarity singers. 11/8/11
Uploaded by OccupySIUC
Early on, The Occupy Carbondale meetings had a good showing of students, educated middle class and trades people, and even a couple of individuals who lack housing and other essentials. At the
second meeting the assembly agreed, through consensus, to occupy a grassy location on the campus that faced a small state highway.
Target: We have no obvious symbol to occupy here; centers of power are not visible. Big banks
don't even have branches here; they just collect our bills and mortgages thank you very much.
The state does funnel money into the region through the University, however, and occupying the campus was a strategic way to support four bargaining units of employees who were in the middle
of a long-term labor dispute.
A Specific issues: While the signs people made for the occupation site spelled out the broad demands of Occupations across the US, at SIU, we were on the verge of calling a strike that might stop the university in its tracks. It was a perfect time to learn about the stakes that management
was playing with in their pursuit of a more corporate education model. For one, the administration showed they were willing to publicly pit student fees (a crucial student concern) against faculty bargaining rights in order to, as they said, “make ends meet.” This helped bring students and
faculty together to recognize their common desires and sympathies. Although the labor dispute
and the Occupation had their own trajectories, the existence of each made the other a little more possible, and freed people in both camps up to speak to the connections.
As for the labor issue, four units of the Illinois Education Association (IEA); the Graduate Assistant Union (GAU), the Association of Civil Service Employees (CSE), Non-Tenure-Track Faculty (NTT) and the Faculty Association had been working without contracts since summer 2010. In the spring
of 2011, the administration forced us all to take unpaid furloughs and then attempted to impose similar mandatory furloughs as a permanent fixture in the contract. In summer, the Administration made their“best and final offer,” negotiations came to a halt.
The university wanted sole authority to furlough and lay off employees (tenured and not) in the
event of financial emergency without any oversight or transparency. Basically, they did not want to reveal what they were doing with the people's money. Although there were four units in negotiation, the most complicated demands were directed at the faculty who were pressured to relinquish
shared governance over issues like online course offerings and work load, matters usually
addressed at the department, rather than the Chancellor's level. We knew that the Chancellor was making over $350,000 a year, so it was hard not to imagine that paring down on admin side of the equation wouldn't solve some of their fiscal“crisis.” Their terms were arbitrary, and because they
had treated all units with equal disdain, it was clear the school was trying to break our unions.
Organizing: For a couple of weeks, we didn't know if we would strike or not, as each unit had a separate ballot and timeline. Meanwhile Occupy Carbondale was in a second week of full-time presence on campus. New people joined, non-students who had long been waiting for such a moment of public dissent. The fall weather was lovely and graduate teaching assistants brought
their classes to the occupy site, professors invited activists to speak in their classes. These
activities lent a counterpoint to students’ concerns about the strike, as they encountered other
young people who were building new vocabularies to describe the predatory nature of corporate economics at the school, in the nation and in their own lives.
When the weather turned bad, Occupiers pitched tents, and although the university administration had tolerated the camp thus far, campus police chose a bitterly rainy day to seize and destroy the several shelters and tents. This awkward move on the part of the university strengthened local support and brought more people to the two General Assemblies which were held daily. Once a TV journalist came to do a story, and ended up doing most of the talking; “we in Southern Illinois have been saying that's just the way it is for much too long,” he said. The next day, university security threatened to suspend and arrest people caught sleeping- because of “health hazards,” and so sleeping was moved across the street to private land, and people took healthy 2-hour shifts
standing by the road in the brisk cold and rain to maintain the 24/7 occupation we had
Preparing for action: All four units voted to strike, yet there were anxious days between balloting
and setting a strike date. Finally November 3 was chosen as the day as that day. Negotiations
were to continue until midnight the night before, leaving room for a settlement. That evening, all
units met at a former high school to rally and make up picket teams. As many of us university workers are separated on a daily basis by our offices, departments and responsibilities, it was exhilarating to become visible to each other in such a huge assembly. It was also a surreal scene; the high school's power had been cut, we were gathered in an enclosed outdoor yard, illuminated
by halogen construction lights mounted on a portable crane and powered by a generator.
Strike!: Later that night we got word that three units had settled and the faculty had been isolated. Bright and early the next morning, we headed out to picket lines with our signs- faculty and supporters clustered at all entrances to the campus. People from other units joined us as they
could, but they were also obligated by their agreement to work. A vicious editorial in the only daily paper called us privileged brats for daring to challenge our work conditions in a down economy, ignoring the fact that salaries were not a critical item on the table. We didn't know if we had public opinion behind us at all, and it was evident from the emails the Chancellor sent that she was determined that university “business” would go on as usual. We were Told we were dispensable
and that our numbers were insignificant, it began to feel like this would not end quickly. The
editorial continued on, suggesting that some of us might die before this strike was resolved.
Because the health of the university is tied so closely to the local economy, the reactionary tide
could have risen against us.
This, I think, is where the Occupation movement helped redirect the conversation in our favor; by keeping the truth of our class relations in the foreground. Picketing is a strenuous physical activity; you are standing in the elements, often by the road where people might challenge you. It is monotonous work, made easier only by the fellowship of colleagues and the acknowledgement of people passing by. Picketing makes the invisible worker visible, and puts her into the public eye. I think that our public presence triggered memories of regional labor disputes from the past, in which communities survived because of their staunch solidarity and morale. I think that the working class people unconnected with the university made the distinction that the people standing on the street corner with picket signs were much more like them than those who were managing the university. And as we stood on the corners, postal workers, electrical workers, and others with and without
union representation, with and without jobs, came by to bring us coffee and support. Restaurants donated food, and each evening, our striking body gathered together and shared a meal and
Solidarity, Victory: Students came by daily to tell us that classes were not going as usual, and
that they wanted us back. Many picked up signs and joined the lines, shouting, “We want our teachers back!,” Others made work about the strike and the Occupy movement. Still others went
on strike themselves; heading back to dorms for a respite from the semester's inhuman pace. After the first couple days, two undergrads used Facebook to invite students to march on campus with faculty. The third student rally led a huge crowd of students, faculty and supporters to surround a building where the Board of Trustees was meeting, people involved with Occupy Carbondale did a mic check. That evening, the Administration and our FA negotiating team came to an agreement
that gave us the transparency and accountability we wanted from the university. No furloughs
without third party oversight, and no arbitrary layoffs. The next day we went back to our classes. While not all students had participated in the rallies, for many, it was their first experience in raising their voices together with others to make demands, and they had the delicious satisfaction of winning.
Soon after the strike was resolved, bad weather arrived and students went home for Thanksgiving. Occupy Carbondale decamped from the school at that point and moved to the building that housed an erstwhile Indymedia Center. From here, the desire is to continue working to catalyze and involve people in Carbondale and the larger region. In conclusion, the convergence of our strike and the occupation movement worked to strengthen people’s solidarity and identification with labor, and its successful resolution, I think, presents a challenge for us- university workers and Occupiers- to start learning how we can better support the struggles in the wider community.
For a good article about the strike see Adam Turl’s piece in Socialist Worker online: http://socialistworker.org/2011/11/09/siu-faculty-on-strike
Video of dental hygiene students protesting:
A rally in the woods: Whose University? Our University!
and one more for good measure; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lj6zmpVpYms&feature=related