In defence of the roaming picket

The picket line at Sydney University.

The ongoing strike at Sydney University attracted national media attention on March 26 when strike-supporting students were dragged from a lecture theatre by riot police.

The students were engaged in a “roaming picket” that was disrupting one of the few remaining classes held that day when police intervened. This sparked debate as to whether student supporters used appropriate tactics to make their presence heard.

Footage of students being dragged out of classrooms by police and reports of pleading students wanting their classes left in peace have been the basis of attempts to discredit the strike. What, if anything, should student protesters take from this?

Who’s disrupting who?

A consistent criticism of the strike has been of the disruption of the classes that were still on and the effect this has had on other students. This argument says that it’s legitimate to protest, but strikers alienate other students by targeting them and disrupting their classes.

The roaming picket did disrupt classes. That was one of its stated goals and it was successful in doing so. This decision was made to add to the pressure of the industrial action taken by staff.

Interrupting one lecture doesn’t significantly disrupt the education of any of the students affected. On the other hand, the actions of the administration threaten to actively undermine the education of all students at Sydney University.

The pressure to introduce teaching-only positions denies students up-to-date education. The increases in student-to-staff ratios limit students’ ability to access the tuition they may need. This strike is about staff and students forcing their right to have a say in how the university institution is governed in order to save the education it offers from being destroyed.

The student body

Strike supporters and the Education Action Group (EAG) need to consider the strategic direction of our actions. The student body has to be central to our strategic vision, and bringing more students to our side is always central to our campaign.

The actions of our existing activists in and of themselves cannot qualitatively “step up” the strike. The strength will be the participation of staff and actions such as the roaming picket can only be supplementary to industrial action. Students can run roaming pickets and disrupt a few classes, but with current numbers they cannot realistically expect to be able to stop other students from entering campus.

But the EAG can be an organisation that relentlessly pursues the administration. Each time the administration tries to claim the strike has no support, the EAG can rally students to prove otherwise.

When vice-chancellor Michael Spence tries to claim that his hands are tied and these cuts are necessary, students can quote the numbers to prove this is a lie. The EAG can be the administration’s political nemesis within the student body.

Strategically the EAG needs to redouble its efforts to engage even more students in active support of the strike. Many students boycotted classes — even when lecturers were still working. But there was a marked drop-off between those who stayed at home and those on the picket line.

At this stage, it is by finding, winning over and organising those students who now passively support the strike that the EAG can strengthen the strike. Only then will “hardening” the picket lines become feasible.

Ultimately, the strike is dependent on the power of workers and students. The EAG will attract attention from actions such as the roaming picket, but the strength of the campaign that underwrites this is the hard work of talking to and organising ever more students into the campaign to defend their education.