The major student organizations and unions in Spain called a national university strike on the 26th and 27th of March. I joined the picket lines in the University of Alicante, in the Valencian region. The strike was called to fight the austerity policies of the current PP (right-wing) government that are destroying public education in Spain. Tuition fees have rocketed throughout the country, the number of scholarships has plummeted, classes are overcrowded, certain modules and even whole degrees are being scrapped…

Attacks on education

Unlike in Britain, where the Tory-Lib Dem coalition trebled fees in one go, attacks against public education in Spain have taken place in a piecemeal manner, and in different ways depending on the region (in Spain local governments have a big say in higher education). I can give an example, however, to illustrate the extent of the degradation of public education. When I started studying in the department of humanities of the University of Alicante in 2009, I was paying around €500 a year. Now, a friend who has just started a degree in the same department tells me he pays well over €1000, and fees in the humanities are usually lower than in most other departments. According to one of the spokespersons of the strike, applications to the University of Alicante have fallen by 500 people this year due to the hike in fees. An unemployed man who came to show his support to the picket lines was telling us that his daughter would finish school next year and that there was no way he’d be able to pay for her university studies.

In secondary education conditions are even worse. Some classes have been supressed and the range of choice has dropped. Most classes are overcrowded. Many schools cannot afford to have their heating on in winter. Thousands of children have to study in porta-cabins or in buildings that are falling apart. To add insult to injury, the current government has shown its backward and chauvinistic character by increasing the sway of the Church in schools and by attacking regional languages both at school and at university, an important issue in bilingual regions like Alicante. Many of these reactionary reforms have been carried out through the LOMCE law, passed last November, and which has turned Ignacio Wert, the education minister, into one of the most hated politicians in the country.

This offensive against public education began with the start of the current crisis of capitalism under the “socialist” PSOE government, but has now been redoubled by the PP. The offensive against public education takes place in a general context of deep crisis for the Spanish youth. There is a 56% youth unemployment rate, and those who have a job face conditions of exploitation and precariousness in jobs for which they are almost always over-qualified. Over 50% of Spaniards under 31 are forced to live with their parents, and one in four cannot afford a high-protein diet or to buy new clothes.

Militant class struggle

It is no surprise that the Spanish youth is getting increasingly radicalized and fed up with the corrupt, reactionary government and the clique of capitalists that run the country and that implement brutal austerity while lining their pockets. The Spanish youth has been at the forefront of recent mobilizations, like the massive demonstration in Madrid on the 22nd of March, which saw two million people marching on the streets of the capital according to the organizers. Indeed, this last strike takes place in a period of upswing in the class struggle, which has seen massive demonstrations, strikes and workplace occupations, and episodes of spontaneous rioting. There is a feeling of momentum in the student and labour movements. Just as I am writing (29/03/14) a demonstration in Barcelona against the most recent anti-protest legislation and the criminalisation of demonstrators has been violently broken up by the police, which has taken over the city centre.

I have been to several strikes in Britain and Spain, but I had never seen anything similar to these picket lines. Out of the four major entrances to the university, three were blocked with massive barricades made of tables, chairs, fences, and garbage containers, and crowned with blazing republican flags. The picket lines were already up at dawn. These barricades were almost impossible to cross, but exceptions were made for people who urgently needed to get through, such as delivery workers. The fourth entrance had been left open, and people who turned up at the barricades were directed to this open entrance; here there was an information picket telling people about the strike. Remarkably few people crossed the picket line. Most of them were university workers who needed to get to their jobs (regrettably this was only a student strike – the labour unions did not participate).

Out of the few students who did show up at the picket lines, some had not heard there was a strike going on, and many of them then turned around and went back home or even stayed at the picket lines in support of the strike. Others had been expressly forced by their professors to come to university to sit exams or for presentations, a display of the reactionary attitude of some lecturers who wanted to sabotage the strike. Many students were indignant about this, saying they did not want to cross the picket lines. In these cases, “mobile pickets” were sent to the classes where exams or presentations were taking place, and there the professors were forced to stand outside of the classroom for a few minutes while the students voted on whether they wanted to postpone the exam and walk out.

The small number of people who explicitly wished to cross the picket lines, often to go to the library or to get a coffee on campus, where visibly well-off, right-wing students: the minority that supports the cuts and that can actually afford to pay fees. I heard afterwards from right-wing acquaintances that some of these elements were going to university on that day just for the sake of crossing the picket lines and to provoke the strikers. The strikers, however, generally remained calm and I saw no violence coming out of the picket lines.

Police violence

The only provocations and violence that I saw came from a few hysteric strike-breakers, and, more importantly, from the police. The police took a defiant attitude throughout the day. Most officers deployed belonged to the hated Guardia Civil, a militarized police force that has a long history in repressing the Spanish youth and the labour movement. They made several attempts to bring down the barricades, pushing down the tables that had been piled up and hurting the students that were standing below. In one of the entrances, without any previous provocation, they began to put on their riot gear and took out rubber bullet shotguns, in an attempt to intimidate the students.

