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Learning from the students

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You gotta love those British students.  50,000 plus of them marched against the draconian education cuts and tuition fee hikes in the UK.  They more than doubled the expected turn out of the protest Wednesday and they grabbed the attention of the country and the world.  But they did more than that.

The students also overnight changed the mood of the UK from Labour’s defeat and the country’s deficit to public anger and the expectation that the protest movement is only beginning.  (Guardian editorial)

Labour in the UK, like its Canadian counterpart, is the sleeping giant.  And giants tend to lumber around rather than dash into action.  The British TUC has also called a demo against the coalition cuts -- for March 26, 2011.  That one ought to be pretty well organized!

I don’t mean to be critical.  A seasoned UK union leader and friend has told me that the March action could be very large and bring civil unrest to a new and unpredictable level.  

By yesterday, British labour leaders were announcing the formation of new coalitions with the students.  A TUC spokesperson said in the UK Guardian that the students had “given heart” to trade unionists.  The largest British union, Unite, said “the anger and passion” in the student action was shared by millions of trade unionists and that more people will take to the streets. 

On the same day that British students revolted, France signed into law the new retirement law which had been opposed by a massive protest movement.  In France, the protests were led by trade unions including refinery workers who closed most of the country’s gasoline production for weeks.  A reported 3 million French marched in 260 towns and cities on October 12 and 17.  And reminiscent of 1968, French students joined the labour demonstrations.  More demonstrations in late October drew over 2 million, and last week - November 6 - more than a million protested again, even after the strikes had ended.  

I can already hear the whines from the contented among us who love to diminish the value of demonstrations:  the protests did not stop the new French law.  Not yet.  But there are already tangible results.  French labour has regained unity and public authority.  The CGT union central has claimed it recruited more than 8,000 new members in the month of October.  Politically, polls continue to show more than 70% opposition to Sarkozy’s policies, and his support has declined to less than 30% with 18 months out to the next French presidential election.

More important, according to some observers the protest movement in France seems to be turning the tide against the gravitas of the neo-liberal arguments that has produced the austerity measures.  “The rampant French insurrection against government policy is not just a protest against an unfair and unwanted reform, it is a cry for a new political economy... The French workforce, now more educated than ever, decided to stop listening to the elites and lend an ear to trade unions,”  writes Jacques Reland of the Global Policy Institute.  (Social Europe Journal article)

Clearly there is a difference between France, Britain and here.  Instead of the largest public sector cuts in a century and the raising of the retirement age, we are lobbying away still expecting some modest improvements in our Canada Pension Plan benefits.  

Nevertheless, right wing populism both in the US and Canada has a clear edge when it comes to mobilizing and expressing the anger we hear so much about.   The next mobilization of labour, students and allies in this country is... well, we will have to get back to you on that.  

Maybe some students can get us going.  




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