The last day of school in Melbourne, Friday 24 June, before the mid-year break, saw a 500-strong student strike and demonstration against the John Howard government in Melbourne.
Five hundred students strike against Howard government
The protest was organised by UNITE, a campaign against low pay and rights for casual workers, which was initiated by Socialist Party (CWI) youth.
The demonstration started at Federation Square in the city, with several speeches and a band. The speakers included high school and university students, an electrical apprentice and an organiser from UNITE. The MC on the day was a Year 8 student from Princess Hill Secondary College. After the speeches, the students marched down Swanston Street towards the Bourke Street mall and stopped outside the Nike superstore where they were addressed by Yarra City Socialist Party Councillor Steve Jolly. Steve spoke about Nike and other multinational companies exploiting young workers both in Australia and, to an even worse extent, in places like Indonesia, where people work for as little as a few dollars a day. The noisy and energetic students then marched down Bourke Street mall, chanting slogans, like "Hey ho! Johnny Howard, its time to go". The lunchtime crowds were very supportive of the demands displayed on the students’ placards, including, "Education for all, not just the rich!" and "Equal pay for equal work - no junior wages!"
The size of the march grew as it went through the mall and then down Elizabeth Street, where the students stopped outside a McDonalds outlet to listen to Kylie McGregor, UNITE Co-ordinator. Kylie spoke about the lack of apprenticeship opportunities for young people. To cheers from the crowd, she said, "We have had enough of John Howard’s Mc Jobs; we want real jobs with decent wages, not low paid dodgy traineeships". As the march moved off up Flinders Street, back towards Federation Square, the students chanted "1, 2, 3, 4…Johnny Howard out the door!..5, 6, 7, 8…profits do not educate!". Back in the Square, the students stayed to listen to four more bands, including three bands made up entirely of high school students.
Youth stand up to Howard
The attacks on education, training and industrial relations were highlighted as the three main ways that Howard is attacking young people. The increases in university fees, and the introduction of ‘voluntary student unionism’, will mean education will only be for the rich, and student services, and the right to organise on campus, will be diminished.
The lack of apprenticeships available for young people, and the deregulation of existing training programmes, means more youth will be locked into low paid jobs with no future. Changes to the industrial relations system will hit young people hardest, as many youth work in small businesses and non-unionised sectors.
While the turnout for last Friday’s student strike and protest was modest, it was significant, as it was the first time in several years that high school students had got organised and stood up to the anti-youth and anti-worker policies of the Howard government. The mood of the students was particularly inspiring, with over 50 of them going to the UNITE stall to sign-up, and to get more involved in the fight-back. Also, over $150 was raised on the day, which is an impressive amount, considering most who attended either do not work or survive on extremely low wages. One Year 7 student told a UNITE organiser this was her first political demonstration but by no means would it be her last. "We can’t stop fighting until we kick these people out of power," she said.
The student strike marks the start of countrywide protests and strikes against Howard’s new attacks on workers’ rights and conditions. A half-day general strike in Victoria State, which includes Melbourne, takes place this coming Thursday, and other protests are planned throughout Australia. Around 100,000 people are expected to turn out for protests in Melbourne, the biggest workers’ demonstration in the city for years.