A further provocation came from the presence of undercover policemen, who were clearly visible and who baited the pickets from inside the university. Undercover policemen have played an important role as agents provocateurs in recent protests and are becoming a common sight in any strike or demonstration. On the campus of the University of Madrid, the police arrested over 50 people and the dean of the history faculty himself had to stand in the door of the faculty to stop the riot police from breaking in in full riot gear. These events are reminiscent of the days of the Franco dictatorship, when the police would raid universities using brutal violence and sometimes killing students.

The Spanish government, cornered and afraid, has been taking an increasingly violent and repressive attitude towards any opposition. Demonstrations are brutally repressed and authoritarian, anti-protest laws have been passed giving the police extra-powers and criminalizing most forms of dissent. Just this week the mayor of Madrid suggested that the whole of the city centre should be closed off to protesters.

Anti-capitalist enthusiasm

Despite the provocations of the police, there was a mood of enthusiasm on the picket lines. Lots of students joined in; there were around 50 people in each picket line, sometimes more. Students wanting to join the pickets kept coming throughout the day. Some who had been forced by their professors to come to university joined the picket lines after getting through their business. Reflecting the militancy of the Spanish youth, chants were heard in Spanish and Catalan of “Long live the struggle of the working class!” or “we want the son and the daughter of the worker in the university!”

At a given point, some people began to chant “this happens because we have a right-wing government!” They were interrupted by a student who took the megaphone and said that it didn’t have to do with having a right-wing government, but with the capitalist system that is run in the interests of a small minority of parasites; this excellent intervention was cheered by everyone, showing the revolutionary conclusions the Spanish youth is drawing.

Most strikers also showed a great deal of maturity and sensibility in refusing to be provoked by the police and in taking a firm but diplomatic stance. Overall, the strike was a great success. The university was brought to a standstill and hardly anyone could be seen on campus, which is usually bustling with activity. This was also the case throughout Spain. Massive demonstrations were held in most cities and towns in the afternoon of the 27th.

The need for co-ordination with the labour movement

The only shortcoming of the strikes was the lack of coordination with the labour movement. In Madrid, the students were joined in their marches by striking Coca Cola workers and the staff of the Madrid TV, who are facing mass layoffs. However, this seemed to be an isolated show of solidarity. The labour unions did not officially participate in the strikes or the demonstrations (with the exception of those called in the evening).

In Alicante, the university staff had been forced to go to work and voiced their discomfort at having to cross the picket lines and their solidarity with the strike. The labour unions were not adequately informed, and said that if they had been notified beforehand they would have taken actions in support of the strike, such as asking lecturers to avoid setting exams on these dates. Many students raised the point of the need of linking up with workers.

The example of the Balearic Islands was put forward, where the reactionary policies of the local PP government were fought back (and the regional government itself put between a rock and a hard place) by a movement which saw an all-out teachers’ strike backed by the students. Students at the pickets in Alicante pointed out that the conditions of the university staff are also being attacked, and someone reminded us that in Greece university workers were facing massive layoffs and had gone on an all-out strike, and that we will probably see similar things in Spain soon.

Although the students movement has been consistently fighting cuts ad education counter-reforms for over two years, there are some weaknesses in the leadership. Unlike in Britain, where we have a unified and official National Union of Students, there are different student unions and organisations in Spain. The largest one is the Union of Students (Sindicato de Estudiantes) which has a widespread presence amongst school students. Back in October 2013, the massive movement against the reactionary LOMCE education reform fizzled out because of the lack of a plan to escalate the struggle and stop the reform by bringing together the different student organizations and the labour movement.

The problem of unity is an important one. The Union of Students has consistently called for the teachers’ unions to call a three-day education strike involving all sectors. This could deliver a serious blow against the education minister which has already been weakened by the protests. The leaders of the teachers’ unions have consistently refused to respond to this call. On the other hand, the leadership of the Union of Students has displayed a sectarian disregard towards the other student organisations, many of them with a dominating presence in different regions. This can only weaken the students movement overall. Nevertheless, despite the faults of the student unions, the course of events has led to a new upswing in the student movement, which is reaching revolutionary conclusions and which is calling for a leadership that is worth its salt.

In Britain students are facing similar attacks: rising tuition fees, falling standards in education, cuts to scholarships and university services, and, more generally, a dramatic drop in their future prospects. A recent report by the Local Government Association showed that 40% of the British youth is either unemployed or underemployed and overqualified. The global crisis of capitalism is generating similar conditions across Europe (and beyond). These conditions are also radicalizing large sectors of the British youth, which is realizing that society’s problems don’t have to do with the policies of this or that government but with the fact that the whole capitalist system is rotten. However, the leadership of the student movement (as with the labour movement) has failed to rise to the challenge by setting out an adequate strategy to stop the Coalition. In fact, their hesitance and cowardice have often helped to demoralize students and workers.

In Britain, we have the advantage of having a unified representative body for students, the NUS, which, although currently spineless and lethargic, has the potential of leading a fighting student movement, as proved by the events of 2010, where its half-hearted call for national demonstration brought 50,000 students out on the street. We should fight for a combative NUS that will be up to the task that is demanded from them by the youth. It is the task of the Marxist youth, in Spain, Britain, and everywhere, to take a leading role in the student movement to pursue an effective, united strategy on the basis of a revolutionary programme.

by Arturo Rodriguez, Oxford Marxists

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