BERKELEY - Several thousand people are packed into UC's Sproul Plaza to protest furloughs, layoffs and tuition increases, one of the largest gatherings there in years.
"You are wonderful to be supporting our cause. We support you too," a custodian told the crowd. He said he had been laid off last week.
The protest began early today with union picket lines at two entrances to the campus. Similar protests were expected on other campuses throughout the state.
About 60 picketers started the day early in Berkeley in front of a school entrance at the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Way, shouting, "Chop from the Top," and "You say layoff, we say Yudof," a reference to UC President Mark Yudof.
By 11 a.m., the number of picketers had grown to about 200 people who formed a line, linking arms, to try to keep people from entering the campus.
Most professors planned to stay out of class today and other employee groups and students were joining them on picket lines. Faculty members plan teach-ins and rallies throughout the day. The protests coincides with the first day of classes on eight campuses.
Geology professor George Brimhall was one who said he felt a responsibility to be in class for any student who wished to be there, though he gave them the choice of attending or not.
"I feel like I still have a contract with any student who wants to be here," he said. "I'll lecture to one student if that's who shows up."
On the picket line, a union ceramics technician expressed the broad concern underlying the protest
"All the causes are aimed at one thing, they're trying to decimate the university," Robert Abrams. The "they," he said, was government in general. "There has to be a better way."
Brimhall had a different way of expressing the difficulty of focusing on an issue and a cause.
"The problem is so big that is is difficult to know what any of us can do. I see these legislators wrapped up in small stuff," he said. His idea for a solution was to repeal Proposition 13, the state's groundbreaking cap on property taxes that voters approved in 1978.
Fewer students could be seen on the Berkeley campus this morning. A handful of student club leaders steadfastly continued to try to attract attention to their organization on Sproul Plaza, but interest was low and passersby were few.
Sophomore Nick Iturraran glumly waited for students to sign up for the UC Rally Committee, but the list in front of him was empty.
"At this time of the day, my list would normally be full and I'd have three others already full," said Iturraran, who would normally have been in class on a Thursday morning. All but one of his five classes Thursday were cancelled.
"I understand their point but then again I'm a student and it hurts me not to be in class right now. It's something I'm paying for," he said.
The protest comes after a rough year for the university, which has cut enrollment, ordered employee furloughs and raised student fees to make up for state budget cuts. In November, the Board of Regents is expected to increase tuition by 32 percent over the next year.
Toni Mendicino, 40, an administrative assistant at UC Berkeley law school, said a threatened furlough would really hurt her. "Two-thirds of our union members have salaries in the low $40,000s", she said. "I'm 40 and I have four roommates. Every time I take BART or the bus to work I have to think if I can afford it."
Victoria Fowler, who works in the business school, said Yudof "isn't making any sense" when he talks about raising tuition and faculty furloughs.
"He said he wants to raise tuition in order to maintain a high caliber of tuition, but at the same time he's furloughing faculty. It doesn't make any sense."