For the last few months, tens of thousands of students across the UK have bunked off school to demand that oil companies don’t turn the world into a fan oven.
They’re part of an international movement covering more than 100 countries that looks like it’s gaining momentum. But this movement isn’t unprecedented: there’s a long history of school kids escaping the classroom, climbing over the gates, and going on strike.
In the UK, the first recorded school walkouts took place in 1889. Dock workers had just gone on strike and won a big pay rise in a hyper-precarious industry. The school children of east London looked at their example, and decided they’d have a go. They demanded an end to physical punishment, long hours, and homework. The strike spread fast, reaching as far away as Dundee, Scotland. From then on, school strikes have happened again and again.
In 1985, kids went on strike against Thatcher and her "Youth Training Scheme". Like apprenticeships today, the scheme meant that 16 and 17-year-olds could be put to work by big companies for below the minimum wage, with no promise of a job at the end. The Tories wanted to prevent any 16 or 17-year-olds who refused to participate from going on the dole while looking for a proper job. The kids weren’t having it. Again, they were inspired by the struggle of workers – this time the miners, fighting against the destruction of their communities. Unlike the miners, however, the school strike succeeded in stopping Thatcher’s plans – for a while, at least.
More recently, in 2003, students walked out to join protests against the Iraq war. In 2010, they joined the demonstration that demolished Tory party HQ in protest at the increase of tuition fees.
Why does generation after generation reinvent the same tactic? Because it’s a common sense form of action for children who otherwise comprehensively disempowered. The power of a school strike comes from three different sources.
First, school in a capitalist society acts primarily as an apparatus of the state, designed to turn children into workers. So, when school is interrupted, this production line gets interrupted. One or two days doesn’t make much difference, but if the strike means that an entire cohort of students miss graduation, it can create a hole in the labour market.
Second, school acts as a form of childcare. It guarantees that the parents of every nuclear family will have the capacity to go to work and make their bosses money. If school stops working as a daytime internment camp because the kids keep on breaking out, that means parents have to take time off, leading to impacts in the workplace.
Third, thousands of people taking to the streets have the capacity to fuck shit up. They can block bridges, run riot through the streets, and even scrap with cops.
But students aren’t the only ones who can cause chaos. Across the world, teachers have been rediscovering their workplace power, which comes from the same three sources, and using it to wage a classroom war.
Last year, a strike wave among teachers in the US started in West Virginia. These teachers from a "red" Trump-voting state, took up the fight against austerity and poverty wages – even though a state ban on strike action by state employees meant that they were technically breaking the law. Their unofficial, illegal action won huge gains (like a 5 percent pay increase for very single public employee) and started a chaina reaction in other red states like Oklahoma and Arizona. They’ve now been followed by teachers from more classically progressive parts of the country, like LA and Oakland, where teachers have struck against the privatisation of city school systems by multi-millionaires.
The latest teachers to go on strike have been in Poland. They started their indefinite walkout against against poverty wages and their far-right government in early April, and shut down 80 percent of schools in the capital of Warsaw and up to 90 percent in other school districts around the country.
Internationally, schools are becoming hotbeds of struggle against a system based on austerity, privatisation, and profit. In its place, students and teachers are beginning to demand things like a green new deal: a transitional plan to escape from crisis capitalism and towards a zero-carbon economy based on the principles of public abundance rather than private luxury. The stakes of the classroom war couldn’t be higher.