Speech against student fee increases

I thought I would share with you the speech I delivered to a student assembly on fighting the fee increases. (Thanks to Joseph Corica for digging up the Spock quote.) As a result of this speech, I spoke in two classes, one in labor studies and another in business, and was quoted in the student press.

The philosopher Will Durant said a civilization should be judged by how its women and children are treated. I want to modify that to say: we should be judged by how we treat those who clean the toilets. I’m Russell Kilday-Hicks, I work in the Capital Planning department and as president of one of the eight unions on campus, I represent those toilet cleaners, along with the grass cutters, those who care for the sick, and those who run the offices and maintain the equipment to form the backbone of the university system. We do the behind-the-scenes work without which teaching or learning would hardly be possible. So how are we being treated and why should you care? For the most part we are invisible. For example, if the floor your walk on is kept clean you aren’t going to notice necessarily. If that employee doesn’t come to work, eventually you will notice and at some point, if these mostly invisible services done daily aren’t done, chances are it will begin to interfere with why you came here.

Since it’s inception, with a few dips here and there, the CSU has been growing in many areas like buildings and classrooms, and taking in an increasing number of students each year. In more recent times the leaders of this system adopted a page from corporate America: do more with less, cut labor costs, turn out more widgets (that’s you, degrees in hand) in an educational version of an old-time factory speed up. From the budget cuts in the early ’90s and again in 2003 SF State lost classes it still hasn’t recouped; meanwhile my union lost over 1,200 statewide positions in the bargaining units represented and the CSU grows and grows. Your fees go up, a few elites get fabulous raises, and real wages for the toilet cleaners stay in the toilets, falling between 16 and 24 percent behind the cost of living. It’s a sad fact that the longer you work here the more you fall behind.

Do more with fewer employees was the CSU leadership’s motto, being the good soldiers and following the governor’s orders. But, I wonder, is it really more? This means lowered standards of cleanliness and service, reduced opportunity for employees for career advancement, loss of institutional memory in departments — amounting to a lower quality institution overall in the ways you experience it: dirty classrooms and toilets, overcrowded classes, and inadequate services you and your professors rely on. On behalf of the non-faculty university staff, I want to say that we literally feel your pain because your learning conditions are our working conditions.

We are taught in this culture to look for the “best” deal, to shop at the always-low-prices Wall-Mart but to know nothing about the hidden costs of those low-social-value prices. You wouldn’t hesitate when buying a car to look under the hood. So why is it common to purchase an education without asking what shape the engine is in? Keep your head down and your shoulder to the intellectual wheel and you will go far with your degree, but whatever you do, don’t look behind that curtain.

If you apply yourselves, you stand to benefit greatly from your education here. Why must that be on the backs of essentially serf labor who are in many cases denied the same privilege of having a future to look forward to rather than just a dead-end job, or two or three dead-end jobs, to make the same ends meet you struggle with daily? Many of you are workers yourselves, maybe even doing some of the dirty work that someone must do to keep society going. But you see that work, rightly, as temporary. For most of the toilet cleaners, this is their life.

What I do as a representative of the serfs in this leftover feudal system is to try to make them more visible, so I really appreciate begin invited before you today. In addition, I try to empower them to stand up, which is what I recommend to you also. But it’s shortsighted to stand up just to advocate for what you may perceive as your own narrow interests. Be selfish and stand up for the health of California as a whole and protect our collective future by insisting that the governor fund all levels of education.

In the past the CSU has been very good at the divide-and-conquer game, getting the different groups to compete for the crumbs. The reality is we are all in this together and, thankfully, that is finally being reflected in the Alliance for the CSU. Please support the Alliance and every other group acting for a better California.

I’ll end with a piece of wisdom from another, more contemporary, philosopher, Mister Spock from the TV series “Star Trek,” who said, “This troubled planet is a place of most violent contrasts. Those who receive the rewards are totally separate from those who shoulder the burdens. It is not a wise leadership.”


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