Trade Unionists Support the Student Occupations

The mass movement against education cuts continued with a great show of wit, anger and initiative by students on 24 November. School, college and university students came together in actions against the Government plans. Occupations continue and are increasing as plans are underway for another day of action on 30 November some of which are calling for international links.

The NUS (National Union of Studentes) president, who initially condemned the occupation at Milbank Tory headquarters and ignored the 24 November actions, was forced to apologise for his position and now states publicly that he supports the nationwide “day of action” on 30 November. He has agreed that all student occupations will be supported on the front page of the NUS web site and has called for an immediate wave of occupations in protest against fees and cuts. He will see that financial, legal and political aid for all current and future occupations will be organised, and will issue a call for a national day of action in December on the day the parliament votes on tuition fees and give official support for any education workers taking further industrial action over the cuts (access the site of University College London’s occupation: http://ucloccupation.wordpress.com/).

Reports from the BBC and National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) show that 1,000s of students demonstrated and occupied throughout Britain on 24th November. The actions were significant because large numbers of school students in school uniform also walked out and demonstrated. They held their own meetings and voted to support the actions, children as young as 12 became part of a deepening mass movement against the government that is stealing their futures to keep the banks and capitalism going. Even the Mainstream media did not challenge the figure of 130,000 youth protesting.

Grants for 16 to 18 year olds with a maximum of £30 a week during term time have been stopped. This small grant helped towards travel and meal costs. At the same time organisations that help 10,000s of school students into continuing education are having their funding removed. This is at a time when the banks are making profits again and awareness of this has not escaped anyone, least of all students and school children, so the rational for the cuts rings hollow. In the space of a few months this government is seeking to prevent the future education of most of these students, while also trebling tuition fees and cutting teaching grants that will force closure or privatisation.

Some local councils sought to channel the actions by addressing the protestors saying they supported the students ‘so long as they remained peaceful’. However the same councillors are supinely implementing Tory cuts and refusing to join the resistance. Some council Labour leaders have even instructed councillors not to discuss with trade unionists fighting the cuts. The message from the slogans on student actions is to unite with workers who are fighting.

The students were joined by union branches of education workers despite not being encouraged to do so by union leaderships. This is despite calling for student support when there were strikes against job losses, although the PCS (civil servants), NUJ (journalists) and the RMT Underground railway workers in London have called for support. At the TUC (Trade Unions Congress) national congress in September there was a call for civil disobedience and co-ordinated strike action. But what was agreed was a national demonstration in March. At a meeting in November they called for a million to march, now there is a back sliding on that agreed figure.

The university sector of the UCU (Union of Colleges and Universities) national conference in November moved unanimously to congratulate the occupations, marches and other actions by all students, school children and staff (against the position of the general secretary) and called a national mobilisation for the demonstration in London and lobby of Parliament on the day that the fee rises are to be debated in December. They called on the UCU to approach the NUS and all the public sector unions to seek a joint mobilisation on that day and demanded that the TUC organise regional demonstrations in the three months between now and the TUC national demonstration in March. The conference also called for staff protests with the walkouts of students on that day for 30th November.

However the weakness of this motion is in not calling for both public and private sector unions and communities to join the December march and the student movement against the cuts.

The students have shown what is possible, permanent mobilisations and the continual discussion about how to take the movement further. It is clear that most union leaderships are trying to hold the movement back. But the best way to defend jobs and services and to fight for a programme that will really answer the needs of the youth, workers and communities is by joining the students in all their actions and discussing a common programme for action to defend and extend the welfare state – either it is run for and by the many or it is run by the bankers. Not only Britain but Ireland, Belgium, Portugal and Spain show it.

Many workers came out of the pubs or waved from their work places on 24 November, it shows the deep sympathy for the students. But they have to join the movement in the next weeks and months and deepen the links in the unions and communities.

The NCAFC position is clear they are calling for students and workers to unite, and for committees in every college, the International Socialist League thinks that call should be extended to committees in every school and the call for committees of resistance in every working class community.

While the banks grow evermore powerful after the crisis and maintain 1000s of threads of control over the State and government they drag whole nations deeper into their indebtedness as if whole nations and populations are nothing more than props for the profits and slave to profit.

