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Lessons from struggle
School students organised strikes
From school closures and increased university fees to poverty minimum wages young people need to fight for their future.
Many types of protest action can be taken, including student strikes.
The Socialist spoke to two past organisers of school student strikes.
First, Suzanne Beishon describes organising the strikes against the Iraq war in 2003.
Below, Hannah Sell explains how the 1985 school student strike, of a quarter of a million students, came about.
2003 - school students organised against Iraq war
Suzanne, can you describe what happened on the day of the strike?
In 2003 I was a student at Haggerston School in Hackney. After weeks of planning for Day X, the day the war in Iraq started, when it came hundreds of students and some teachers walked out. We marched to Hackney town hall, where we joined with students from schools across Hackney and collectively marched to Parliament Square to join thousands of young anti-war protesters.
What made you decide to try to organise a strike?
We wanted to show our huge opposition to the war in Iraq. In Hackney young people face a lack of jobs, school places and youth facilities. We were told that there was not enough money for these basics - yet the government could afford to blow millions of pounds on the war in Iraq. As a member of International Socialist Resistance (ISR) I knew that school students were organising massive strikes internationally. ISR distributed 60,000 leaflets on the huge 15 February 2003 demonstration of two million against the Iraq war, calling for school student strikes.
How did you ensure a successful protest?
We had four failed walkout attempts before success on Day X. Senior management had blocked the protests and locked the school gates. Early on they tried to stop us from leafleting outside the gates. Day X was different. We had learned from strikes around the country and had realised the importance of trade union involvement in our campaign.
We approached the National Union of Teachers (NUT) branch in the school with a letter asking them to join us in action or at least to support our right to protest. We enclosed a letter of support from Linda Taaffe, an NUT national executive member at the time, which gave the example of support that teachers had given to striking students in other schools across London. We also provided a letter to the school from the fire fighters' union which gave details about the safety hazard of locking the school gates.
It was this approach, alongside support won from the teachers, that meant the school had to officially close at lunchtime on Day X.
Are there lessons for young people today?
Working with working class organisations is vital. They have a wealth of experience and power. They can also be inspired into taking action by movements of young people, as the teachers were at Haggerston. Another important lesson is the linking up of struggles on a national and international scale. Being helped and led by members of ISR meant we had constant reports from different schools. This both inspired us and led to an exchange of ideas and tactics.
1985 - school students defeated Thatcher's law
Hannah, what were the 1985 school student strikes about?
There are many similarities between 1985 and today. As working-class young people, we felt that Margaret Thatcher's Britain offered us little or nothing. Hundreds of thousands of young people went straight from school to the dole. Others went on to the hated Youth Training Scheme (YTS). YTS was a government scheme for 16 and 17 year olds which meant working full-time for a measly £27.50 a week.
Generally, far from getting training, YTSers were used by employers as cheap labour and then got rid of once they had finished the scheme. There were exceptions, the socialist-led Labour council in Liverpool 'topped up' YTSers' money to trade union rates, and offered a guaranteed job at the end of the scheme.
For most of us, however, YTS was simply 'slave labour'. In 1985 'YTS conscription' was threatened. Tory minister Norman Fowler proposed to stop 16 and 17 year olds getting unemployment benefit. This meant that, if school leavers couldn't get a job and weren't doing A-levels, they would have no choice but to go onto YTS schemes. The school strikes were in opposition to that.
What did they achieve?
We won! I still have a copy of the letter from Norman Fowler to our campaign, the Youth Trade Union Rights Campaign, saying they weren't going ahead with conscription. A whole generation learnt that fighting back can win.
Young people are often characterised as being apathetic. Do you think this was less the case in 1985?
I don't believe young people are at all apathetic now, in fact I think we could see similar movements again in the near future. In a way, the current economic recession is having an even more profound effect on the consciousness of young people than was the case in 1985. Mass unemployment seemed normal to us, but for school students now - whose elder siblings could usually get jobs, albeit low-paid ones - the spectre of mass unemployment is a profound shock. Over time young people today, who have already shown in the anti-war movement that they are far from apathetic, will start to fight, as we did, for their right to a decent future.
One difference then was that we had just had the heroic year-long miners' strike - every school student had an idea of what striking meant. But I still vividly remember, as a thirteen year old, coming back from the Labour Party Young Socialists conference where the strike had been discussed, and being terrified of raising it in my school. I was convinced that no one would be interested and that people would just laugh at me. Of course a few people did laugh, but most took it seriously and the whole school was set to strike.
In the end massive intimidation meant that less than a hundred came out from my school. But a few months later my school initiated a week-long strike of secondary schools across Wolverhampton, out of which we won the right to organise a school students union.
What difference does it make if school students strike?
School students don't have economic power, but it would be wrong to suggest that school strikes don't have any effect. The political effect of a whole generation protesting can be enormous. Sometimes it can inspire workers, who have economic power, to strike. That didn't happen in 1985, but the strike still had a huge impact. We were attacked by the Tory government, and by the leader of the Labour Party, Neil Kinnock, who called us "dafties", but five hundred school students in his own constituency ignored him and went on strike.
While the leaders of the political parties attacked the strike, working-class people gave us huge support. When we marched people would cheer us on. After all it was their children and grandchildren's future we were fighting for.
In The Socialist 27 May 2009:
Youth fight for jobs
Construction workers feature
International socialist news and analysis
PCS conference and workplace news
Socialist Party campaigning news