Resisting the 2009 education cuts - fighting to win

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The Education Cuts announced in the Budget have unleashed a wave of protest across the country. 12,000 parents and teachers protested outside the Dail on Wednesday 29th October. Regional protests have since been held in Galway (attended by over 8,000), Tullamore (4,000), Cork (30,000) and Donegal (8,000). The national demonstration in Dublin on 6th December brought a massive 60,000 people onto the streets. All in all, over 120,000 people have joined the protests to say loudly and clearly that our children should not have to pay for the financial crisis. In addition there have been local demonstrations and pickets outside the clinics of Fianna Fail and Green Party TDs across the country.Likewise huge numbers of 3rd level students have participated in marches, pickets and blockades to protest at the proposed re-introduction of fees. On the same day as angry pensioners forced the government to back down on the medical cards issue, 15,000 students took to the streets to let Batt O’Keefe and Brian Lenihan know that fees were not going to be accepted. Over the past couple of months there have been protests of over 1,000 in Limerick, 5,000+ in Cork, 3,000+ in Sligo as well as dozens of small protests. The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) and the newly formed Free Education for Everyone (FEE) campaign group have been to the forefront in organising opposition to the Budget’s 67% College Registration Fee increase and Minister for Education, Batt O’Keefe’s threat to bring back full college fees by September 2009. Wednesday 4th February has been declared as a National Day of Action against fees and preparations are underway for one of the biggest shows of student strength for many years.

Blockades of FF TDs and Ministers have been used as a very effective tactic. ‘No Cutbacks, no Fees, no Fianna Fail TDs’ has become the catchcry of student blockaders and UCD in particular has become a virtual no-go area for government-supporting politicians with students determined that if the politicians are willing to block access to college through the introduction of fees, then their access to college campuses will be blocked.

So there’s no shortage of anger, and there’s no shortage of people willing to come out and protest on the twin issues of education cuts at primary and second level and the introduction of fees and creeping privatisation at third-level. What’s needed now is the development of a strategy to win – a strategy which will bring the two struggles together and which will aim not just to protest against the government but to defeat the government – force a climbdown and begin the process of fighting for free and equal access to Education for all.

Everyone always knew that no matter how big the protest on 6th December was, Cowen and Lenihan were not going to wake up on the morning of 7th December and say ‘We got it wrong – we better go back on those cuts.” They’ve dug their heels in and they’re hoping to be able to ride out the storm. Batt O’Keefe wasn’t appointed Minister for Education for his intelligence or his interest in the area of Education. He’s a Fianna Fail hack who has announced he’s not intending to stand in the next general election so he’s there in the firing line to take the flak.

What the government hoped was that 6th December would be the culmination of the anti-cuts campaign. They’d seen the crowds come out all around the country. They’d looked at the websites and listened to the announcements from the trade unions and from parent groups and they were happy. They were happy because there was no apparent plan for what was going to happen when the National Demonstration was over. They were hoping that the tens of thousands of people who have voiced their anger will become disillusioned at their lack of success and will accept their lot. Or indeed that people would be willing enough to come out and register their protest and then go back and get on with their normal lives. After all – especially in times of economic recession – it is difficult for ordinary people to find the time necessary to get stuck into the tasks of organising opposition to government attacks.

But in many ways that absence of a plan can be turned into a strength. Because that vacuum can be filled by tens and hundreds of local grassroots campaigns which will unite parents, teachers and students. The challenge is to build a series of campaigns on the issue of education cuts in as many areas as possible, and to then look to federate these campaigns into a national campaign. At local and national level, these campaigns need to look to build links with other campaigns fighting on similar issues i.e. parents and teachers in their local campaign fighting education cuts should forge links with students fighting fees. Then we need to look to build links with other public sector workers – workers who are after all fighting the same battle. The attacks on education are part of an ideological attack on the public sector in general. The wealthy and those who benefited from the boom are being protected. A political decision has been made that it is the families of workers and the poor who will have to pay for the crisis. We need to build a campaign which will be prepared to stand firm and to deliver a very clear message to the politicians that we did not cause the crisis and that we are not willing to be the scapegoats.

A clear political decision has also been made to attempt to drive a wedge between private sector and public sector workers. Thus our newspapers and chat shows are full of so-called experts going on about the ‘wasteful’ ‘inefficient’ public sector. Wage and pension conditions in the public sector are described as ‘unrealistic’ and private sector workers whose jobs and conditions are under attack are being manipulated to blame public sector workers rather than the real culprits – the money-grabbing bankers and property developers. Thus the campaigns which we must build must attempt to bridge that gap and to forge real links between all the victims of the economic crisis - private sector workers whose jobs have been savaged, public sector workers whose wages are under threat and the users of public services such as education and health whose already threadbare services are being attacked even more.

