Quick thoughts on the student-worker problem

“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.


Filed under Industrial Relations, Political Strategy, Student Issues

4 responses to “Quick thoughts on the student-worker problem

  1. You might find this relevant: http://recompositionblog.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/the-workplace-papers/ and also this general discussion: http://libcom.org/forums/history-culture/us-new-left-entering-workforce-08012011
    Not read that AWL pamphlet so I can’t really comment, but I do find the idea of sending people into “key” industries quite problematic – it seems to point towards viewing revolutionaries as human resources to be managed for the revolution, rather than seeing revolutionary activity as something that grows out of our lives and needs, and something we do to make life better. If that makes any sense.

  2. I see what you’re saying, but I think it’s also perfectly legitimate for revolutionary organisations, especially when very small, to think consciously about how best to use their resources, “human resources” included. But I would like to read more about how well sending uni graduates “into the factories” has gone down in the past.

  3. Hi Edd,

    In most cases, it went down absolutely terribly. I’m afraid I don’t have time to find links or references at the moment, but it was tried quite heavily in the US by the Marxist elements of the student anti-vietnam war movement. The thing is, it could be argued – rightly or wrongly, I don’t know – that the failure was a product of the terrible, mad vanguardist politics of those who were doing it, Maoists et al. AWL are probably aware that most well known examples of it are happening on mass don’t look all that good in retrospect, but reckon they can do it better.

    One exception to this, arguably, is the elements who apparently went on to found Teamsters for a Democratic Union and Labor Notes: http://nottingham.academia.edu/ChristopherPhelps/Papers/1637485/Port_Huron_at_Fifty_The_New_Left_and_Labor_An_Interview_with_Kim_Moody (worthwhile interview on several levels) – who I guess you could count as a success of a sort.

    In terms of the AWL text, I’d offer a few cautionary comments.

    1. You need back up and support to do something like this. It can be lonely, isolating, and challenging. In very, very few unions and places (too few to bother mentioning it, really) will you get this sort of support within your branch, or the union broad left organisation. That is probably going to imply joining a political organisation. The AWL have an answer there already, natch.

    2. The “transform the labour movement” politics (i.e. “reform the unions institutionally”) are 90% pure guff. When unions do become more militant or democratic it’s almost always as a response to shop-floor militancy which actually or threatens to move outside the union framework if that framework doesn’t adapt. You can see this, for example, in the UK between the wars or in Italy in the ’70s, for example. This doesn’t, however, detract from the overall message of the pamphlet.

    3. Nothing in this pamphlet acknowledges that the industrial or class composition of Britain has changed since the 1970s, and that this might be politically important. a) Industries the post, BT and the rail don’t define the employment or political landscape in the way they once did. Sure, they’re important, but without broader, radical support, they’re isolated and fucked. Furthermore, there are reasons why AWL students contemporaries will be looking at call centres, for example, and not the rail. These sorts of historical movements in subjectivity are responses to massive structural phenomena which can’t be overturned by revolutionary groups. Which brings me to… b) in every time and place, the specific class composition opens up specific and different political possibilities. If these, less easily or classically organisable sectors, don’t have implications for radical subjectivity and practice (in the way that the “Fordist mass worker” turned out to), then we’re basically fucked anyway. If not the young radicals whose lives naturally take them into such areas, who will discover what form that subjectivity will take? (Caveat: it may not happen for ages and be really shit in the mean time.) If you look at how radical subjectivity develops in the 18th or 19th, Century, or earlier, alot of it is not about the sorts of gradual workplace organising valorised in the pamphlet, which is a transposition from Fordist global epoch. It’s something more diffuse, more inchoate, less institutional.

    Obviously this para makes a number of big points quite quickly – I’m sorry I don’t have any more time to develop them. And note the point isn’t that the more traditional industrial workplaces “aren’t important anymore”, it’s that other things are *necessary* too.

    (In general, I think the operaist concept of class composition is the best starting point for almost all political analysis – it means much more than it seems to at first, so it’s worth looking into.)

    4. I am particularly impressed with the work leading AWL members have done to penetrate the “fencing instruction” and “being a SOAS graduate student” industries. I hope the comrades doing long days with a KPI happy manager looking over their shoulder can look forward to a future in which a militant industrial nexus can be reached between striking rail workers and professional sword fighters.

    The serious point is this: I think that when people go to work for the AWL, or study, or get a non-organisable job they enjoy, rather than becoming a postie, they’re in fact expressing much of the same subjectivity that takes people to work in NGOs – they want something rewarding and interesting to do. They’re lucky that they’ve found a way to make that sit with their politics; but I think it’s striking that there’s no acknowledgement of what’s going on in that decision subjectively that puts AWL full timers closer, in many ways, to War on Want campaigners than factory workers.

    5. You’ve only got one life. If you’d be happy doing one of the jobs mentioned in the pamphlet, sure, do one. But if you won’t, then you won’t stick it for the long haul anyway. And there’s no point trying to convince people who’re academics or artists (for example) at heart that they really ought to be fixing cabling for the next thirty years. Even if they do it for two years, they won’t do it for twenty, and then, what’s the point in that?

    In terms of the testimonies, they’re great, but why not have the full spectrum? People (quite senior people, I think) in the AWL write screenplays, and work for unions, and do all sorts of things not endorsed by this pamphlet. Why did they do those things? Do they give this pamphlet out to others in a sort of – “look, I couldn’t hack working behind the job centre desk for 40 years, I wanted to express myself and use my brain, but hell, you might like to give it a go!”? If they do, does that make sense, and if they don’t, why not? I think unpicking this tension could lead to a more productive discussion about the tensions in our real lives, under 21st century capitalism, between individual biographical aspirations and collective political ones. Hopefully, then, we could work out in a more nuanced way to deal with them.

    Sorry this isn’t better structured. I agree that it’s good the text raises the question of transition from student life, the political problems it raises, and how disorientating it can be.

  4. c0mmunard

    And just a comment on Edd’s reply to Recomposition blog – the point, for me, isn’t primarily in this case how revolutionary groups view their members, it’s whether it’s better to try to buck the dynamics of class composition in any particular historical moment (which will definitely fail) or see all the subjectivities and all the everyday lives of the present as a product of certain historical contingencies, and whose mass effect on the broad sweep of history cannot be turned volte face by any revolutionary group, but whose radical dynamics can, potentially, be discovered and accentuated.

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