Sunday, April 16, 2006

Matt McCarten: French lessons for protesting students

Wasn't the victory for workers in France magnificent this week? Millions of workers and students took to the streets over the past month to staunchly oppose their Government's attempt to introduce new employment laws. This law was to allow employers to sack any young worker in their first two years for any reason whatsoever.

The French working class and the youth took to the streets day after day. Rolling general strikes were called by the central trade union federations. The cities were paralysed. After several weeks of huffing and puffing, the senior French politicians capitulated. The Government surrendered on every point. It was a complete and humiliating backdown.

New Zealanders should take note from this - of how attacks against working people can be defeated. Dr Wayne Mapp, the National Party's Political Correctness Terminator, has a bill currently before Parliament that is similar to what the French Government tried to impose. Mapp is proposing that New Zealand employers can legally sack new workers in their first three months without giving a reason or having to justify their actions. National and Act supported this pro-slavery legislation to go to select committee as you would expect. But disappointingly, so did NZ First, United Future and three of the four Maori MPs.

I chatted with a French visiting trade unionist this week about the success of workers in France. I asked him why he thought the French could mobilise people on to the streets and we couldn't. He smiled, leaned over and whispered: "the trouble with Kiwis is that they are too polite. They accept whatever their politicians decide."

Thankfully, there is a breath of fresh air. The successful fight by young workers employed in fast-food restaurants in Auckland for a better deal gives me hope. The Unite union's campaign against low wages and youth rates has dovetailed nicely with the Greens' Sue Bradford's bill against youth rates.

The most inspiring thing has been the secondary school students who have now come into the frontline of this campaign. Off their own back, 1000 Auckland students left school a couple of weeks ago and marched in protest at their discriminatory wages. Not surprisingly, much of the media commentary was on the shock and horror of unruly youngsters marching and entirely missed the point of the march. Anyone who was present can attest to the well-behaved participants. I've heard a number of radio jocks, while admitting they weren't even there, refer to it as a near riot. Worryingly some people actually rely on these airheads for their news.

The usual reactionaries filled up the newspaper letters columns, demanding to know why these kids were walking off from school to protest. These whingers will be pleased to know that many of the students who attended this student demonstration were punished by their schools - some quite severely. It was pathetic seeing school principals wringing their hands in the media claiming how disappointed they were that students were leaving their classrooms to protest against discriminatory wages. The students who stood up and attended their march learned more from that one action than anything they would have studied that day.

The teachers at one inner-city school, to their shame, formed a line along their school perimeter to prevent students leaving. Those students who broke through the cordon were punished on their return. Ironically this was a school where the students supported these same teachers when they were on strike for better wages a couple of years ago. I'm sure no teacher at that time was disciplined for leaving school to attend marches in support of their pay claim. Isn't this a valuable lesson for their students? Maybe it is a lesson for the principals and teachers too. They have since told the students they would support their cause if they promise not to do it in school time.

The students have taken them at their word and have organised a second march against youth wages on May 1, after school finishes.

Buses are being arranged to take students to Aotea Square. The student organisers are requesting teachers and parents come too.

This next generation is showing real spine. The challange for other workers and the rest of New Zealand is, do we expect them to fight on their own or do we support them? Like the French showed the world, when students and workers take to the streets together to send a message to politicians, they win.

On May Day we'll see if the youth are on their own or if the rest of New Zealand is going to support them.

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