Last month, Greta Thunberg told UN leaders “you have stolen my dreams”. For many young people in Britain, this is a sentiment they can relate to. Growing up in the face of looming environmental devastation, and knowing nothing but austerity, it does seem as though our future has been sold off by capitalism.
The cuts delivered by successive Tory governments since the 2007/8 financial crisis have hit young people especially hard. Attacks on public services such as education and youth services have affected broad layers of young people, but especially the most disadvantaged layers. These cuts have been linked to the recent rise in knife crime – a phenomenon where the Tories have attempted to mask their responsibility through thinly-veiled racist rhetoric about increasing police powers.
For students it has meant a year-on-year decline in the value of the government’s maintenance loan. As a result, almost half of students find the funding is not enough to cover their living expenses. This means many have to find work to supplement their income. In the workplace, they face the same challenges as other young workers such as poverty wages and precarious contracts. Issues like these only exacerbate the housing crisis as young people are forced into cheap, low-quality housing, with 90% of students having to deal with issues such as damp, mould and pests as well as faulty utilities.
In these conditions it is no surprise that we are experiencing a mental health crisis. Rising rates of dropouts, depression and suicide among students highlight the effects of growing financial pressures, which have only been compounded by year-on-year cuts of 8% to NHS mental health services since 2011. For many young people, issues like these highlight capitalism’s failure to provide a meaningful future. And this is why some are getting organised.
Youth fighting back
In the last few years, we have seen groups such as the ACORN tenants’ union and the Cut The Rent campaign on campuses fighting the housing crisis. Additionally, a widespread anti-austerity mood has developed. This was reflected most strongly in the youth vote for Jeremy Corbyn during the 2017 snap election, but also in recent feminist ‘Reclaim The Night’ demonstrations, which have taken up the demand for councils to reverse cuts to public services to defend women’s safety at night.
Some layers have gone even further, and are beginning to look toward socialist or even ‘communist’ ideas. However, some confused and counter-productive ideas have also developed. In the context of a relative lack of workers’ action to point a way forward, there has been a development of ideas based in radical identity politics, and even neo-Stalinist ideas among some layers. However, clear Marxist ideas can cut across this confusion by pointing to the importance of a class-based approach.
Recently there has been an uptick in workers’ struggles. Last year, 42,000 university workers in the University and College Union (UCU) went on strike in defence of their pensions, with students showing solidarity across the country. Now UCU is balloting for further action. Socialist Alternative will be building support for any action workers take. Struggles like these can serve as an example of what can be achieved through collective action, and can inspire students and young workers to get organised themselves.
But young workers are also waging important struggles in the workplace themselves. We have seen important industrial action from hospitality workers in McDonald’s, TGI Friday and Wetherspoons (see report from Belfast overleaf). In the face of rising rent and attacks on working conditions, we can expect more struggles like these over the next period.
Strategy to win needed
Although there are certain struggles taking place among young people, many of them remain one-off, isolated actions. The recent strikes of precarious young workers show the potential that exists for channelling the anger that exists in society around worsening conditions, but many major unions are failing to connect with and draw in younger layers. Some smaller unions such as the Bakers Union (BFAWU) have had more success in this area. This action should be built on, as a step toward a fighting network of reps and organisers. Successful struggles of young workers could inspire others into fighting for similar gains.
Among students, the mood for change that exists has not yet been reflected in a broader student movement, as we have seen in the past. The lack of any lead by student organisations is an important factor in this situation.
The National Union of Students (NUS), historically the most important national body of the student movement, has failed to offer any kind of way forward for the various struggles taking place recently. In fact, its 2019 conference saw it moving in the opposite direction, away from the model of a participatory, campaigning body that students can use to co-ordinate their movement and more toward the approach of a think tank with a discount card. The NUS leadership revealed the existence of an internal financial crisis, the knowledge of which had been suppressed by the organisation’s unelected ‘Board of Trustees’. This crisis was used to push through ‘reforms’ which gutted the union of many of its democratic structures.
A new youth movement
It is increasingly likely that when a new student movement develops, it will not take shape through the NUS. Groups on the student left who have clung onto its structures have seen their membership collapse. It is more likely that new students’ organisations will be formed to co-ordinate the struggle. Movements like the climate strikes point toward the potential for young people to get organised and build a sustained campaign (see the report overleaf on York).
