Are students really workers?

Drawing of a person holding a placard reading "strike"
This article is an opinion piece written by NCAFC member Ben Towse. Do you want to respond, or write about another topic for anticuts.com? Please get in touch via [email protected]!

It’s become increasingly common on the student left and within NCAFC to say that students are workers. It’s not a new idea but it certainly seems to be back on the rise. At our conference it was one argument given for the proposal that NCAFC should affiliate to a syndicalist workers’ union like the IWW (which was voted down with a general consensus in favour of further discussion), and it is argued by some that a student strike should be understood to have inherent power as a withdrawal of labour, exercising leverage in the same way as a strike by employees in a workplace.

I want to explain why I am sceptical about this idea. “Students are workers” is an attractive slogan, and students do indeed share certain things in common with workers. But I don’t think that being a students are simply a type of worker, or that being a student is the same as being a worker. This isn’t just a semantic dispute about defining the word “worker”. (For the purposes of this article, by “workers” and the “working class” I mean the vast majority of society, who don’t own businesses but have to rely either on selling our labour for a wage or salary, or on benefits.) Whether we think that students are workers informs our understanding of the situation in education, and how we can take action. So the wrong answer to this question can lead to drawing the wrong conclusions about the student movement and our tactics and strategies.

These are initial thoughts, however, and I’d welcome responses to this piece – let’s carry on discussing.

Students are (future) workers

I’ll start with the positive – what do students hold in common with workers?

First, it’s definitely true that the student movement ought to see itself as aligned to the workers’ movement. Most of us will be seeking employment on leaving education rather than being employers ourselves – not to mention how many of us work during our studies. So it is in our interest that workers win struggles for decent jobs and better pay and conditions.

Likewise, the struggle over the nature and purpose of education is part of the divide between the interests of workers and employers, with employers and the government that serves them seeking to make sure education is dedicated to serving them: training us to be more productive employees for them. They want an education system focussed on testing and sorting humans into different sets, and prepping each to serve employers in an appropriate type of work. On the other hand, our interests and those of the working class lie in fighting for an education system that is genuinely free and open to all. The kind of education system that would serve our interests should foster the free enquiry and development that can help every individual reach their fullest potential and can help us collectively with the understanding and intellectual tools to fight for, and participate fully in, a genuinely liberated, equal and democratic society. (As far as I’m concerned, that means a socialist society!)

Another reason that the student movement, like any progressive cause, needs to be aligned to the workers’ movement is that within capitalism, the working class is uniquely placed to force change – at the base of capitalism, it is the working class on whose labour the ruling class relies to make things, keep everything running and (crucially!) to create their wealth. This gives the working class unique leverage to force political and economic change, if it is organised democratically to exercise that leverage. Not only should the student movement support the workers’ movement: students need workers’ active support too, if we’re going to win our biggest goals.

Collectivism and unions

Second, students are like workers in the sense that we need collectivism to defend our interests. An individualist perspective poses students as passive consumers of education, whose power is limited to our purchasing power in the education market, and atomises us: isolated individuals investing in a boost to our employability, in order to compete with each other in the job market. This is the same kind of perspective that reduces student unions to little more than social clubs and commercial services.

The left in the student movement fights for a collectivist approach – the idea that we can wield greater power to defend and advance our interests through collective action. Thus the student movement should be informed by the same lessons and principles as the workers’ movement. That means building and participating in mass student unions – unions that seek to organise all students together on the basis of our shared material interests, through a bottom-up democracy, and that fight for those interests using the strength of all their members in collective actions.

Working, striking and leverage

However, despite these commonalities between students and workers, when we get to the base point of the slogan that “students are workers”, I think the argument falls down. This is the idea that being a student is like being a worker, and the work that students do in studying can usefully be considered as similar to the work done by employees in a workplace. This idea is often used to argue that we can therefore exercise leverage in the same way as waged workers when we withdraw our labour.

