At the same time that the public outcry—and, indeed, what might legitimately be called a movement—over workfare developed, students at my school were on a two-week unpaid work experience program. The blog entry will examine not only the nature of such placements, but explore the organising opportunities they present. Also, a big thanks to Croydonian Anarchist for giving me the kick up the arse to actually write this.
As an education worker who never had the “privilege” of work experience when I was in school, the whole program seems like it was a really terrible experience for the kids. Some horror stories came out of it—12 hour shifts, bullying—and some kids even got kicked out for various degrees of malfeasance. Then, of course, came the final indignity of the students having to send a thank you letter to their employer for their generosity in providing them with the opportunity to work 80 hours without compensation.
This, however, isn't what I want to concentrate on. Of all the issues I've encountered while working in the school system, work experience appears to have the most traction as something students could be organised around. Some of this will be thinking aloud, so I'd really appreciate feedback from current students, education workers, those who've done work experience in the past, and anyone who may have recently had students at their workplace on a placement.
Now, of course, I'm not a student. Nor am I in any position to begin organising students in my own workplace. However, I know a handful of sixth-formers who've joined the Solidarity Federation (of which I'm a member). My understanding is that the Anarchist Federation has more young members, including some who'd be at the age for work placements.
I'm hoping this piece might prove helpful in trying to orientate radical students around material issues. In my experience, student organising is often abstractly political (anti-war walkouts or against standardised testing—which is not to say that these things aren't worthwhile) or propagandist efforts. In any case, the most successful student mobilisation in a generation was over a fundamentally material issue, EMA.
Work experience is something that many students already resent. And for those who don't hate it from the get-go, the novelty of being outside of school quickly wears off and the boredom of '9 to 5' soon sets in. A simple bit of agitational work could crystalise this resentment into material demands. The most obvious would be “wages for work experience”. If our benevolent educational and business overlords want students to “experience the world of work”, the least they could do is offer them a taste of the wage element of wage slavery.
There are other options too, of course. The total abolition of work experience seems like a worthy goal. Students could also demand that instead of placements, they be given two weeks off to pursue whatever their extracurricular or professional interest may be. Students could propose a project of sorts, agreed to in advance, where they have two weeks of independent study to develop their knowledge and skill in a given field. Alternatively, the demand could place the onus on the school to only arrange work placements with employers who agree to pay students.
Practically, such a campaign has numerous advantages. For one, it'd be quite easy to use the school's own structures to facilitate interest. School councils are undoubtedly the most toothless, recuperative institution within all of capitalism. So count them out. However, getting the school debate club to host a debate on work experience should be easy enough. Likewise, securing a couple hundred words in the school newspaper shouldn't be a problem. Setting up a stall in the canteen could be easily done with or without the consent of the school authorities.
For bigger actions, a bit of picket line practice couldn't hurt as students could flier their coursemates on their way in and out of school. Pickets could also be arranged of employers who take on unpaid work placements. The ultimate direct action, of course, would be mass refusal to sign up to a work experience placement in the first place.
Politically, an anti-work experience campaign has the potential to move discussion from the 'bread and butter' to deeper issues about class, capitalism, and the nature of the wage system. Will the demand be minimum wage for work experience? A living wage? A union wage? From there it's an easy jump to “Where do our wages come from?”. And how come if workers do all the work, we only receive a percentage back as wages? What do workers do to raise their wages?
This can then all be placed within the context of capitalism and why things like the free labour of work experience benefits employers. Why are schools trying to get students to perform free labour in the first place? Are schools there for students' learning, as they say, or for employers?
This is not to say that any of this will be easy. However, as anarchists we should be strategic and engage with members of the class—be they students, workers, the unemployed, or pensioners—on material issues. Contrary to what may seem intuitive, the struggle that comes from trying to improve our lives materially is what creates class consciousness and opens up the space for discussion about things like capitalism in the state. If we can kickstart that process in school—and screw over some money-grubbing employers in the process—all the better.