Forging the links between all these groups is a challenge for all trade unionists and for all who want to resist the attacks. Building a series of local campaigns is the method by which this can be done. Starting from January we need to begin a series of local protests and pickets which will let the politicians know that the anti-cuts movement is a many-headed monster – one which shows up in every town and parish in the country. The massive effort put in by parents and teachers to organise the hugely successful November/December series of demonstrations can be the foundation stone for the building of such a campaign. It needs to be a campaign which is built from the bottom up and which doesn’t rely on any politician, political party or trade union leader to direct or lead it. This will mean that it will be impossible for the government to buy it off or turn it into a cul de sac.

A starting point for building a local campaign can be your trade union branch, your parents’ association, your community group or simply a group of friends getting together. The important thing to remember is that it is through the efforts of ordinary people that such a campaign group can be built. There’s no major organisational ability needed, there’s no need for experts or professional organisers. Start by organising a picket of your local Fianna Fail TD’s clinic, get a petition going at the school gates or the local shopping centre, call a meeting in the local community centre. If someone takes an initiative in each area you’ll soon find that there are many like-minded people and you won’t be on your own.

Maintaining local ownership of the campaign is important. Don’t allow it to be manipulated by any political party or organisation. In particular political parties such as Fine Gael whose alternative to the cuts proposed by the government is to attack the wages of public sector workers should not be allowed to piggyback on the efforts of campaigners. It is a disgrace that Fine Gael spokespersons have been allowed on the platforms of the INTO-organised series of demonstrations. They should be seen as part of the problem, they are on the same side as the government and are not our allies.

If a series of local campaigns can be built throughout the country, then the task is to federate them on a basis in which they can co-operate with each other and unite tactically. This could be done by choosing a National Day of Action to defend and build solidarity among the victims of the financial crisis. Mayday would seem to be the perfect date to aim for. As part of building towards such a date, local campaign groups could begin a series of local actions – petitions, pickets, marches etc. aimed at building support and confidence among the local community and also letting the politicians know that we are serious. In each area building links between various groups should be seen as important – parents, teachers, students, workers whose jobs are under threat…. Where possible, existing structures such as trade union branches, parents’ associations, student unions, community groups etc. could be used for this but if necessary completely new structures may need to be built.

By having a specific date such as Mayday to build towards, we will all give ourselves a focus. But we must be aware that as with 6th December, it’s not simply about maximising protest numbers. This time around we should have a strategy in place for what we’re going to do after the big protest. So as we build our local protests and as we build links between those local protests on a regional and national level we should begin a discussion on where to go next and on how we can ultimately build a campaign which will defeat the government.

One tactic which will no doubt be proposed by several political parties over the coming months will be the idea of sponsoring or supporting candidates in the local or European elections. It is a tactic which should be avoided at all costs. Firstly, we need to remember that it is politicians and their friends in big business who have got us into this mess in the first place. So politicians – no matter who they are – will not be able to get us out of it. If we replace Brian Lenihan as Minister for Finance with Richard Bruton of Fine Gael or with Labour’s Joan Burton, do you honestly think it will make any difference? Do you believe that their policies will in reality be any different to those of the current crop? It’s clear from all their comments that they too share the analysis that the wealthy must be protected and that the paypackets and services of workers and the poorer sections of society should be raided to pay for the crisis. They may differ slightly in how this will be done but in effect their policies share the same central political analysis.

So what about electing candidates from smaller left parties or independents? Here one of the problems is that such candidates if elected will have no power to implement any policy that is in any way radical. Because of the extent to which the political system is controlled by the banking sector and by multinational capital, it will not be possible for any successful candidate – even one who holds the ‘balance of power’ – to have any radically different policies implemented. Proposals such as the imposition of huge tax increases on the wealthy or on profits, proposals which would shift the burden from workers and the poor on to the wealthy are unlikely to form part of any ‘Programme for Government’.

Indeed even if we managed to have a majority government elected on a radical platform, do you think that the banks and big business would sit idly by and allow a programme of radical change to be implemented? The message is that such radical change cannot be brought about through the parliamentary process but demands a much more radical shift in the way in which society is run.

Putting a lot of time and effort into getting candidates elected, therefore, is simply a waste of that time and effort. Some people will argue though that we should put forward or support particular candidates in order to frighten the mainstream parties, to take votes from the candidates of the mainstream parties and give them the worry that their seats are under threat. Surely however the way to really frighten them and put their seats under threat is to organise even bigger, stronger and more determined public protests. That way, no matter who is elected or not elected the power can be taken from them and we can force our ideas onto the political agenda.

The message should be that we don’t put our trust in any politician or in any political party. We need to rely on ourselves and on our own strength, on the strength of people power, workers (both public and private sector) and the unemployed standing together, extending solidarity to each other, defending each others’ jobs and living standards and delivering a loud message that we did not cause the problems and are not going to pay the price.

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