Assemblies packed with hundreds of students, political debates everywhere, massive demonstrations across the country. That’s how I would describe 2014, a year that saw the emergence of a renewed student movement in Italy. I was in high school and had never taken action for student rights outside my school building. The 2014 student movement not only introduced me to political activism but shaped a generation of student activists.

Everything started when the new center-left Italian government, led by the Democratic Party, proposed an educational reform called “La Buona Scuola” (The Good School), which would allow an influx of private funding into public schools, introduce mandatory hours of unpaid internships for students, and make teachers’ raises dependent on how school leaders judged their performance. The power of school leaders would also drastically increase, as headmasters gained the authority to rank teachers' performance, select new teachers, and fire them within their first year of employment. The school reform was part of a larger neoliberal project of constitutional, electoral, and labor reform, including a Jobs Act to reduce the collective bargaining power of workers. 

Over the course of the 2014-2015 school year, students and teachers fought the school and labor reform bills through two overlapping movements. Both movements failed. La Buona Scuola was approved almost in its entirety on July 13, 2015, and the Jobs Act passed through a series of governmental decrees between March 2015 and October 2016. Despite this short-term failure, the student union movement activated hundreds of thousands of students — the biggest mobilization of the decade. Through this process, student unions grew exponentially, expanding into new areas, building their membership, and developing new communications strategies that will provide the basis for greater success in the future. 



To get a better picture of the movement, I interviewed five student leaders in the two independent, national student unions in Italy — RSM and UdS — about the movement, its goals and mobilizational strategies, and its impact in different parts of the country: Jacopo Buffolo, then board member of RSM Veneto; Alberto Irone, then RSM national spokesman; Andrea Manerchia, then RSM Sicily coordinator; Costanza Spera, then RSM "Altrascuola" Umbria coordinator; Giacomo Santarelli, current national Board member of RSM; Giacomo Zolezzi, then national Board member of UdS.

Both RSM and UdS are voluntary membership groups organized at the local, regional, and national levels; they are the only national structures that are independent from political parties and religious groups. Both organizations have a connection with civil society and particularly strong relationships with CGIL, Europe's second-largest trade union. The two student unions are in contact but mainly act as competitors, especially in the areas of the country where they both organize. 



Both unions mobilized thousands of students from the beginning of the school year, culminating in a general strike in May 2015. As Andrea Manerchia, an RSM leader at the regional level, remembers: “Marches were central, both when we arranged them alone [as RSM] and when we did that in cooperation with other political groups like the trade union.” The movement never resorted to violence, though some minoritarian groups simulated riots by throwing eggs, wearing helmets, or covering their faces with scarves.

The government reformers wanted schools to function in service of the economy — with education funded by private corporations and students serving as inexpensive labor — rather than as communities of teachers and learners. The tactics the student unions adopted challenged this approach. Teachers gave lectures in the streets. Flash mobs and fast assemblies — sometimes held during the break between classes — brought the mobilization into everyday life. Students also occupied their school buildings and arranged their own curricular activities, including debates on the reform bill. In Sicily, students occupied their schools during exams. Teachers and other education workers also joined the students’ protests. 

Technology played an important role in the growth of the movement. Facebook and Whatsapp were central organizing tools, allowing organizers to arrange mobilizations quickly and turn out more participants. Some student leaders blogged about the movement while others developed ad-hoc content, especially videos, to raise awareness about the issues. When student leaders met with the government for the first time, they live streamed it so that everyone with a smartphone or computer was able to watch — increasing the involvement of students across the country. 


A New Role for Student Unions

Before 2014, the national student movement was largely fragmented, with waves of mobilization coordinated by local groups without strong national leadership. The 2014-2015 mobilizations provided a number of opportunities for growth. Because the movement stood in opposition to an action by the center-left government (with support from parts of the right), there was little role for party youth organizations to play, paving the way for more leadership from the national unions. In addition, the reform focused on secondary education, giving high school students the opportunity to take more leadership as well.  

The length of the mobilization allowed student unions to expand into new parts of the country and among new groups of students, such as vocational and training school (VET) students who had had limited involvement with unions in previous years. The unions held demonstrations in fifty provinces across the country, and new chapters emerged in areas such as Friuli, Tuscany, Sardinia, Lombardy, areas of Sicily, Veneto, Emilia, and Romagna. According to Jacopo Buffolo, then board member of RSM in Veneto, RSM expanded into five new regions. UdS also saw growth across the country. 

The mobilizations also strengthened the relationship between the student movement and the labor movement. Students regularly participated in large demonstrations against the Jobs Act, and we have continued to show up in support of trade unions in the years since. In turn, the trade unions have provided the student movement financial and organizational support. Many leaders of the 2014-15 movement later became trade union activists. 



Two years into the pandemic, students are mobilizing again — this time, for an increase in education funding and improved services for students. There have been forty school occupations in Rome alone between November and December 2021. This January, students took to the streets to protest the lack of safety measures in mandatory internships after Lorenzo Parelli, an 18 year old student, died on his last day of a factory internship. A new major mobilization among students is in sight, with a new chapter of the struggle for social justice in schools still to be written.



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