Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/444/5275
International students' movements and working class struggles
EARLIER THIS year students in France occupied universities and organised mass protest demonstrations to defeat the Chirac government's 'hire and fire' law (CPE) which attacked young workers' rights. These actions merged with the workers' movement which was fighting other 'neo-liberal' attacks by the employers and the government.
In Chile, over the last five weeks, secondary school students have organised a massive movement, including the occupation of schools, to demand education reform. On 5 June over one million students, teachers, medical workers and others went on strike in a national day of protest.
Student leaders have now accepted significant concessions from the Bachelet government. Sections of the ruling class are worried that by offering significant concessions to the students, the government has opened the door to other demands from workers.
In Greece, a wave of university occupations has swept across the country in response to the right-wing New Democracy government's education bill, which will make it more difficult for working class students to remain in higher education.
Members of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI - the socialist international organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated), as the following reports show, are playing an important role in these tremendous events in Chile and Greece .
For updates on these struggles see the CWI website: www.socialistworld.net
Chile: Over one million students and workers strike for education reform
MONDAY 5 JUNE was a national day of protest in Chile, called by the leadership of hundreds of thousands of secondary school students. This magnificent movement of youth, as many commentators correctly state, questions the entire neo-liberal programme of the government. The Chilean neo-liberal "model" was held up as an example throughout Latin America. The consequences of this struggle will be felt throughout the continent.
Tony Saunois, CWI, Santiago
One of the central demands of the movement is an end to the hated LOCE (Organic Constitutional Education Law) which was incorporated into the constitution. This was introduced under the Pinochet dictatorship and was used to hand over education to local councils, with few resources, and to encourage the privatisation of schools.
The day of action followed an assembly called by the students from social organisations involved in the mass struggle. These young fighters won the support of the overwhelming majority of the Chilean people. According to the latest opinion polls, 84% support the students' struggle, and a mere 14% support the government's handling of the crisis.
Over one million students, teachers, medical workers and others joined the strike. This was despite the treacherous role of the majority of the CUT [federation of trade unions] who opposed the students' strike call. Reports from outside Santiago indicate there were more strikes outside the capital in support of the students in those towns and cities where the influence of the trade union bureaucracy was less.
Unfortunately, the students' assembly did not call for a central demonstration to unify all those who opposed the government. They mistakenly decided to organise a day of "reflection", with events organised in occupied schools and colleges and they held concerts and other events. However, they refused to criticise other organisations that called a demonstration in Santiago.
Official permission for a march was requested by the Patriotic Front of Manuel Rodriquez, the former armed wing of the Communist Party, and other organisations called for a demonstration in early afternoon. Thousands of youth and other activists came to the city centre to protest against the government and to support the students. They were confronted by the brutal special riot police. Massive water cannons ('guanacos'), groups of heavily equipped riot police, trucks carrying tear gas canisters and, ominously, buses evidently waiting to be filled with anybody arrested, were seen from the early morning in the centre of the city, on all the main junctions approaching the Universidad de Chile, and beyond.
By early afternoon scuffles broke out between youth and the riot police around the Universidad de Chile and the neighbouring Instituto National. Groups of youth emerged from the university and confronted the hated riot police and water cannons with bricks and stones.
In response, other groups of students emerged on top of the roof of the university and pelted the squads of riot police below. These squads would drive forward in a pincer movement and try to seize one or two youth and then withdraw.
'Workers, students unite'
Groups of youth and their supporters congregated in front of the university. Members of Socialismo Revolucionario (SR - the CWI in Chile) led protesters' chants, including, "Estudiantes, obreros, adelante en la lucha" ('Workers and students together in the struggle').
The police then emerged in front of the university building to clear away groups of students and their supporters. More water cannon appeared from nowhere, speeding past the front of the university and turning the water on students in front of the building. The water used in the cannon evidently contains chemicals which react with the air, causing sore throats and burning. During these clashes, seemingly out of nowhere, street sellers appeared in the middle of the mayhem with sacks of lemons to sell (They are never slow to see an opportunity!). The lemon juice counteracts sore throats.
Cat and mouse battles
By then, thousands congregated on other thoroughfares, on both sides of the Alameyda - the main six lane highway which runs though the centre of this area of Santiago.
