Tag Archives: leigh wilks

Students give solid support to education strikes

studentprotest1On 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 To students, unions have often been seen as dinosaurs of a bygone age – out of date, out of touch, and riddled with the macho chauvinistic attitudes of old working class industrialism.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.

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A big show of support for socialist healthcare – a poor show of silence by the corporate media

It’s not every year that the first day of a party conference is met by 60,000 activists, marching in opposition to a single political issue. But, as the famously astute (yet famously ineffectual) Chancellor Nigel Lawson drily observed – “The NHS is the closest thing that the English have to a religion”.

On Sunday 29th September, thousands of NHS worshippers (including two coach-loads from York & District TUC) brought central Manchester to a stand-still. Hordes of trade unionists, health workers, students and activists converged on the city, to protest the Tories’ dismantling by stealth of the greatest of all British institutions; the NHS. A blatant privatisation in all but name – an Orwellian “reform” offering patient “choice” and “efficiency” (always truly terrifying words when uttered from Conservative lips) – this was always going to be an issue that would bring people on to the streets.

And bring people out it certainly did. With a line of tightly-packed union contingents close to a mile long, it took more than half an hour before the march could even set off. The range of campaigners was unusually broad; apart from the predicted mass of branded union flags arranged in traditional block formation, there were young teens with cardboard placards and personalised slogans daubed in red paint; hunt saboteurs with black flags on which were sleek red foxes, and an incessantly loud (and very blue) contingent of students from Manchester University – proudly reclaiming a colour that, for far too long, has been associated with a political ideology that most students don’t particularly like very much.

There was an element of celebration – a celebration that after 60 years, one of the few remaining achievements of post-War socialism has still not been truly broken, because the people just refuse to let go of it. As the students put it on one of their placards – “Private Health Service – it just sounds crap.” Indeed it does. But there was also a sense of urgency; a feeling that the oiled-up wheels are already well in motion, that the US “healthcare” giants are already circling like vultures looking for a pick of the Health Service buck – and that, despite the overwhelming opposition of a huge majority of the electorate, the Government are quite prepared to press ahead with their “reforms” without so much as a blink – no matter what 60,000 lefties marching on a Sunday afternoon might think. In York, which has this last week seen the announcement of the closure of a mental health unit, we are only just beginning to see the effects of this push for “choice” and “efficiency” – because there is sure to be a great deal more of it coming our way. 

What was more baffling – and if you think about it, also a little disturbing – was the shameful lack of media coverage of such a massive demonstration. This was probably the largest Manchester has ever seen, and although it was adequately covered by the local press, the lack of a national media presence was noticeable – and surprising. Considering some of the “trouble” at TUC demos in the past, most notably March 26th 2011, a big media presence was fully expected. Yet the reality was quite different – BBC News uttered a few cursory remarks about a “peaceful protest” before swiftly moving back to its headline report on the shut-down of the US Government. There was barely a mention in the mainstream Left-wing press – including The Guardian – let alone the gutter tabloids, who for the last few weeks have been far more occupied with the issue of whether a late Marxist academic “hated Britain” or not.

Some activist groups, infuriated by the BBC’s almost non-existent coverage, have flooded the BBC with complaints and – somewhat predictably – received the same carbon-copy response – “The event was covered – during all news slots”. Well – yes, that’s true. But they didn’t report the six-foot high ring of steel protecting the precious elite from the wrath of NHS workers and their families – hardly unexpected, of course, that only the Tory Party conference would need that sort of extra protection from “breaches of security”. In one of the most ironic events of the day, BBC correspondent Norman Smith tweeted that he had been “prevented” from filming the demo from inside the Tories’ Fort Knox compound – by, as it turned out – G4S. Ironic, because if the Tories ever did get round to privatising our police force, this company – an outfit that has in the past seemed to specialise in “losing” prisoners on a disturbingly regular basis – would probably be right at the front of the queue. But shocking in that the BBC didn’t even see fit to report the blatant censorship of one of their own.

What a comparison this all was to the huge TUC demo in March a few years ago, when we saw a swathe of rampaging anarchists running through Oxford Street attacking the Ritz, high street banks and other symbols of indifferent affluence – in the midst of a crippling austerity imposed on ordinary people. Violence, it appears, seems to be the only news that certain elements of the corporate media are only really interested in these days. In adopting this tendency, they are playing a dangerous game. The overwhelming majority of ordinary people in this country are peaceful and law-abiding – and realise only too well that extreme violence and disorder on the streets is counter-productive – haven’t we lost enough civil rights over the last 20 years on the back of perceived ideas about terrorism and “threats of disorder” to know that we shouldn’t give the Government further excuse to take even more? Yet it seems that, if there is no “disorder” on TUC marches these days – then the major media are just not interested.

But what is true is that 60,000 ordinary people – who are representative of a great deal more than that – can’t be ignored – and nor should they be, least of all by the professional arbiters of journalism, whose ideas of a free press are supposed to underpin the very principles of our democracy. The advance of instant and independent media – and the lightning spread of ideas – makes any ignorance on the part of the corporate media redundant, because it is they who are becoming redundant. Those who oppose the sell-off of our National Health Service, whether the corporate media report on them or not, are not going to go away – and the electorate, who already think that the Government is not being honest on this issue – let alone right and responsible, are equally furious. That is something that both the Government and the corporate media will just have to come to terms with, and preferably sooner rather than later.

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