Friday, March 25, 2011

Students occupy Arts building to protest budget cuts

By Elena Everett and Peter Gilbert
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

March 20 — Students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee are entering their fourth week of the occupation of their Arts building, protesting the proposed 90 percent cuts to the theater program, the attacks on public sector workers in Wisconsin, and all the proposed cuts to education and programs for workers.

Students from the theater program and members of the UW-Milwaukee Students for a Democratic Society chapter have completely taken over the Peck School of the Arts. Large signs across both entrances declare the building “OCCUPIED!!!”

The students have held out so long largely because of the key support from American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 82, which represents the custodians, clerical workers and other campus workers, and the Milwaukee Graduate Assistants Association, AFT Local 2169. Gilbert Johnson, the AFSCME local president, visits the occupation daily and is planning an April 2 forum on the budget cuts and union-busting bill, to be held onsite at the occupation.

Students are demanding:

• The right to continue the occupation for as long as it’s needed — until the budget repair bill is overturned and cuts to education are off the table.

• That all UW schools stay public institutions — no privatization of public universities.

• No tuition hikes and no cuts to university faculty and workers’ pay or benefits.

Peter Adamczak from UW-Milwaukee SDS said: “We occupied the theater building because the theater and arts program are going to be the first on the chopping block ... and we’re looking at up to a 26 percent increase in tuition that would push a lot of working people out of UW-Milwaukee. They are trying to chop from the bottom — they need to be chopping from the top.”

On March 9 Gov. Scott Walker and the state Legislature illegally pushed through a modified “budget repair” bill that attempts to destroy collective bargaining rights for public sector workers, a fundamental human right as recognized by the International Labor Organization. The union-busting bill is currently blocked from taking effect by a court injunction that reflects pressure from the hundreds of thousands of workers and students who have taken to the streets.

Walker is additionally calling for massive cuts to the state budget, which would destroy BadgerCare, the Wisconsin state health insurance program, with $500 million in cuts to Medicaid. The proposed budget would also cut over a billion dollars from state education, including $250 million in cuts to the University of Wisconsin, the possibility of privatizing the UW-Madison, and $900 million in cuts to K-12 education — completely eliminating K-8 arts education.

Students at the occupation worry that not only is their degree program on the chopping block, but also, once they graduate, no jobs will be available in their field as teachers in the arts.

Jenna Pope, one of the student leaders, came immediately from the occupation of the state Capitol in Madison. To her the struggles are one: “My mother and sister are both educators — if my mother’s salary goes down and my tuition goes up, it will make it very hard for me to afford tuition and stay in school. This last month has changed my life 100 percent; we are willing to continue this occupation for as long as we need to be here.”

Actions like this occupation and the earlier walkouts in Wisconsin; the recent mass walkouts by high school students; and the arrests of youth and students at the state Capitols in Michigan and Georgia, have inspired other students across the U.S. also facing budget cuts and supporting workers against attacks on collective bargaining. Students everywhere are mobilizing for March 31 and April 4 days of action.

To support these courageous Milwaukee students, solidarity is needed from activists, workers and students across the U.S. Solidarity statements to the Milwaukee students can be sent to or the UWM Occupied page on Facebook.

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