Rocks were hurled at the police snatch squads. Throughout the city centre clashes broke out. The youth were utterly fearless and out for revenge. Time and again, they would be dispersed, only to regroup and to return to hurl rocks and other objects at the police.
These cat and mouse clashes continued for some time and then the battle escalated, as a contingent of protesters formed further up the street and tried to march. "El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido" (The people united will never be defeated), was one of their chants.
This provoked the riot police to unleash a vicious attack all along the Alemeyda. Three or four water cannon drove up and down unleashing high pressure water. Small military-style wagons sped past, firing tear gas canisters. As the day wore, the city centre was awash with tear gas.
Members of the CWI and Socialismo Revolucionario were among those tear-gassed, and dowsed in water, three or four times, while in the thick of the conflict. Caught near the point of impact, the gas will burn and can temporarily blind people. It is evident, confirmed by our discussions with other protesters, that the riot police now use high strength tear gas intended for use in war zones - which, in a sense, was what central Santiago became, during the afternoon of 5 June.
Unfortunately, during this struggle some looting also broke out, as the temptation on the part of some youth to get computers, CD players, televisions and other goods proved too great. This was seized on by Chilean television channels, and was featured on the news, along with graphic scenes of the street battle, which lasted well into the evening.
Subsequent reports indicate that there were 300 arrested in Santiago and 250 were hospitalised including 32 riot police.
The street fighting in Santiago, where permission for a central demonstration was refused, was in marked contrast to the day's events in Valpariso where a mass demonstration passed without incident.
Splits in movement
The events in Santiago were preceded by attempts by the government to try and split the student movement. Immense pressure was put on the leaders not to call a mass demonstration or to appeal for a strike by the rest of the population. In protest at the acquiescence of the student leadership, one of the student leaders resigned from the movement's leadership.
As the movement developed, more militant and more moderate wings emerged.
As the movement became experienced it began to embrace new forms of organisation. An assembly of all social organisations in support of the movement, which was called by the students, on the Saturday prior to the strike, attracted 600 representatives.
The assembly was in combative mood and reflected the maturity of these young fighters. Delegates were admitted into the meeting place, on the production of an ID card. The cards were held by stewards until the end of the meeting. The press and media were excluded. Unauthorised filming and tape recording was stopped by the students' security commission.
As delegates gave greetings to the meeting, or made suggestions, any attempt to interrupt speakers was stopped by a universal "sschh" that came mainly from the students in the audience.
The most enthusiastic response went to militant speakers from workers' districts, who pledged support to the students, and also to a representative of a group of state employees. This worker declared that his co-workers would strike on the following Monday. However, he also went further, and called for the formation of a 'council of struggle' in workplaces and workers' districts and added the need for these to link up with the students' committees.
Example of France
This was a theme supported by a representative from Socialismo Revolucionario (SR - CWI), who drew on recent experiences in France, where mass students' protests took place. The SR speaker urged students to go to the workplaces to win active support for their struggle.
There is massive support and sympathy for the students from the wider population. Some students are frustrated by the apparent lack of mobilisation by older workers. On one college wall hangs a banner with a cartoon of an older person in an armchair watching the television. Below the picture, reads the slogan, "Wake up! Don't you know your children are involved in struggle?"
The degree of organisation by the students is reflected in the schools occupied by school students. After a small group of neo-Nazis organised attacks on some of the schools, students set up 'security commissions' armed with metal bars and clubs. In some areas, like Maipu, the schools' committees have begun to link up on an area basis.
Youth want their share
The students represent a generation in struggle. They were born, not under the iron heel of the former right-wing Pinochet dictatorship, but during the 'boom' years of the Chilean economic 'Tiger'. The Chilean ruling class no longer refers to the Tiger but claim Chile is now a 'developed country'. The youth want their share of the 'development'!
But they are also in revolt against the 'consumer society', even if this is possibly a rather na•ve concept at the moment. The idea that education is a business and that it should be run as such, aroused an ingrained hostility to such ideas. It is reflected on many banners hung around Santiago, which include the slogan, "No to the market in education". Ironically, one massive poster on a bridge reads, "If education is a business the customer is always right"!
