“Why don’t you bloody well get a real job?” ask Workers’ Liberty in their new pamphlet.
Well, not exactly. “Change the world – organise at work!” is aimed at left-wing students about to graduate, and it’s a welcome, and rare, piece of propaganda from the left that tries to tackle the problematic student-to-worker transition.
What should politicised students, not least those radicalised during the 2010-11 movement, do with their lives once they’ve left university? It’s a big question for a lot of us. Workers’ Liberty want us to become rank-and-file union activists, an emphasis I agree with (should we become Labour Party activists too though? That question, where I disagree with the AWL, is left lying in the pamphlet).
Certainly it’s struck me for a long time that more and more good student activists I’ve known have started Masters courses, then PhDs, and will, presumably, stay in academia. Because universities have been the left’s biggest recruiting ground for ages, this is having a long-term impact. Sometimes it seems like the industrial base of the SWP, for example, is shrinking to just the UCU (this is just an impression so correct me if I’m wrong).
Some good things have come of this. There’s more post-grads joining the UCU, for example. And the GMB’s student-worker conference at Goldsmiths was a good initiative. But generally speaking, the funnelling of left-wing activists into academia will be a bad thing in the long run.
For those of us too thick or too sick of it to want to stay in the bubble, the pamphlet suggests we take jobs in strategic workplaces; health, communications, rail, local government, rather than, for example, working at a “worthy” job in the charity sector.
The criticisms of charity are well and good. I found myself thinking, though, about the Shelter strike in 2008. Those workers were workers like any other. Surely it’s not working for a charity that is a problem in itself. It’s being a boss in a charity, which is, I imagine, much the same as being a boss anywhere else.
So should we urge people to turn away from “graduate-level” jobs and go into workplaces on the bottom rung? There’s a more complicated problem here. Some graduates have found they can’t get those jobs anyway, and have to work minimum wage jobs in cafes and the like because nothing else comes up. On the other hand, I think there can also be a problem for graduates applying for “low level” jobs: employers see your degree, assume you’ll sod off when something better comes along, and don’t hire you.
How has it worked out in the past when groups have urged their university-educated young members to take jobs in factories and the like? I know it’s happened, but my history of the movement isn’t good enough to comment. Some more information and testimony about that would be useful. Did the bosses get wise to it and do the 1970s equivalent of a Google search on prospective employees? It’s difficult to parachute yourself into a workplace and fit in. “Engels was a mill owner.” Sure. But he wasn’t a union rep. He was, in fact, a boss. Not the best example.
Urging people to get jobs in strategic industries is fine, but let’s recognise that it’s far from always possible. In the post, there’s no jobs. In local government, very few. On the railways, even fewer. We’re not really in a position to pick and choose. Obviously AWL comrades know this, so they’re sort of urging us to get whatever jobs we can, and apply for this other stuff in the meantime. But for a lot of people, it’ll never happen, we just won’t get jobs on the tube or wherever. The unions need transforming in other areas too. Bar work, retail work, other areas where grads and non-grads work side by side (I can’t talk with great authority about this, having made no headway in my current job).
For me, the most interesting point in the pamphlet is this:
Today’s older union reps who started activity in the 1980s are, in many ways, the best of their generation. They stuck with the movement while others fell away. Yet many of them – on the evidence of the pensions dispute, a majority of them – have suffered an erosion of spirit, even if they are still nominally left-wing or revolutionary minded. For twenty or thirty years they have been trained in union activity as damage limitation.
I think this is more or less bang on. The spirit of the student movement was that a token protest is not enough, and that the point of fighting is winning. This is something the unions need to rediscover; strikes not just as protests or bargaining chips, but strikes as a form of industrial warfare. It was difficult, probably impossible, for the student movement to teach this to the workers’ movement “from without.” Student activists have a better chance of doing it by becoming union activists themselves.
Take everything I’ve written here with the caveat that I’ve not been very active myself for a while, but I broadly agree with the thrust of the pamphlet. All I’d say to the comrades who wrote it is, recognise that at the moment a lot of people will just take whatever employment opportunity comes along, rather than dropping in to one of your favoured industries. Those of us who work casual, part-time, short-term hours need some political and industrial help too. Maybe that’s a discussion for another day.