By Daniel Randall (NUS National Executive, personal capacity)
In my last column I wrote about the need for students to unite with workers on their campuses to fight back against attacks they both face. But student-worker unity cannot stop here. It must extend beyond the boundaries of our campuses and into wider struggles in society.
After some procrastination (including one National Executive meeting that lasted six hours but failed to discuss a single motion), the NUS finally — at the beginning of October and two months into the dispute — came out in support of the Gate Gourmet workers.
When I visited their permanent picket recently, I was able to tell them that the National Union of Students was now officially behind them.
When it came down to it, the Executive was unanimously in favour of supporting the workers’ campaign. But outside the Executive there had been some debate amongst student unionists as to exactly why the NUS should bother taking a position on such matters at all, and what exactly the dispute of a bunch of catering workers in West London had to do with university and college students in the UK.
Actually, the NUS has a long tradition of actively supporting labour movement struggles. This tradition has been somewhat dormant of late, given that the current leadership’s preferred method of relating to the workers’ movement is through meetings and dinners with trade union bigwigs at TUC Congress rather than by getting down on picket lines. Hopefully NUS’s statement of support for the Gate Gourmet workers will go some way to reviving that tradition.
But NUS and student support for this dispute should not simply about upholding tradition. It’s about building a student movement that doesn’t see students as isolated from what’s happening in the society around them.
The Gate Gourmet dispute represents a fight against the Government’s drive towards casualisation and deregulation. Those policies (carried out by capitalist leaders throughout western Europe) mean low-paid jobs in the retail sector or part-time agency work are often the only job opportunities available to young people — including NUS’s members. People who must balance work with their studies.
The Gate Gourmet struggle is a challenge to the Tory anti-union laws maintained by Blair’s government. It is these same laws that prevent NUS members from effectively fighting for their rights at work.
When NUS supports the Gate Gourmet dispute, we are also supporting our own members’ struggles against casualisation, low-pay and poor conditions.
The crux of it is this: there is a common link between the struggle of catering workers at Heathrow and our struggles as students, both in the workplace and on campus. The system that sacked the Gate Gourmet workers and replaced them with casualised agency staff is the same system that forces NUS members into crappy jobs, and the same system that is slowly privatising our education and creating the need for us to take those jobs in the first place.
That system is capitalism, and when the NUS takes positions that highlight the way in which that system affects both our own members and others in the society around us, it’s an opportunity for socialists in the student movement to make the case for an alternative.
Being an activist in NUS is sometimes a depressing experience, and the grind-work of fighting the union’s own bureaucracy and trying to turn it into an activist organisation is a tiring experience. But events like the Gate Gourmet dispute are powerful reminders that our intervention into the organised student movement has another dimension: to make the case for a world in which students are not forced to take low-paid jobs to pay for their education, a world in which our rights at work are not restricted by draconian laws, and a world in which hundreds of workers cannot be arbitrarily sacked by megaphone in the canteen of their workplace.
The need to make the case for that world — and to explain the role that students have in fighting for it — is as pressing now as it ever has been. The tasks ahead of socialists intervening in the student movement are manifold and difficult, but winning an NUS that does not simply pay lip-service to disputes like Gate Gourmet’s but proudly proclaims “your struggle is our struggle” is unquestionably something worth fighting for.