Public sector strikes demonstrate growing politicisation of the youth

By Flaminia Giambalvo

The row over the merits and weaknesses of  Thursday’s public sector strike is over, without any clear winners or losers. During the past week experienced journalists morphed into erratic cheerleaders waiting for the right time to dish out their pre-rehearsed cheers or boos.

On the 30th of June members of the 290,000-strong PCS union joined teaching unions in a walkout over pay and pensions. The media squabble seemed to focus on public sympathy for the strikers. The pro-squad relied upon the relatively high turnout and affordability of public sector pensions. While the con-squad emphasised the minimal disruption, and many drawing comparisons with the  miner strikes of 1970s and 1980s.

This debate is flawed in at least  two aspects. Firstly, it discusses consensus levels only in regards to Thursday’s strike, decontextualising it from the waves of dissent that preempted it. Secondly, while broad public support for social movements is relevant, it’s not their defining factor.

The biggest success of the suffragettes and civil rights movements was not the mere acquisition of greater rights for women and African Americans. It was changing the ways in which society viewed sexism and racism. Hence, the paramount goal of a movement should not be immediate public support, especially since the suffragettes were incredibly unpopular in their early days, but social change “from below”.

In this regard, arguing numbers is almost irrelevant, seeing as more people watch a West Ham game every Sunday than the 30,000 demonstrating on Thursday. Though equally beside the point is miner strike nostalgia and white-collar activist bashing.

21st century social movements are radically different from the 1970s and 1980s – and few will be sorry about that. Picketers confront scabs with arguments rather than chucking buckets of acid at them (as done by steel workers in Nottinghamshire). The extreme violence, which tore apart families and communities, is supplanted by a more professional dispute.

Undoubtedly industrial action on June 30th was highly symbolic rather than economically disruptive.  Photo ops, rallies, flashy banners and Internationale sing-alongs marked the day. The atmosphere on the main demo and various pickets was more party-like than war-like.

So far this has been a white-collar activist affair. Yet, no one should underestimate the power of singing to a different tune. The difference in tactics of the anti austerity movement has allowed for people beyond “the usual suspects” to be involved. New energies and new forms of protest are challenging the old hierarchies of the traditional left.

In particular, the involvement of students has breathed fresh air into stale union politics. People as young as 14/15 see disruption to their lives and relate it to a broader socio-economic framework. Their entry into the political scenario has changed the dynamics of the game, simultaneously  transforming a generation.

This parliament is being challenged to the sound of dub step, symbolising a rise in new means of resistance. The tools range  from Twitter to Facebook to autoupdating maps of the riot lines. The “A to B march”, has been supplanted by more creative revisitations such as: civic swarming, flash mobs and sit ins.

These are not merely idealistic kids, they are pragmatic and highly organised. They have the technology to build networks and share ideas quickly. Through a fresh understanding of politics they are  building a culture of  resistance from the grassroots up.

On Thursday afternoon as the march drew to an end, seasoned activists began hitting the pubs. A group of youngsters, aged between 16-17  stayed in the Whitehall area for an impromptu sit in. Their sleek clothes and funky sunglasses made them amenable to the OC cast rather than the Red Army .

This is a generation that has been radicalised in the time-span of a few months. Constantly making political judgements on their feet. Finding themselves in the middle of a kettle, seeing their friends smashing a window and standing with their lecturers on a picket line, is their political education.

My generation, dubbed for many years lazy and apathetic, is learning to hold politicians to account. This “awakening” should not be underestimated neither by commentators, nor actors. This type of social change will not only outlive the movement, but it might be the most powerful weapon in its arsenal. Some say that no one riots in the rain, but what about a little dub step?


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