Reports on student activity, work in Workers' Climate Action, work in No Sweat

Submitted by martin on 19 October, 2010 - 3:10 Author: AWL conference

Student report
Report on our activity in No Sweat
Report on our activity in Workers' Climate Action

Student report

1) The general situation and anti-cuts work

a. Until this year, the education sector had experienced more than a decade of unbroken growth. In that period universities have sharpened their exploitation of staff and focussed their resources on 'profitable' courses and research projects. Now the growth has been broken. With the opening of the economic crisis in 2007/8, and particularly over the past academic year 2009-10, the sector has seen significant cuts, and now faces much larger ones. These cuts are like other public sector cuts: they have a twofold purpose. They aim to save money on the one hand; and on the other hand, to restructure universities. Money is being redirected from teaching resources, student services and care, and jobs, to prestige building projects, conference centres, advertising. Trade unions are coming under attack, with job cuts hitting union activists first and in certain cases, derecognition. In the academic year 2010-11, it is very unlikely that any campus will not suffer cuts or related attacks.

b. Partly as a result of this situation, the student left is in a period of gradual resurgence. In the academic year 2008-9, the wave of Gaza occupations taught a generation of student activists that direct action was possible, followed by less widespread but more substantial waves of action over cuts (see below). We should aspire to catalyse a similar but more substantial wave of direct action, including occupations and strikes, on campuses in the 2010/11 term around cuts and fees. There is much more student activity, much of it focused around cuts, at the start of this academic year than for many previous years, which often began with activists unsure what to do. This year in contrast: numerous meetings and actions, with further escalation likely.

c. Our vehicle for coordinating these struggles is the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. The NCAFC emerged after the start of 2009-10 saw a number of 'spontaneous' student anti-cuts campaigns emerged in universities including University of the Arts London, Leeds and Birmingham. These were generally not led by established activists. Students learned about cuts to their department and went into action. These campaigns were unclear on tactics, politics and relations to staff. The most significant fact about these campaigns was the fact that they mobilised a layer of "ordinary" students around day-to-day "class" issues- the first time this has happened on any significant scale in the student movement for a decade or more.

d. With students at UCL and a handful of other leftists (including Workers' Power; Counterfire students are peripherally involved), we took the opportunity to launch the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts to group these campaigns together and organise a conference of them in February. The conference was a success, and taught these new campaigns about a labour-movement/direct-action orientation. In March 2010, NCAFC-affiliated campaigns pulled off a wave of direct actions, from a series of occupations in Sussex, an occupation at Westminster (which effectively created a student left where previously there had been none), and rowdy demonstrations at UCL, UEA and elsewhere. Isolated AWL activists played a leading role at Westminster (Jade B) and Sussex (Patrick R).

e. So far the NCAFC functions mainly through regular open meetings in London. There is also a regional structure, which currently does not function that well. We will be attempting to revive this arrangement in the autumn, so that there will be regular democratic structures in which pretty much all student comrades and contacts can play a role. There will be a second National Convention Against Fees and Cuts, probably in February. We will also be seeking to get substantially more NCAFC literature produced. In addition, the NCAFC currently has something of a policy deficit and is politically underdeveloped. We should push for it to produce more policy documents, and perhaps something like a Charter of demands around cuts, fees, the organisation of education etc, as well as how student a model student union should function (perhaps something like the Fantasy Union of Rail Workers).

f. Intertwined with the NCAFC, there is a larger group of left-wing student union sabbatical officers this year, mainly in London - at London Met, University of the Arts, Goldsmith's (one SWPer), UCL, LSE, Westminster (Jade elected VP Education on a left slate) and ULU (where the president is member of Counterfire). At Westminster, we are helping to transform the SU, previously barely functional, into a political, campaigning organisation.

g. The NUS is organising a demonstration for 10 November 2010. The NCAFC is in a position to organise co-ordinated direct action after the demonstration and agitate for SUs and the NUS to escalate the action after this demonstration. This is a work in progress at the time of writing. The campaign is also involved in organising a "Free Education Bloc" on the demonstration, which looks like it will be big.

h. Branches should investigate local FE colleges and sixth forms to find out what cuts are taking place, try to involve both students and staff in local anti-cuts campaigns, and make contacts. FE student contacts made through such work can be encouraged to contribute to Barricade (see below).

i. While the structures of the NUS after the Governance Review make serious intervention in its structures more difficult and less rewarding than previously, the presence of a larger caucus of leftwing sabbatical officers than in previous years and the lack of momentum towards a 'new union' split makes agitation for an oppositional tendency in NUS worthy of serious investigation as a means of building the NCAFC. We should use the new strength of the NCAFC and associated individuals to once again push for a united slate for the NUS leadership positions.

j. The NCAFC should be a major focus of our student work in the coming year. It is an initiative which follows the 'industrial' logic of the situation and can at least aspire to create something similar in scale to the Campaign for Free Education of the 1990s. All branches, whether they have student comrades or not, should discuss the possibilities for using NCAFC materials to approach local student unions and student campaigning groups. All student comrades should be involved in anti-cuts committees on their campus, and seek to initiate them if they do not already exist.

