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ISR / Socialist Students conference: Fighting to change the world
THE THIRD conference of International Socialist Resistance (ISR) and Socialist Students took place on 20 November against a background of the escalating conflict in Iraq, a growing anger against the occupation and further attacks on the public sector at home.
Ken Douglas reports.
"It is more important than ever that young people get organised."
Opening ISR/Socialist Student conference 2004, ISR national organiser Clare James reviewed recent international events - the re-election of George Bush, the brutal suppression of Fallujah, the death of Yasser Arafat and the ongoing crisis in Israel/Palestine.
At home, the conditions that young people face in this country - low pay, tuition fees, student debt - are worsening. When Prince William was interviewed about going to university, he said he had enjoyed a normal life as a student. But a normal life for most students means poverty, working in low paid, menial jobs during term-time, massive debt and then the worry about getting a decent job when you finish.
Socialist Students' national organiser, Zena Awad, spoke about the worsening situation in Iraq. But she explained how the growing anger against the occupation and US imperialism shows the anti-war movement still has a lot of potential to develop.
Zena mentioned how the war and occupation had caused the deaths of thousands of Iraqi people and hundreds of US and British soldiers. She referred to reports of how the recent bombardment of Fallujah by US forces had left the city in ruins and many without electricity and regular food supplies.
Zena stressed the importance of ISR and Socialist Students continuing to campaign for the end of the occupation of Iraq. At a time when people are asking "What is happening in Iraq?", "How can the occupation be ended?" and "Why has Bush been re-elected?" ISR and Socialist Students have an important role to play in providing an analysis of what is happening and putting forward the socialist alternative.
Gareth Lewis, a young organiser for the PCS union, who had started working at DVLA, the driver licensing agency in Swansea, as an 18 year old, described the conditions there. He said that after five years the number of casual workers had doubled and that workers were struggling because of the low wages. Most can't afford to run a car and public transport is poor - it can take over three hours to get to work.
Unfortunately, the right wing leadership of the PCS branch at DVLA is holding workers back from fighting to improve their conditions - for instance there had been no contact with the branch prior to the recent one-day civil service strike on 5 November. Gareth emphasised the importance of building a youth network in PCS to facilitate the involvement of young people in every area of the union.
Suzanne Beishon described some of the campaigns that ISR/Socialist Students have been involved with over the last year. In the ISR national campaign against low pay, members in Leicester protested at Stay-brite Windows; in Liverpool against Tesco's attacks on sick pay. In Swansea and Sheffield, members dressed up as monkeys and handed out peanuts to illustrate the poor wages that young people are getting.
There were local demos against top-up fees and the national demo in London; demonstrations and local campaigns against the occupation of Iraq. ISR members in London also demonstrated against the sexist advertising of NUTS magazine.
Finally, there was the European Social Forum on 15-17 October - a marathon event in which ISR members from all over England and Wales participated with the slogan 'A socialist world is possible'.
Bob Severn, from Socialist Students, was critical of the NUS leadership's strategy to defeat tuition fees - they missed the opportunity to put more pressure on MPs to vote against. At the time you couldn't find anyone in the country who was in favour of them. But the NUS leadership limited itself to a demo and a lobby of Parliament and then, when the vote had gone through, pretended that the House of Lords was going to throw it out.
The election of Kat Fletcher as NUS president, the first non-Labour president for at least 20 years, was a good thing. But since then there have been attacks on NUS democracy in the name of cost-cutting and the downgrading of the national demo against tuition fees to a demo in Cardiff.
Bob called on the Cardiff demo to be the start of a renewed campaign, including a national demo in London, of direct action around the country to defend non-payers of fees, built from the bottom up. The deadline to get motions in for NUS conference in March, however, is 2 December, so Socialist Students' societies have to be quick.
The NUS needs to be open and democratic - one third of the NUS' debt is due to the disaffiliation of FE colleges, disillusioned at the lack of action from the leadership. Bob said it was entirely possible to win a campaign for more money for education - Britain spends only 1.1% of GDP on tertiary education, compared to 2.4% in South Korea and 2.8% in the US.
But protests are not enough - we have to fight to win victories. Students need to be clear that these attacks on education are not just the fault of Blair and a few MPs but are part of an offensive by the ruling class against the gains of the welfare state.
Now, more than ever, we need a new mass workers' party and Socialist Students will campaign for it. We need to step up, not step back.