The clout that workers can wield by withdrawing labour – a strike – relies on two crucial facts. First, each hour and each task of that work contributes in a necessary way to keeping the enterprise going and making the employer money. If you stop working, or refuse particular duties, that has an impact on your employer’s profits, or it stops or degrades a service they provide. Second, the employer needs that work more than you do. The employer has a direct interest in ensuring the services you provide, or the products you make, continue – but you mostly just need your wages. For as long as you can get by otherwise – for instance on strike pay from your union and from supporters – you have the upper hand over your employer, because they need to end the strike more urgently than you do. You can use that upper hand to force concessions.

There are many other areas of work that are necessary to capitalism and to improving employers’ profits in a general, less direct sense. The work that students do as students is one of those. With an education system set up – as the minister for Universities Jo Johnson puts it – as a “pipeline” supplying graduates to employers, disruption of that pipeline is bad for business.

However, it does not straightforwardly follow that withdrawal of all the different types of work capitalism relies on can be wielded in the same way as a workplace strike.

In the case of a student strike, the work we do is much more indirectly linked to employers’ business. A student strike can indeed apply pressure to the employers’ class collectively if it threatens the timely graduation of an entire cohort of prospective employees, forcing the employers who need those workers to press the government for a resolution (this was a factor in the gains made by the 2012 Quebec student strike, which lasted months and involved a substantial proportion of the total student population). However, this power doesn’t scale straightforwardly to more limited strikes. The specific pieces of work we carry out in shorter timescales – essays, lab projects, homeworks etc. – don’t have the same importance to capitalism. We can’t halt the gears of capitalism just by refusing to show up for a day, or a few days, in the same way that workers can.

There are some particular types of student that are exceptions to this. Some of us actually are workers during our studies. For instance, the NHS relies on the unpaid labour of student nurses, and universities’ research output relies on the research labour of PhD students. We should be thinking about how to organise in those circumstances – for instance, organising student nurses with their colleagues in health worker unions and potentially demanding wages, and by considering whether researchers working towards their PhD should be considered students at all, rather than research workers on the first rung of the career ladder. But the bulk of taught students’ work is not like these cases, at least not to anything like the same degree.

This is not to say that student walkouts and strikes can’t wield power – they can. But in order to employ these tactics right, we need to understand exactly how.

First, there is a strong element of demonstrative, protest-like effect. A walkout or strike is a big, public, attention-grabbing political statement – like a march or a stunt. It can impact political debate, put an issue on the table, and influence the ideas of the wider population. It is popular in some parts of the left to dismiss demonstrative action as completely ineffectual, and it’s true that it doesn’t wield the same power as the direct economic leverage of a strike and sometimes it’s not enough. However, even in a limited democracy like the one we live in, government and institutions have to be at least somewhat responsive to public opinion and to spectacular demonstrations of that opinion.

Second, it matters what students do while on strike. Not writing one essay or coming to a particular class might not be a spanner in the gears of capitalism, but massive, disruptive protests that bring a city to a halt, blockade businesses or occupy key sites can be. Which is why everyone in NCAFC agrees we would need to argue for active, not passive participation in any student strike – strikers shouldn’t simply stay in bed but take to the streets.

Third, the relation of the impact of a student strike to its duration must work differently to that for a workplace strike. Of course, in both cases, a longer strike is more powerful. But while in a workplace every hour or task refused imposes a cost on the employer, for a student strike, what starts out as more demonstrative in nature only more slowly begins to threaten the material interests of employers, as the risk increases that the supply of an entire cohort of prospective workers will be impacted.

This is all a bit of a simplification, of course – a whole field of books and theses could be produced analysing the impacts and powers of different types of strike. But I think it’s essential to understand these themes and features of a student strike: both in order to wield the tactic as effectively as possible so we can win our battles, and so that when we do decide to try and persuade people to participate in one, we can do so more successfully and honestly.

Conclusions

So students do share plenty in common with workers. We have shared goals and interests. The same principles of mass, collective, democratic organising and action apply to both our movements. And it’s essential for us to recognise that an organised working class represents the most powerful force in society for effecting progressive change, and so orient ourselves towards the labour movement. But it is wrong to say that to be a student is actually to be a type of worker, or that students’ work plays a role within the functioning of capitalism that is comparable to the labour carried out by employees in any workplace. More importantly, by misunderstanding our situation, that idea risks leading to tactical and strategic mistakes for the student movement.