2) Building the AWL among students

a. When this document was written we had students active, undertaking specifically AWL activity, in the following institutions: Westminster, Hull, Sheffield/Sheffield Hallam, Liverpool, SOAS, Cambridge, Oxford and Essex (we hope to have expanded the list by the time of conference), as well as the beginnings of activity among a small number of school students in London (see below).

b. Our aim should be to establish substantial student groups in a number of universities, so that isolated comrades or groups of two are not so often the norm. The crucial element in building on our small existing base by recruiting and retaining AWL members is consistent, routine activity. The best successes over the last year have come from regular AWL activity.

c. Hull branch is instructive. We started from having two comrades in Hull university. They functioned coherently visibly as a branch. The comrades were well integrated into broad activism (which, among other things, allowed Chris M to be elected as a sabbatical in a traditionally right-wing university, going on to recruit one of his fellow sabbs!) But they did not function as two individuals wholly absorbed in 'movement' tasks, who might "talk AWL" on the quiet to trusted confidants. They organised AWL meetings too, and intervened into and took part in broader struggles as AWL activists. A long period of routine AWL activity by two isolated comrades has paid off in a relatively burst of recruitment and expansion, and there are now six young comrades in Hull.

d. The lessons are contained in the briefing for student comrades we produced at the start of the year. Sustained activity to establish an AWL profile, including regular public meetings, is vital.

e. Comrades must not become isolated from regularly meeting other AWL members. This can result in disorganisation and political confusion. Where there is an isolated student comrade, arrangements should be made with comrades in a nearby town for regular visits and assistance in organising meetings. Student comrades must attend 'grown-up' AWL branch meetings where a branch exists, and remain in contact with the nearest branch if one doesn't.

f. Regular education, including self-education, is a very important element of developing our student work.

3) Barricade

a. The group has recently developed around a dozen 6th-form-age student contacts. The office workers are in the process of producing a school-student socialist magazine on the lines of Bolshy and similar past publications. It is entitled Barricade, and might be a useful tool for organising school student contacts and members around. Comrades should read it regularly, consider contributing, and attempt to draw 6th-form-age contacts into writing for and distributing it.

4) Fraction functioning

a. The Student Fraction has suffered from irregular and poorly attended fraction meetings this year. This functioning should be tightened up.

b. The Student Committee is to be re-elected at this conference.

Report on our activity in No Sweat

No Sweat has in the past been an important area of work for a number of comrades. The campaign was initiated by the AWL and has been maintained by the AWL, although it has never been a front organisation and has always involved other forces.

Whereas we used to have a number of local groups doing regular activity, No Sweat has shrunk to a group in London sustained by three AWL members and a handful of non-AWL supporters. This group in the last year was able to raise £1,500 for Batay Ouvriye in Haiti and £800 for the Labour Party Pakistan flood appeal.

No Sweat has declined because some key activists (members of AWL) had to reduce their activity; and because there have been more pressing political activities for AWL branches. That is not likely to change in the coming year.

However, the dropping off could also be a generational factor. With some energy and some activities organised for them, new contacts for No Sweat could probably be found.

No Sweat has a core set of valuable ideas argued with success in the anti-capitalist movements of the late 90s and 00s. It also has deserved brand recognition. It has enabled valuable solidarity to be given to some important working class activists in developing countries. In return, the UK labour movement and AWL have gained inspiration and knowledge from those comrades we helped.

The AWL comrades involved in the London group are prepared to sustain their activity in an effort to reinvigorate this group and the campaign generally.

Resolve:
The AWL should play its part (the crucial part) in keeping No Sweat functioning at least minimally, in the expectation that we can find new activists to do that work with us. We should concentrate on reviving the practice of organising speaker tours of activists from abroad, and approach trade unions to get funding for this.

Report on our activity in Workers' Climate Action

Workers Climate Action was established in 2007 by some young AWL comrades and some of the leading activists in the Climate Camp movement. Whilst it has never functioned as a cohesive organisation, it has been a useful badge of convenience for activists (both AWL and non-AWL) to express revolutionary working class environmental politics. WCA is the only organisation in the green movement or the labour movement to espouse this perspective of "worker-led just transition" (excepting AWL).

WCA is not a united-front in the traditional sense of a united front between revolutionary and reformist workers. The non-AWL people we work with in WCA are anti-capitalist environmentalists with a suspicion of Leninist organising strategy. The main obstacle to unity-in-action is organisational rather than political. There have been a few political disagreements on questions such as nationalisation, imperialism etc. but the broadly speaking WCA politics mirror AWL. AWL comrades have worked hard to accommodate some of the organisational strategies of the environmental movement (such as consensus decision making) in order to keep the environmentalists on board.

