Students organize in N.C.

March 4, 2013

"IF YOU want to take gender studies, that's fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job." So said North Carolina's newly elected Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, in an interview last month.

If the governor gets his way, public education--and in particular programs that study issues affecting women and minorities--will be on the chopping block. Students, however, are organizing against McCrory's agenda.

A mighty snowstorm was not sufficient to stop people from gathering at North Carolina State University in Raleigh on February 16 for "Retaking Schools, Remaking Society," a statewide organizing conference put on by the N.C. Student Power Union (NCSPU).

Nearly 200 people made their way from both ends of the state, representing 14 of the 16 campuses in the University of North Carolina system. The conference brought together leaders of social justice organizations, university faculty and students for a day of education, inspiration and action. The conference came one year after some 200 students from across the state protested a meeting at which the N.C. Board of Governors approved a tuition hike and financial aid freeze.

After introductions and energizers, an NCSPU organizer presented a legislative update depicting the most recent and upcoming attacks by the Republican-controlled state government. Among these attacks are bills that slash unemployment benefits, ban collective bargaining for public sector workers, and introduce "right to work" (for less) legislation in the state constitution.

In addition, voter ID laws, further elimination of oversight, regressive tax policies and an aggressive round of austerity measures are on the way. "Public education and services will face massive cuts and the general welfare of our state will be undermined to benefit the richest few," noted participant Bryan Perlmutter.

A panel made up of a labor activist, a professor, an undocumented youth, and a member of NCSPU helped further characterize the current political environment in the state. Each panelist spoke about their specific struggles and how they relate to each other.

Ashaki Binta, member of the Black Workers For Justice, discussed labor unions and how they are at risk. North Carolina is last in the nation when it comes to a unionized workforce (2.9 percent) and public sector labor organizations are barred from collective bargaining by "right-to-work" legislation.

According to Binta, right-wingers are looking at ways to further diminish organized labor in the Tarheel state. "Students and workers working together have the potential to make a change," Binta said. "It's going to take an organized struggle to fight back against this. Just because [the state government, big business and the administration] are in power doesn't mean they'll win anything."

"No Republican or Democrat works for (students) unless we demand they do," participant Allison said. "We are here to create a North Carolina where education is publicly accessible to all."

THE CONFERENCE featured workshops on the undocumented youth movement and the current struggle for in-state tuition, international movements, and the legacy of student movements in the South. One of the most well attended workshops was "State for Sale: Art Pope and the Right-Wing Machine Controlling N.C."

Art Pope is sometimes referred to as the "Koch brother" of North Carolina. Recently appointed as state budget director by Gov. McCrory, Pope is a conservative millionaire who funds right-wing think-tanks and organizations. He is CEO of Variety Wholesalers, Inc., one of the largest privately owned retail corporations in the U.S. The regional behemoth makes its money from low-cost retail chains in working-class communities throughout the Southeast.

Rushdia Mehreen, a leader in the recent and successful Quebec Student movement, gave the keynote speech. Mehreen shared her experiences organizing and emphasized the importance of taking action. Those in the room felt inspired by the victories just across the border and voiced the need to replicate something similar in their state.

The final section of the conference was a general assembly where people shared their stories of past and ongoing struggles on campuses and in their communities. Participants discussed potential organizing strategies and solutions to confront the range of attacks facing students and workers in North Carolina.

The NCSPU conference was a welcomed step forward for organizing against austerity in North Carolina. The political and economic attacks on student and working-class living standards from the state level make more urgent the need to build a multi-issue, grassroots mobilization to defend the public sector. Our state has a rich history of activism and resistance, and as in the past, students can serve as leaders in the fight for social justice.

Ben Lassiter contributed to this article.

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