In the last weeks students, including many school students, have organised strikes, walk-outs, sit-downs, occupations and mass demonstrations. These protests, the like of which we haven’t seen for many years, have been an inspiration to all of us.
The students’ energy and innovation could, if the movement goes on for any length of time, help the labour movement to rediscover tactics and forms of struggle we once knew but have for the most part long since forgotten.
In the course of student struggles socialists often raise the slogan “students and workers unite!” But why do we say that?
In the first place it is because, while student struggles may invigorate, inspire, catalyse, in some instances even win significant reforms, they cannot fundamentally challenge the basis on which our society is organised. Only a struggle based in the essential site of capitalist exploitation — the workplace — can do that.
Universities and school are, of course, workplaces for hundreds of workers, and worker-student unity in education has always been a priority for socialists active in the student movement.
What does working-student unity mean practically? Crucially, what does it mean practically in a context in which students are much more prepared to take the kind of direct action we need than trade unions?
The TUC has called a national demonstration against cuts. But it’s not until March 2011. In such a context, declaring the need for student-worker unity can sound like an instruction to student activists to harness their activism to the sluggish and bureaucratic pace of the labour movement. That’s not what we want to say at all!
The other potential negative interpretation of “worker-student unity” is one that advocates a relationship between students and workers which is a marriage of convenience between two sets of people on the receiving end of the government’s cuts assault.
That strategic alliance might include student speakers appearing at trade union events and vice verse, it might include trade unionists attending student actions, it might include calling joint demonstrations. All of that is positive and should be fought for — and students do need the workers’ movement if they are to win more of their demands! — but there’s a key ingredient missing.
For students, an orientation to the labour movement is not just about seeking powerful allies but also about looking to the only force capable of consistently fighting for and winning the reorganisation of society.
In most workplaces, AWL members. have found that our workmates and our fellow trade unionists have been inspired by the students’ action.
It has shown them that resistance is possible, and it has made them question why our unions — possessed of far greater resources and potential powers of organisation than any student activist network — are so reluctant to organise anything similar.
Politically, most workers understand that higher education has not been the sole preserve of middle-class people for some time, but that the government’s plan is about returning it to that condition.
The education funding proposals are a direct assault on the right of working-class people to high-quality education, and the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance for further education and sixth form students is another cut that will hit the poorest people hardest.
The education funding battle is as much a class issue as any fight over wages, terms and conditions.
Much of the onus in buiding unity must be on the labour movement. Many student activists networks have been generated in struggle by the recent movement are still organised on an ad hoc basis; the labour movement has the resources, and permanently-organised structures, to take the initiative. We must also remember that today’s student activists, even those with working-class politics, have grown up in a period in which the labour movement was all but invisible as a social force. Even students who wish to reach out to the union may not know how. Therefore trade unionists must endeavour to reach out to them.
That means delegations from union branches and trades councils visiting student occupations, as striking RMT members and TSSA members have been doing in London.
It means supporting student actions in whatever way we can, even if that’s just by visiting demonstrations on our lunch hour with our union banners or by producing supportive statements, like the one signed by several NUT National Executive members (initiated by AWL member Patrick Murphy).
It means producing joint statements, like that from the RMT’s Regional Secretary in London and leading members of the National Campaign Against Fees.
It means calling joint actions, as the RMT, PCS and student activists are doing in Newcastle on 5 December.
It means developing mutual solidarity, as students in London have been doing by visiting picket lines during the recent tube strike.
It means inviting students to speak at union branches and trades councils.
The conservatism of our unions at a national level is an obstacle here.
Historically, any joint work between the labour movement and the student movement at this level has been mediated through the National Union of Students, an organisation whose role in the recent movements has graduated from obscene to merely treacherous (it first denounced the direct-action movement as “despicable”, then promised support, then reneged on the promise).
But by providing models of unity at a local level, rank-and-file activists can build up pressure within their unions to change the national direction. We cannot wait for movement at the top; if even one branch of one union in one city is prepared to move, it must.
Ultimately, student-worker unity must mean joint direct action on the basis of class-struggle politics. The students’ fight is a class battle. We need common ownership of a struggle based on a working-class resistance to the government’s programme.
In the first instance, that means developing ongoing student-worker committees on every campus to discuss joint action. Socialists in the education sector, or in unions with members in the education sector, must fight, at every possible level for the union, for support for the students’ struggles. Not just opposition to the government’s plans, but practical support for all the activity students students are organising, based on the kinds of practical unity proposed above.
Other unions should back the NUS/UCU national demonstration called for the day of the vote on the government’s legislation to raise fees.
If the kind of unity and solidarity that is being developed locally can be amplified nationally, then the wave of student action will have played its most valuable possible role; to have catalysed a long-dormant labour movement into life. If it does that, the possibilities are limitless.