A key task going forward will be linking up the isolated struggles currently taking place, generalising the lessons and building new organisations that can fight for young people on all fronts. Socialist Alternative members will work to support these movements and connect them to the broader struggles of the working class. This must be linked to bold socialist policies to end the capitalist system that fundamentally drives all these issues.
YOUNG PEOPLE FIGHTING BACK!
ORGANISING YOUNG HOSPITALITY WORKERS
Neil Moore, CWI Northern Ireland and Unite Hospitality
Every month a new scandal emerges around the treatment of some of Britain’s lowest paid workers in the hospitality industry. Zero hour contracts, tip theft, illegal deductions of wages and low pay are now the norm for young workers, whilst bullying, abuse and sexual harassment are widespread. At the same time, union recognition in the industry is practically non-existent with less than 2% of workers in service industries members of a trade union.
Organising this growing sector and precarious workers in general is a serious challenge for the trade union movement. Many workers don’t have full employment rights due to the short-term and temporary nature of their employment. Bosses are quick to victimise those who speak out or attempt to organise – by weaponising rotas, cutting hours or sacking workers for trivial reasons.
While organising as a young hospitality worker can be daunting – it is possible. Unite Hospitality – a new union branch in Belfast which young Socialist Party members play a central role within has been winning gains in the sector and laying the groundwork to organising this industry. Most importantly the branch has taken a sector-wide approach to organising – regularly visiting every workplace in the sector to speak with fellow workers about their rights, holding a weekly advice drop-in for both members and non-members, and, importantly, growing. The branch has more than trebled its membership in just under a year. Rather than appointing workplace representatives, shop stewards are elected and trained at a branch level which helps cut across the challenges of high staff turnover and victimisation.
Most importantly this new dynamic branch of predominately young workers is challenging the trend of decline and mostly conservative, defensive campaigns within the trade union movement. The branch is leading sector-wide campaigns on a nine point charter including the demand for a living wage, trade union access and zero tolerance for sexual harassment. As well as this the branch takes a political approach connecting our campaigns in the workplace to the wider demands and aspirations expressed by young people – against oppression, in the environmental movement and against sectarian division. This political and organising approach is the key to organising the ‘unorganisable’ layers of workers and will help young workers understand the relevance of the trade union movement today.
BRINGING TRADE UNIONISTS AND SCHOOL CLIMATE STRIKERS TOGETHER
Jamie Chatfield, York
Socialist Alternative York made a bold intervention into September’s Climate Strike, despite an apolitical and anti-party mood that meant we were not even allowed a stall at the event. At the climate strike itself we sold 13 papers. At the rally we participated in a ‘citizens’ assembly’ style debate where we raised ideas about socialism, working with the trade unions, and the need for wider political discussions in order to attract larger numbers of people to these events.
Through the role that Socialist Alternative members play in York Trades Union Council, we have been able to foster good relationships with some of the school climate strikers and have been able to play an important role in helping them organise among themselves. York TUC also sent an open letter to the headteachers of all schools in York, calling on them not to sanction students who participated in the climate strike. Unfortunately this is still happening in many schools, and highlights the need for a joined-up approach from students and trade unions in future strikes.
A discussion meeting organised by school students took place on the following Sunday, with the room booking funded by York TUC. This meeting was billed as a debate on whether or not individual actions alone can be sufficient in combating climate change, but none of the young people in attendance thought that this was possible! The students understood the role that capitalism has played in creating climate crisis, and the need for a new system. A manifesto for change was agreed unanimously by the meeting and forms a promising and radical basis for future discussions.
These school students have energetic ideas and are planning a protest outside of Nestlé’s York headquarters, to highlight their terrible global record on climate change and workers’ rights. This protest will leaflet staff on their way in and out of the factory in a friendly way, but has unfortunately been met with suspicion and mistrust by some members of GMB who take a cautious approach to direct action that management will find disagreeable.
York TUC arranged a meeting with the GMB convenor and the school students, where this issue was discussed in more detail. The students pointed out that their protest is directed at Nestlé’s poor global record around the climate issue so that workers can be better informed, and highlighted that this protest can be an opportunity for further dialogue between workers and students. The GMB / Unite convenor suggested that the students could meet with Nestlé’s management, the unions and York TUC representatives to personally discuss their record on climate change. However, it does not mean that their protest will not take place at all. It is important that the momentum from the September climate strikes is maintained in the near future.