Western Washington University, like most public schools, is facing an unprecedented crisis. The state government is slashing higher education once again: this year by possibly $637 million. To compensate for these state funding cuts, university administrators will once again raise our tuition by 13-20%. With all the tuition hikes since 2008, this adds up to at least a 50% increase!
While the state government is slashing education, they just handed corporations over $300 million in tax breaks in February!
The state and federal government could easily stop all the budget cuts by simply taxing billionaires and corporations, and ending the expensive wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
The Bellingham chapter of Socialist Alternative decided to run me for Associated Students Vice President for Academic Affairs as part of our ongoing campaign against budget cuts. Our election campaign pointed out that the traditional strategy of writing and calling corporate politicians was clearly failing. We advocated a new, fighting strategy of student and worker rallies, walkouts, and sit-ins.
Our campaign created a certain buzz on campus. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent in Red Square repeatedly saying, “Do not accept the inevitability of budget cuts and tuition hikes! Elect a
candidate who will actually fight them!”
Initially, the other two candidates and the current VP for Academic Affairs attacked us for not focusing on the specific “job description” of the VP for Academic Affairs. Their argument reflected that they don’t think it’s possible to question the budget cuts. They see the budget cuts as inevitable, and they see the VP for Academic Affairs’ role as representing students within the framework of budget cuts set down by the corporate politicians and university administrators. We defended our approach by arguing that nothing is more relevant to students and academic affairs than challenging the budget cuts and tuition hikes.
I later pointed out that there was no substantive distinction between the two candidates I was running against. Their candidate statements simply reworded the job description: things that anyone elected would have to do.
Our campaign posters were literally the only ones with any real substance. One candidate for another position, for example, ran on the slogan “Big Glasses, Clear Vision.” Many students told us they normally don’t vote because none of the candidates ever said anything important, but that they would vote for me because I actually took a strong stand on important issues.
At the presidential candidates’ debate, Socialist Alternative member Ramy Khalil used the audience question and answer period to explain how detrimental and unnecessary the budget cuts were and asked the candidates if they would support a walkout as a necessary step to fight the cuts. Ramy’s question was applauded by the audience, and the other candidates clearly felt pressure to express some kind of support for our position. They all then started incorporating the budget cuts issue into their statements. Afterward, the same two candidates who had previously attacked me for my platform later added the budget cuts issue to the first lines of their own facebook campaign pages!
Despite passing out 800 fliers and campaigning practically every day for three weeks, we unfortunately lost the election. We probably lost because most students tune out the elections since most candidates never stand for anything important. Only 30% of eligible voters cast their ballots, and many of the voters are either involved with, or friends of, the established Associated Students activists.
There is a victory to be recognized here: We popularized our ideas, shifted the debate, and won over 700 votes – 19% of the vote – for an openly socialist candidate who advocated student walkouts and sit-ins to fight the cuts.
We now need to focus on working with the 700 students who voted for our candidate – as well as others we made connections with – to continue building a student and labor movement against the cuts. With the momentum we’ve created, we can hopefully get more people involved and maybe organize a statewide or even a national student walkout next school year. I am optimistic.