IN THE discussion Bobby Cranney, from Sheffield, showed the extent of the cuts in higher education - there aren't enough chairs in the university library for everybody to sit down.
Peter from Manchester related how the BNP had attempted to infiltrate the Student Union but the week before conference Socialist Students members had got a motion through to get them kicked out.
Thomas House, from Sussex university, pointed to the hypocrisy of the recent Band Aid remake of Do they know it's Christmas?. Madonna introduces the video, talking about the appalling conditions in Africa but it is capitalism, of which she is a rich part, that has caused those problems. Only socialism could provide a genuine alternative to eliminate poverty and hunger.
Phil, a trainee teacher from Brighton, related how the attacks on comprehensive education in Brighton had led to one school being closed, leaving the eastern part of the city without a comprehensive school.
Sophie Ramsey, appealing for funds, said that young workers and students were among the most exploited in society - often they don't know their rights at work, or about how to join a trade union. Sophie urged delegates to join ISR and Socialist Students - the stronger we are the more campaigns we can fight. The ISR Low pay-no way campaign with the Know your rights at work pack was an excellent example of how ISR is leading the way.
The money was necessary because ISR had no rich backers. In order to be in control of our own organisation we need to raise the money ourselves. The collection raised £161 and will be divided equally between ISR and Socialist Students.
End the occupation of Iraq
This workshop discussed the need to withdraw the troops and how their presence fosters divisions and increases support for terrorist organisations.
It also discussed the question of support for the Iraqi resistance and the fact that we can't give unconditional support - the resistance needs to be based on the working class - and the possibility of building trade unions and workers' organisations in Iraq.
The goup also discussed the need to continue to build a strong anti-war movement here - the school student strikes were a good example of how to do this.
The media is biased and doesn't give the full story on Iraq or Afghanistan, focusing overwhelmingly on western casualties, not the suffering of the ordinary people.
Campaigning against sexism
There was a wide ranging discussion, covering the issue of the banning of the hijab in France to the role of the nuclear family in capitalist society.
There was a debate on whether we should be campaigning against sexist advertising or if we should focus on work-related maternity and other socio-economic issues and if in fact there should be a distinction between the two campaigns.
We also discussed abortion rights and how there could be a rise in the influence of the pro-life lobby, so we have to be prepared to campaign on this. We also addressed the problem of pressure on women in relation to images in the media, the use of sexist language and the difficulty in overcoming the stereotypes projected by broadcasters and advertisers.
Finally we touched on the Fathers4Justice campaign, the question of prostitution, unionising the sex industry and domestic violence.
ISR: Campaigning in schools and colleges
Ellen BUDDLE reported from the ISR campaign in Walthamstow, London, against closing McEntee school and turning it into a design academy run by Jasper Conran.
School students, most of whom won't be able to go to the academy, are being misled. Teachers are taking our leaflets off them when they go into school and telling them that they are full of lies.
Sarah said how ISR members have been doing stalls in local areas, on issues like low pay, school closures and then arranging to meet up with anyone who is interested in cafes etc around the school to discuss campaigns.
James and Matt described how it can be difficult to get material into schools. James suggested using contacts and networks within the school to organise meetings where putting up posters may be difficult. Matt got his history class to look at Peter Taaffe's book on Vietnam and, when the Head wanted to make cuts in the library, he put leaflets opposing the cuts in the library books. James also suggested getting on the student council as a way of raising our profile and trying to get them to campaign.
What is socialism?
In the "What is Socialism?" session, questions such as "How would socialism be different?", "How could it be established?" and "How could we make sure socialism would be democratic?" were discussed.
The session was split into smaller groups to allow points to be developed before being fed back to the group as a whole.
One of the main issues to come out of the session was the difference between capitalist democracy and democracy under socialism, and how the current system does not allow people much control over their lives.
Under socialism, democracy would be extended into economic life and goods and services would be provided for need, not profit.
Organising against racism and the far right
Adam Dudley, from Stoke ISR stressed how important it was to expose the BNP's constant backing of the anti-working class policies of Labour and the Conservatives.
He said that the BNP had jumped into bed with the three main parties in Stoke to vote through a council tax rise that was twice the rate of inflation.
Vanessa Griffin agreed: "We should expose the fact that the leaders of the BNP are not working class and don't have working class people's interests at heart."
Joe Fathallah pointed out the hypocrisy of the BNP supporting rich and middle-class people buying houses on the Welsh coast, leading to a housing shortage. The BNP claim they go there because they want to live in an all-white community.