In the course of the movement, the students humiliated the government and its ministers. They compelled President Bachelet to make a special television address to the country. Twice they forced government ministers to the negotiating table. Student leaders told the ministers that if the government is incapable of making proposals to run the education system then the students would draft proposals to re-draft the laws.
Any hope that Bachelet would be different to her predecessors, and more radical, are beginning to fade amongst more students. Posters recently appeared in Santiago, stating "Bachelet - speeches for the poor - government for the rich".
It is possible the students will suspend their action in the next few days and agree to a commission to review the education system and the hated LOCE. They already won some concessions. Bachelet announced an extra US$135 million for the education budget, including the provision of tens of thousands of extra school meals, a change to the university entrance exam payment scheme, and some smaller concessions.
This struggle has, however, represented a turning point in the struggle against capitalism in Chile. It has opened a new chapter following the years of dictatorship, the transition period, and the "development" of the economy.
The last weeks of mass struggles provide big possibilities to build support for the socialist programme defended by Socialismo Revolucionario.
Greece: University occupations - a movement of historical significance
ONE OF the biggest ever university student movements is developing in Greece. 354 colleges are now under occupation. Over 100,000 students have taken part in the most massive general assemblies ever. Every week there are mass rallies and demos. On 8 June over 20,000 marched in Athens and at least 10,000 in Salonica.
Takis Giannopoulos, Xekinima, Athens, Greece
University teachers have been on indefinite strike since 1 June. All these events are taking place at a time when it was supposed to be the end of year examinations.
Many of the slogans chanted on the demos have reference to France, which shows the impact of the French youth movement against the CPE.
The government wants to pass a new law which changes the functioning of the universities. Basically this bill provides that students who don't finish college two years (at the latest) after the normal duration of the studies, will be expelled from college, to put an end to free books and to force universities to seek private funding, which means that the capitalists will be able to determine the character of the studies. Also it changes article 16 of the Constitution, which forbids the creation of private universities and makes it easier for the police to break the academic asylum.
All these, at a time when Greece is at the bottom of EU states for government expenditure on education, and first in relation to unemployment amongst university graduates.
This movement is led by the national coordinating committee of occupations, in which the whole of the left is involved. To begin with, the Communist Party (CP) youth (a Stalinist party with around 6% electoral support and which is the biggest youth organisation in the universities) didn't participate.
However the dynamic of the movement was such that it forced the CP youth, and even the PASOK (social democratic party) youth to make a turn of 180 degrees and support the occupation movement - after a delay of four weeks!
Xekinima proposes the widening of the university students' struggle into the rest of society and to link it with the working-class movement.
Concretely, we propose a 24-hour general strike and a national demo in Athens on 22 June. This call is beginning to attract wide layers of university students but also rank and file trade unionists.
Xekinima members have been elected onto ten coordinating committees and play a very important role, particularly in the coordinating committee of the city of Volos (University of Thessally) and the Athens Technical Colleges, with 10,000 students.
The way forward
The government says it is open to discussion but it violently attacks the rallies. On Thursday 8 June, ten demonstrators were injured and 40 arrested. Not more than 100 demonstrators went into a head-on collision with the riot police.
This gave the riot police an excuse to massively overreact. Then the anarchists took over and the centre of Athens was turned into a battlefield.
The riot police took full advantage of the opportunity to attack with extreme violence the main bulk of the demo.
The movement has nothing to gain from this kind of confrontations. This is not a clash between a mass movement and the forces of the state, to which we would of course support and take part in. This is a planned and artificially provoked clash initiated by small groups against the riot police who consider such actions a way of proving how 'radical' they are.
As a result of yesterday's events, the national coordinating committee did not take place. At a crucial stage of the movement no leadership was provided!
Xekinima will fight for its positions in the local and city coordinating committees. Part of this will be putting forward demands to ensure that for future demonstrations, trade unions, colleges and local communities are approached to provide a disciplined, democratically elected and controlled body of stewards to protect future demonstration.
If the students are able to achieve the linking of the student movement with the workers' movement, then victory could be very close.
In The Socialist 15 June 2006:
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Socialist Party campaigns
Socialist Party review
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news