The return of student movements as a social force

History this week No.52 /2011

By Christopher Carrico

‘It was telling that Obama said in his 2010 State of the Union Address that universities would have to make more sacrifices in the current economy. FDR gave a similar speech once, except he called on the captains of industry and bankers to make sacrifices, not public employees and universities.’ Okla Elliott,, 3 March 2011

Last month in CounterPunch, in the article ‘Why Madison matters’, scholar and policy researcher Andrew Levine wrote: “Almost overnight, the world changed. Madison (Wisconsin) became Ground Zero in America’s domestic class struggle; and, just as amazing, labor launched an uprising in defense of union rights which thousands of students joined.”

There are two things that Levine finds amazing here. First, he finds it amazing that class struggle and a labour movement have found new life in the US. Given American labour history of recent decades, this is reason enough to be amazed. A second amazement was the fact that a student movement and a labour movement were working in solidarity with one another.  This is a remarkable development for the American scene, where student-worker alliances remained largely matters of theory in the 1960s (not realized as a concrete reality as they were in some other countries).

Levine noted that in the US in the 1960s, one major reason for the failure of a real student-worker movement to materialise was the fact that the majority of the American working class did not support the student anti-war movement. On on 13 March, I argued that the main reason that the present situation is different was that:

“Unlike the labor-capital pact that supported the military industrial complex of post WWII America, many more working people in the US today see a connection not between military spending and their livelihoods as workers in the military-industrial complex. Rather, the experience of today’s working class and poor is that spending on never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has created a federal debt crisis in the US that the government attempts to partially offset through dollars saved by the destruction of what remains of a social safety net and basic social services. The same class fraction that once formed the American ‘labor aristocracy’ now, incredibly, has begun to see the truth that Martin Luther King, Jr, among others, articulated in the US during the late 1960s: that the anti-war movement, and the movement for social and economic justice in the United States, are indeed a part of the same struggle and the same fight.”

If the American working class has stripped away some of its illusions about the War Economy, American students have also stripped away some of their illusions that gaining a tertiary education will guarantee them the possibility of rising above their class. “We see students in the United States and elsewhere faced with the harsh reality that, in spite of their higher level of education, they have no reasonable basis by which to believe that they will do better, or even as well, as their parents’ generation did economically.” The US is one of many countries where this scenario is true. About the UK I wrote: “Something of this same realization lies behind what has driven the recent student movement in the UK. Sparked in part by drastic tuition hikes put into place by the new Lib-Dem/Conservative coalition government, one interesting fact about the UK movement was the widespread participation of secondary school students. This is perhaps because the tuition hikes end the illusion of a meritocracy, and signal that even those poor and working class students who worked hard and achieved high test scores will increasingly be locked out of tertiary education.  Locked out of the possibility of rising above their class by way of higher education, poor and working class students face a bleak future, with dwindling opportunities for employment without further education, accompanied by dwindling opportunities for advancement by pursuing diplomas and degrees through the university system.”

In the US, students and workers in Wisconsin were responding to the newly elected ‘Tea Party’ Governor’s bill to eliminate the right to collective bargaining for the state’s public sector employees. It was opposed by a strong and fighting movement among the public sector unions, and was opposed just as strongly by student activists from Wisconsin’s colleges and universities. The student and worker battles ended in calls for a general strike.

The immediate battles have been lost. The bill was passed and signed by the Wisconsin Governor. Workers in Wisconsin did not go out on General Strike. But there is still the feeling among American progressives that something new was born in this fight; in spite of its failure to achieve its immediate objectives.

I would argue that a new spirit has been born worldwide in recent years that has meant, once again, as in the 1960s, student movements are at the vanguard of social change in many parts of the world. For many years, the student movement in Iran has been major force in opposing the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The student movement has been a steadfast leader in the anti- and alter-globalization movements around the world (usually more steadfast that the trade unions and the political parties), and in many places has transformed these into very assertive movements.

Massive student protests were central in the recent unraveling of the North African regimes. They played and continue to play a critical role in Tunisia and in Egypt, for instance. One factor at work here is the large numbers of young people in these countries, many of whom are unable to find much in the way of economic opportunities.  A New York Times article of 30 January, 2011, entitled ‘Egyptian opposition’s old guard falls in behind young leaders’ argued: “Both newcomers and veterans of the opposition movement say it is the young Internet pioneers who remain at the vanguard behind the scenes.”

In the Caribbean, in April last year, the students of the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus staged an action that was originally intended to be a 2-day strike on one campus, that turned into a strike that shut down 10 of the 11 UPR campuses, and saw students occupying the Rio Piedras Campus for 60 days. Among the issues at stake were tuition hikes, and the government’s refusal to provide adequate financial support to the university system.

In modern times, student movements have often played key roles in struggles for the transformation of the wider societies of which they are a part. Even in their most narrowly focused and parochial forms, student movements have played important roles in the democratization of education systems, in reforms and transformations to the educational curriculum, and engagements between academia and issues of wider social significance.

In the Caribbean, as in much of the world, 1968 was a watershed year for student movements. In October 1968, when UWI lecturer Dr Walter Rodney was refused re-entry to Jamaica by the Hugh Shearer government, a student group from UWI Mona held a demonstration that shut down the campus, and led a march on the Prime Minister’s office and Parliament. The chaos and destruction that followed as a result of the actions that poor and unemployed Jamaican youths also took in protest of Shearer’s ban have come to be known as the Rodney Riots.     When student movements look beyond their narrow parochial interests they can become truly significant agents of change in the societies of which they are a part. They have been a part of coalitions of forces that have helped to end wars, change budgets, change constitutions, and bring down governments.  Student movements with this wider social vision seemed to have reached their highest degree of significance in the 1960s, but in 2010 and 2011 they have shown themselves to be serious contenders in the fight for social change once again.

However, as Alex Callinicos noted in The Guardian late last year (26 December 2010), “Student demonstrators can’t do it on their own”. Students lack the collective power and the organizing ability to fundamentally transform the societies around them without making linkages, and acting in clear solidarity with other social movements, particularly the labour movement.

Callinicos writes (referring to the situation in the UK, but making an observation that is widely applicable in many other places) that “students lack the collective economic strength that, for all the setbacks it has suffered, the trade union movement still possesses”.

It is precisely this kind of student-labour alliance that caused so much hope in the case of the movement in Wisconsin, and student-labour alliances were (and continue to be) a major factor in the Egyptian revolution. There is something about the character of these kinds of alliance that gives them a tremendous amount of potential.

Perhaps it is because they bring mental and material production in their most organized forms together into a single movement. Whatever the underlying social reasons might be, student-worker movements have historically sometimes become movements for revolutionary social change.

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