On December 3rd, unions at universities across the country held a second day of strike action in a dispute over pay which has seen staff take an effective pay cut of 15% over the last 5 years. While vice chancellors and university management bleat about the need for British universities to “compete in a global market” – proof indeed that higher education is now just a conveyor belt for the corporate world rather than a place of academic learning – pickets took to university entrances to get their message across – not just to the public, but to the students whose education, say the vice chancellors, they are “disrupting”.
The relationship between students and trade unions has always been somewhat problematic. To die-hard industrial unionists, university students have too often been likened to the chattering liberal classes; exceedingly eloquent on the Marxist theory of profit and the minutiae of Sixties feminism, but not much use on the pitched battles with the police on the picket lines of history. To students, unions have often been seen as dinosaurs of a bygone age – out of date, out of touch, and riddled with the macho chauvinistic attitudes of old working class industrialism.
Both characterisations are demonstrably wrong. Firstly, students today are anything but “middle class” (though with tuition fees now biting hard, that may well shift within a matter of years – much to the delight of the Tory social engineers). Many students have joined the hordes of agency workers on zero-hour contracts and received a decidedly bitter taste of what it is like to suffer under the worst labour laws in Western Europe. Unions, on the other hand – far from being macho industrialists in an age in which there is no heavy industry left – have become inclusive and modernised – and are still the only organisations able to halt or at least destabilise the policies of an unpopular Government which has no real mandate to carry them out.
As a result, something of a welcome convergence is happening. Many trade unionists felt somewhat shamed by the valiant student protests in 2010, which saw youngsters engage in the sort of pitched-battle protests which the unions themselves historically always led. A wave of strikes and a rise in union membership since the economic collapse has shown that the unions are, albeit slowly, on the rise and finally on the offensive. Equally significantly, the presence of students on picket lines – not to mention their considerable presence on TUC demonstrations in London, and more recently at the Tory conference in Manchester – has shown that finally, students and unions are very much fighting side by side, and for shared and common objectives.
At York University, pickets were joined by the large Socialist Students society and other supporters; while at York Higher Education College, students joined a solidarity march from the college to St Helens’ Square, waving union placards and chanting workers’ slogans all the way. Jake Wood, spokesman for York College Socialists, said “We feel it’s vital to come out and support our teachers’ strike. This pay cut is just one of many cuts to education which, in turn, cuts our opportunities for a better future.” Kierran Horsfield, another student of the college, said that the treatment of students a few years ago had “radicalised even school students to the realities of what is happening.” It seems that university students are not the only ones refusing to swallow the “divide and rule” tactic of vice chancellors to drive a wedge between workers and students by claiming strikers “disrupt their education”, but even school students are not fooled by such empty rhetoric either.
So how can student groups and unions take this tentative relationship forward? Firstly, the scandalous treatment of students in occupation at the hands of the Metropolitan Police has given them a taste of what trade unionists suffered for years in the ’70s and ’80s – and the unions should both support those excluded students, and be vehement in their condemnation of police tactics that are now routinely meted out to young people at the slightest whim of the authorities. The emergence of a Police State is something of which today’s students are very keenly aware – after all, who can forget the student protestors of 2010 protecting themselves from police batons with 6 foot high copies of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”? That irony was most certainly not lost on the literate.
Secondly, through initiatives such as Unite’s community membership scheme, students should be encouraged to join us and participate in the general workers struggle, because as many of them are already aware, this is their struggle just as much as it is ours. The establishment have always relied on playing off students and workers against each other, but as recent events show, that futile propaganda is now falling on deaf ears. An alliance of students and unions – the two most radical elements of society – would strike fear into the heart of the establishment. For that reason alone, we must work hard at establishing a close relationship, and if that can be achieved and sustained, no amount of propaganda – whether it is from vice chancellors who ought to know better, the Government or their lackeys in the media, will succeed in undermining a unified force that is determined to fight the lie of austerity, and to expose it for the corporate robbery that it actually is.