I wasn’t keen to write anything about the National Student Strike, mostly because I figured that it was a no win situation; no matter which position I took, my comments would either seem jaded and cynical or I would be associated with a group of people who seem to think that students are early 20th century coal miners. Then I realised that’s not a no win game, so here are the reasons yesterday’s student strike, at least in Victoria, was an atrocious waste of everyone’s time.
Let’s start with the basics that have been doing the rounds on social media for the last couple of weeks. The idea of a strike is to deprive your employer of your labour in order to pressure them to appease your demands, it is and has been for centuries an effective tool for employees and labour unions in workplace bargaining situations where negotiations between employers and employees have broken down. But if you think really hard about your relationship as a student with your university, you’ll realise that you’re not an employee but what is known in business as a ‘consumer’. The university offers a product (courses), which you consume. The correct term then for what didn’t really happen this week is a boycott, but generally speaking that strategy works better when the business you are boycotting is impacted in some way by the boycott. Which the university, to whom you have already paid your fees this semester, is not.
I’d like now to move on to timing. Budget day certainly seems to be the right time to protest funding cuts, until you realise that it’s unlikely the government is still finalising budgetary policy six hours or so before the treasurer stands up in parliament. “But Pete”, I hear someone cry, “it’s not about changing budgetary policy, don’t be silly, that’s a ridiculous target to set for a student protest”. Well, anonymous and fictional objector, if you want me to miss a whole day of classes and study in a week when I, like many students, will submit more assignments than I will have hot dinners, you better have some lofty fucking ambitions. “But Pete!” shouts the part of my brain that realises opposition is necessary to the continuation of this article, “it’s about grabbing media attention, letting the government know that we’re not going to stand idly by while they bankrupt the future of education, and stuff.” To that I would point out that Saturday is a slower news cycle than Tuesday, during which media outlets are more actively looking for content, which would be more favourable conditions in which to compete with the big stories of the week. Also there are no classes on Saturday.
I have deliberately left discussion of the execution of the protest for last because I’m not one for eating dessert before dinner and frankly this magnitude of clusterfuck is the intellectual equivalent of a wedding cake made entirely out of jelly and donuts.
The main aspects you need to consider when organising a protest, or any event really, is how you plan to publicise it, and just how much abuse you want to scream at people who disagree with you, and how many building-wide evacuations you are willing to cause in an ill-considered and panicked attempt to drum-up more support. In the case of yesterday’s protest the answer to these central questions seem to be ‘if it was good enough for Woodstock it’s good enough for us’, ‘there can never be enough’ and ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about, wink.’
There is no excuse in the era of social media for not letting people know what you’re doing. Yet on Tuesday afternoon when I tried to find out how many people had turned up in the city I couldn’t find any information, mostly because I wasn’t really sure who was organising the protest, a situation that wasn’t easily remedied by reading any of the handbills that seemed to be the primary mode of communication favoured by this particular protest. ‘Cause fuck the internet and the environment right fellas?
Obviously some people involved in the protest felt that getting their message across was a bit of a weak suit as well, so they decided to get a microphone and stand in the middle of the Menzies lawn screaming at no one. Stunned by the lack of response to this tried and true campaign tactic it is alleged a member of the socialist alternative activated one of the smoke alarms in Campus Centre to try and force people onto the lawn. Apart from the fact that having the fire brigade come round costs the university a reasonably large amount of money and the protest was against taking money from universities, I’m not convinced that making people think there’s a fire and then surprising them with a socialist alternative rep yelling at them through a megaphone is a winning tactic. I’m not saying I’d definitely prefer to burn to death but I think I’d like to have the freedom to explore my options.
Which neatly brings me to my final point. Choice.
If you want people to come to your ill thought out, pointless and in some ways destructive protest, that’s fine. But if some people decline, those people are not your enemy, and definitely don’t deserve to be treated like they’re betraying some fictional industrial action or have abuse yelled at them through megaphones. Apart from the obvious incursions of basic human decency, it seems to suggest that you think calling someone a right wing bitch, or telling them they don’t give a shit about their education will change their mind about joining your protest. If I didn’t chip in some loose change for the Salvos and the old gent with the tin started hurling abuse, I doubt I’d turn around and start franticly looking for change.