2009-10

Before AWL comrades went to the Isle of Wight and were instrumental in the Vestas dispute, the WCA network was largely moribund. Neither AWL or non-AWL activists were willing to put their energy into the organisation and the WCA banner was maintained by one AWL comrade, BS, attending London Climate Camp meetings. Also, we had some limited success in speaking at various union meetings, such as RMT young members. The Vestas dispute brought WCA back to life and the WCA "brand" was profiled in the national press. Drawing on the Climate Camp milieu, WCA was able to organise the biggest mobilisations to Vestas and many of the independent activists who were at Vestas organised under the WCA banner.

Off the back of the Vestas dispute we were able to organise a conference of around 100 people but again failed to use this momentum to build a lasting organisation. There were lots of discussions before this event within the AWL on how to get a lasting organisation. On the second day of the conference (the organising day) around 25 people attended and we drew up plans that were overly ambitious. Despite volunteering for lots of jobs, the "independents" and some of our own comrades failed to go away and work on their tasks. The organisational structure has never really functioned. In retrospect, some have argued we were too cautious in appeasing the anti-Leninist sentiments of the environmentalists. However, there was not a strong enough trade unionist element at the conference to assert a more conventional organising model.

The only ongoing organisation is in London where a few AWL people initiated WCA meetings which initially brought in around 15-20 people. This number has dropped off in recent months and again we have seen people volunteering for jobs and then disappearing. We now have a core group of around 6 people including 3 AWL comrades who have been organising an intervention around the BA strikes and also organising a workplace bulletin for Grimshaw Architect Firm (who were drawing up plans for the Third Runway at Heathrow).

Nationally, activity has been focussed on 3 areas - responding to industrial disputes (BA, National Grid etc.), intervening in Climate Camp and continued work around Vestas. Most of this work is internet based rather than active interventions.

Lessons

The WCA network has achieved a lot in a short space of time but is punching below its weight because of organisational weakness. For instance, it seems likely that a bigger WCA intervention into the Climate Camp could have resulted in the 2009 Camp moving to the Isle of Wight and giving a much needed boost to the Vestas dispute. A better organised group could have worked out pieces of direct action that could have supported the Vestas campaign (as Reclaim the Streets did during the Liverpool Dockers dispute). A better organised group could have made more links with the BA workers in the recent aviation dispute.

The organisational weakness is due primarily to the fact that the main activists involved have prioritised other activity (such as AWL, Plane Stupid, Climate Camp) and because the network has set itself goals that far exceed its activist capacity. The loose, consensus, network model of organising has also been inefficient. However, the experience of using consensus decision-making and other environmentalist organising strategies has been educative for comrades and has sharpened our arguments for democratic centralism.

Going forward

It has always been central to the work of WCA that we have rejected the kitsch-left idea of "first the revolution, then the environment" (equally we have rejected the green notion "first the environment, then the revolution"). Instead we have argued that environmental issues should be integral to working-class struggle, that environmental politics add a revolutionary element and urgency to working-class struggle and that workers become open to new ideas through struggle. If the period ahead sees an upsurge in class struggle then it is important that this banner of working-class environmentalism is visible to the workers coming into political activity. This is true despite the fact that many of these workers will be public sector employees and not employed in environmentally damaging industry.

Up until now, WCA activity has mostly focussed on the middle-class environmental movement, specifically around Climate Camp. We have largely failed to integrate the AWL trade union fractions into our work, let alone trade unionists beyond our ranks. There is a sense now that the Climate Camp is losing some of its momentum, direction and activists. The Climate Camp is the dog-end of the anti-capitalist movement of the late 1990s-early 2000s. It is part of the "retreat from class" that affected much of the left after the defeats of the 1980s. At a time of low level class struggle we were right to go into that movement and agitate for class politics. However, the seems little to be gained from continuing this approach. Our focus now should be on agitating for revolutionary environmentalist politics in the working-class movement that will hopefully grow and develop in the period to come.

That said, it is likely in the period ahead that the key activists in the network will concentrate more effort on non-WCA activity e.g. anti-cuts campaigning. The organisational problems that we have faced thus far will be further exacerbated. Our task therefore, is to think about how we use the WCA brand more effectively whilst reducing the amount of time and energy AWL comrades spend on this area of activity.

A proposal has been made to organise an "away weekend" in the autumn to set out our priorities and goals as a network. Interested comrades should attend this weekend and give some thought beforehand to how we use our activist time more effectively and to focus the work of the network.

We should proposal to WCA that we concentrate our limited resources on building the WCA website into a resource to develop the way forward to build a green working class political economy. This should firstly involve AWL union fractions working with WCA. We should invite union activists from beyond the AWL and WCA circle to write for us. In this way it could help develop with rank and file unionists alternate strategies for industry. This would give WCA a focus and some regular activity whilst there is no particular struggle to orientate towards. This proposal has the advantage that it can start small with limited resources and adapt to the changing situation.