Campaigning in the workplace
Sarah Mayo introduced the discussion by describing her experience of becoming a trade union rep in the PCS. Sarah's account gave many examples of the difficulties of organising workers into unions.
Young people face legalised low pay, casualised labour and temporary work. ISR in Swansea and in Sheffield tried to turn young workers in the direction of trade unions. The Fight for your rights at work pack introduced the basic ideas of trade unionism to young workers.
During our campaign it was evident that the myth that young people aren't political and that they are not interested in joining unions was dispelled. The question raised was could a turn-around in the unions come about? The answer is yes, when young, militant people join them!
Other people will join the union when they see that it is a fighting union. Once we start to take action then it is amazing how quickly the union can build and how quickly activists and workers are drawn to it. It is all about talking to people and raising ideas.
Summing up the discussion, Sarah said that, "the only guarantee of failure is to do nothing at all". The unorganised can become organised.
Socialist Students - organising in the universities
This focused on how we can put pressure on local Student Unions and the NUS nationally to campaign against the vital issues that concern students such as the marketisation of higher education, underfunding of universities, tuition fees and student poverty, accommodation etc.
We are the only organisation that put a clear alternative of setting a needs budget and campaigning for increased funding to the NUS attacks on the democratic structures.
We have also linked up with the Higher Education trade unions like the AUT and NATFHE - joining them on strike days and involving them in our campaigns and protests. Socialist Students also visited the picket lines in the recent PCS one-day strike.
We need to do our own work building for the anti-fees demo in Cardiff. At London Metropolitan University the officers didn't know anything and at Leicester the student union suggested only sending Welsh students! We need to ensure that coaches are being booked and produce our own posters and leaflets.
Socialist Students are being established as the best campaigners, with clear ideas and a programme to fight on all the issues that concern students.
Get active, get organised, fight for your future
Summing up the conference Sheila Caffrey admitted that it can get depressing when you're discussing the state of the world but it is inspiring to hear about the campaigns taking place nationally and internationally.
Socialist Students has now got active members at 50 universities and colleges, campaigning against student poverty - students are graduating with £20,000 of debt. University vice-chancellors are earning over £100,000 while students are struggling to get enough to eat.
Socialist Students supported the recent PCS one-day strike, not just to show our opposition to cuts in public services but because students and workers need to join together. Two thirds of university and college students have to work during term time, mainly in low paid, casual work.
We have to counter right-wing ideas of sexism and homophobia and link these issues with the horrors of capitalism and the need to build a mass movement. Get active, get organised, fight for our future - a socialist future.
James Kerr said it was the favourite pastime of media commentators to announce the death of socialism but if they dragged themselves from their desks and looked at the work of ISR then they would see differently. A few individuals in his area had organised a school strike of thousands of school students and inspired him to get involved.
Young people are turning to the ideas of socialism - next year we will come back strengthened further after another year of fighting for socialist ideas.
In closing Zena Awad quoted Karl Marx: "Philosophers have only interpreted the world... the point however is to change it."
Against the "social massacre" in Germany
Linda Schuetz, an apprentice office worker from Rostock, reported on the fight against social cuts in Germany.
Big companies like BMW have been making record profits over the last few years while at the same time cutting jobs and wages.
The previous week in Rostock a man had committed suicide by driving his car, loaded with a gas bottle, into the window of a Job centre.
Unemployment is expected to rise to five million by February 2005 while the government is planning to cut wages and benefits by 30% - never mind social cuts, this is more like a social massacre!
Linda was one of the main organisers of the Monday demonstrations in Rostock - these were demos that took place every Monday to protest against these massive social attacks. The reason that they were organised on a Monday goes back to 1989 and the demonstrations against the East German regime, before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Linda described the important role young people are playing in the fight against these attacks. On 17 October there was a youth strike in Kassel over the lack of apprenticeships - 150,000 young people had failed to get an apprenticeship and were being forced into low paid jobs or schemes paying e1 an hour.
With the slogan 'Youth against the social massacre', the strike wasn't big but it set an example and encouraged others. Workers who later organised a one-day strike pointed to the young people as an example.
Linda finished by saying that the neo-liberal attacks on the welfare state, privatisation and jobs are very similar in Germany and Britain. However, it is the working class who will have the last word. There was a banner on a demo in Magdeburg which read: 'Politicians - you are going to burn in the fire that you started'.