The universities have been a fair bit quieter in 2011 than in the last few months of last year, but that seems to be changing this week. The UCU strikes that took place in several regions on Tuesday, and will happen across the country tomorrow, are an important step that everyone who’s interested in trying to build a truly effective movement against austerity should support. At the same time, it’s important not to get too enthusiastic: it’s still a very limited one- or two-day strike, firmly under the control of the union bureaucracies, and so not in the same league as, for instance, the wildcat sick-ins that shut down schools across Madison last month. The university system also displays a lot of the flaws and divisions of the trade union movement at its worst: many academics, even those with radical research interests, see themselves as professionals rather than as workers, so the idea of collective class struggle doesn’t seem relevant to them, and there’s little or no effort made to link up their struggles with the cleaners, porters, security guards, catering workers and other support staff who can only dream about enjoying the kind of conditions that the UCU workers are fighting to protect. Co-ordinated action by all university workers would be far more effective, but we shouldn’t expect to see it any time soon. Adding to the difficulties this strike faces is the fact that it takes place at a time of generalised class confrontation, so the government will be determined not to set a bad example by surrendering to striking workers. Of course, this also means that it’s important for us to do all we can to try and force them to give in.
On the positive side, there’s also the fact that these strikes are taking place in a university atmosphere that’s been transformed by the student movement. Militant students have given a clear example of what a movement that refuses to be constrained by its official leadership can look like, and there’ll be a lot of them on the picket lines this week. Normally, the presence of radical students supporting a strike can achieve very little – it’s unlikely that anyone’s going to have their outlook on the world transformed by a short chat with a stranger that they’ll probably never see again, and the difficulty of communication is intensified by the fact that, on the one hand, many workers buy into the stereotype of students as lazy and over-privileged, and on the other, many radical students are members of Leninist groups, which means that, sooner or later, whether they want to or not, they’ll have to go through the tired, alienating routine of attempting to flog their paper – no-one is more untrustworthy than someone who’s trying to sell you something.
In contrast, many of the striking UCU workers will be people the students already know and see on a regular basis, which increases the possibility that those on the picket lines will actually be able to relate to each other as individuals, rather than just seeing each other as cliched lefty students and striking workers. That may sound hippyish, but it’s something that has to happen in order for any actual communication to be possible. Of course, breaking down the barriers between academics and students is still a long way from breaking down the many barriers that separate the class as a whole, but it’s a step in the right direction. The Manchester Class Struggle forum leaflet discusses some of these issues, and WAG’s report on the strikes in London is also worth reading.
Of course, the strikes are only half the picture. Students haven’t just been supporting their lecturers, they’ve also been taking the initiative in occupying – not quite on the scale of November/December, but the movement certainly isn’t dead yet. It’s hard to find a definitive round-up, but at the very least, UCL’s re-occupied in solidarity with staff, Goldsmiths students have occupied Deptford Town Hall, a confusingly-named admin building which is apparently not the actual town hall, Edinburgh students occupied last week, and pride of place has to go to Glasgow’s magnificent occupiers who were brutally evicted by around 80 police, responded by immediately occupying the university’s Senate building, and are now back in their original location having been invited back by management.
An excellent victory, and one that seems to have got quite a bit of publicity, with write-ups in the Herald and the BBC, among others. The only sour note is that several of those involved were arrested after the events. It’s very possible that the eviction and subsequent repression, along with the eviction of the squat that was set up in Sheffield as part of the Lib Dem conference protests, may be the start of a generalised clamp-down as we move towards March 26th. After the police tactics that were used at G20, I’d certainly advise anyone from outside London coming down for the day to try and avoid sleeping in big convergence spaces, and if possible to try and stay at the house of a not-very-active friend or relative rather than that comrade you’ve known since you met them in Genoa in 2001 (or whatever, you know what I mean). Things are only likely to get crazier between now and Saturday, and that goes for our side as well as theirs – as has already been reported in the Mail, a group of around 20 women just blockaded Downing Street in order to physically prevent George Osborne from being able to deliver the budget speech. I’m not the biggest fan of lock-ons as a tactic, but this is excellent work.
So, what next? That’s impossible to predict. Just about the only thing I feel confident about saying is that the student movement has already passed the peak of what a purely student movement is capable of – assuming there ever was a “purely student movement” in the first place, which is a distortion in itself since school and sixth form pupils, and other youths not in education, played a vital role in making the big student demos so exciting. As Glasgow’s shown, struggles at individual campuses can still achieve a lot, but on a national level, the student occupations will either become one fraction of a broader revolt, or they’ll eventually die out. One way or another, this Satuday’s demo, will transform the limits of the situation. Either some event on Saturday, like Millbank, will decisively up the stakes and make it harder for business to continue as usual, or the cops and stewards will win and succeed in neutralising any potential the day has. If that happens, and those of us who’re more concerned about winning than about playing by the rules can’t create something worthwhile out of a situation as volatile as this, then it looks a lot like we’ve already lost.