The desire to have a meaningful life is a central part of the student protests. Yet the desire to be able to live your life was articulated a long time ago ‘the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the richest he and therefore every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.’ Said by leveller [1] Colonel Rainborough in the Putney Debates in 1647 during the period of the English revolution. That concerned extending the voting franchise, although even that makes a connection with today’s circumstances because unlike some countries students under 18 cannot vote but the Government is nevertheless trying impose some of its cuts on what it thought were the most vulnerable and sections unlikely to protest.

It is worth every student who wants to develop the present movement studying the English civil war and other periods like the Chartist movement and the struggles after the 2nd world war. Study the English bourgeois revolution, not for its religious form but for the desire of the levellers to go much further than Cromwell’s leadership of a bourgeois revolution. His historic task was to break the power of the absolute king and the landed aristocracy without deviating. Today the movement of the working class will need to break the power of parliament and its ability to impose the horror of cuts that is all about pushing society far back.

Today the centre of struggle is not over the central power of parliament against the rule of royalty but against the central control by parliament and the powerful forces of capital that stand over and their exercising rule with the bankers against the great majority of people.

The message from the State is that there is no alternative, a message pouring out from the government, media and many State sponsored institutions – the councils and councillors say the same – we are in this together, we have to take the cuts. They say the most vulnerable have to be helped by charity and volunteers, but that is a cover for cutting services and creating an army of volunteers that is working for nothing – to replace sacked workers. Cameron’s [2] idea of the ‘big society’ means breaking up society in to small parts, where services are maintained by voluntary forces. At the same these parts will be much more directly under the control of centralised state power.

Local Governments for example are holding meetings who work with homeless people and the message is to work out a strategy of dealing with the changes in benefits for the poorest. But that is all part of working out a strategy to implement the cuts. The central aim of the coalition government is to remove or cut benefits and roll them all into one benefit by 2013 based on a maximum benefit a person can receive. They will impose a ceiling on what a family may receive. That is a direct parallel of the 1930s.

These measures will also limit the rent that will be paid to the 30th percentile between the highest and lowest rent in the area [3]. That is why there is so much anger against what is social cleansing.

They give the banks much more freedom and the workers and youth much less freedom. Behind all this is finance capital which increases its control over society by placing ever greater restrictions on the population. In Britain in 1918 the richest 1% of earners received 19% of all income, by 1950, 12%; by 1980, 6%, by 1992, 10%; by 2005, 16% – soon it will be back to the same figure as 1918.

The spirit of the students will need to be taken up fully by the unions and the working class; one of the lessons of the emerging mass movement is that nothing is gained without continuous mobilisations in demonstrations and occupations that begin to threaten the functioning of institutions. The student gained a great deal by moving ahead with unofficial actions. That is the type of movement in the working class that fought for health, education, employment and rights after the 2nd World War. It was the determination to take action with and if necessary without the official leaderships that led to jobs, universal benefits, health and education during the first Labour Government after the war.

“As the Labour Government carried through policies of wage freeze and austerity while prices rose, the unofficial strike and unofficial committee rapidly became a feature of nearly all industries – engineering, mining, road transport, shipping – but, above all, flourished on the docks.” (Bill Hunter, They Knew Why They Fought. Unofficial Struggles and Leadership on the Docks 1945, 1989).

Many sections of the workers mentioned in the quote above have gone but the potential power of the rank and file of the unions is very great – greater than the student movement. As the students say the mass movement must build on the unity of workers and students in struggle and we would add the real lessons from the history of class struggle.

Students show that if the present leadership is not adequate new leaderships need to emerge. The International Socialist League would like to talk to anyone who is interested in taking that further and also in discussing how a movement can be built that will encompass students, unions and communities.

[1] The Levellers was a political movement during the English Civil Wars (1642-1649) which emphasised popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law, and religious tolerance, which wanted to go beyond Cromwell’s leadership.

[2] David Cameron: current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and leader of the Conservative Party.

[3] The new Budget introduced a cap on the level of Local Housing Allowance (LHA) paid to claimants, and cut the level of LHA to the 30th percentile of rents in each area, rather than the median – reducing the number of properties that claimants will be able to afford.