A return to student militancy in the UK?

Students in the UK might emulate the Quebecois strike of 2012 in their opposition to government cuts on grants.

Callum Cant
15 September 2015
student strike Quebec rescaled.jpg

Flickr/ Daniel Arauz.Some rights reserved.

Students in the UK have launched a campaign for a student strike in response to the government’s latest attacks on education. In particular they want to stop the incredibly unpopular conversion of maintenance grants into loans that puts the poorest students in the most debt. They also hope to get the National Union of Students (NUS) to ballot all of its members on the action, and pursue a strategy unseen in the UK for 45 years - since a 5-week strike in 1971 defeated Thatcher during her period as education minister.

Ever since the cut to grants were announced in the budget, there have been predictions that the chancellor had delivered students with a key issue to mobilize around, and could provoke another wave in the student movement. These predictions seem to be coming true. When students start to return to campus over the next few weeks we will begin to see what the mood is like on the ground although every early indication is that students want to take on the government.

The political climate is, no doubt, already heavily shaped by a spectacular Corbyn victory and a new found conviction that collective power can change politics as usual. The air is slowly turning red. And it is in this climate that an audacious plan for the largest student collective action in years is being proposed. 

But what is a student strike? To answer this question, it is probably best to go back to basics.

A strike is the democratic withdrawal of participation from a process which relies on it. So, in the workplace, workers refusing to work results in stopping the production of value. Similarly, in Universities, students refusing to turn up to class stops teaching from happening. In refusing to take part, the workers and students reveal themselves to be an irreplaceable part of the process of work and education.

When workers go on strike, stuff stops getting made. The economic impact of such a strike is very obvious and immediate. A student strike, however, is somewhat more complex. To understand the effect of a student strike, then, you have to look at its pinnacle: the general unlimited strike.

When 300,000 students in Quebec went on strike for 6 months in 2012 to oppose a tuition hike, they threatened the functioning of the economy, delayed the production of graduates for the workforce, and cost the government and universities huge amounts of money. Eventually, they stopped a planned fee hike and forced the government to hold snap elections - which the incumbents lost badly- to a party which opposed the fee hike. This victory was won through two principle methods of applying pressure: threatening to delay graduation, and provoking a crisis for the state.

When students refuse to be taught, the process of producing a workforce cannot go on. Prominent graduate employers began to get very worried by the Quebec strike because it threatened to leave them with a huge labour shortfall: they rely on a new influx of trained young people every year, and it looked for a while as if that was not going to happen - and an entire academic year would have to be repeated.

This can be best characterized as a rebellion of raw materials, not a rebellion of productive labour. Productive labour - the academics doing the teaching, the support staff running the university - could be continuing at full speed (although ideally, it would also have stopped). But the materials they are meant to work on - students - are refusing to play ball, resulting in a halt in production.

Alongside interrupting the graduate market, an unlimited general student strike provokes a crisis for the state. Within a capitalist economy, the state generally takes on the role of preparing a workforce for capital to employ. When students go on strike, that basic function is challenged. The state exists to reconcile the differences between labour and capital into a coherent whole, and when its ability to reconcile begins to be challenged this results in profound destabilization. Having hundreds of thousands of students on the street, on picket lines, disrupting economic infrastructure and more for months at a time only worsens this crisis. Students make good use of the time they would usually spend on studying, and use it to create a massively disruptive social movement. It was this crisis of the state that forced the collapse of the Quebecois government.

A general unlimited strike has quite a different leverage  compared to a more limited strike, such as is being proposed in the UK student movement. But the effectiveness of a shorter strike is drawn from the threat of escalation towards a general strike. The ASSE - the union being the 2012 Quebec strike - organized years of action and education in the gap between the announcement of the fee rise in 2010 and its application in 2012 in order to build a “rapport de force (power relationship) with the government. This included shorter, limited strikes, but as part of a general pattern of escalation including demonstrations, banner drops, direct action, mass political education and more.

As a one-off tactic, a limited student strike is more effort than it is worth. In order to be an effective strategy, It has to form part of a constant escalation of pressure tactics which improves the position of student unions in the “rapport de force with the state. Only when that happens will governments enter negotiations with students, pleading with them to return to lectures. This doctrine of confrontation with the state through a strategy of escalation towards a general unlimited strike is what Quebecois students call “syndicalisme de combat (combative syndicalism), and it has been proven to win.

As such, a shorter strike is effective not as the final action in itself, but as a demonstration that if the government does not change its plans then students are prepared and able to strike. And next time, they will organize themselves to strike for longer. This proposal of a limited strike will only be the beginning.

In a UK context, such a return to student militancy would be a serious threat to a Tory government that is fast seeing the political centre ground shift left. In fact, the leadership manifesto of the new leader of the option was actually more left-winged than the demands students may well be striking over in Spring. Given that student anger is often a catalyst for wider social movements, the Tory horizon is starting to look bleak. 

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