The Sussex University Occupation

— an interview with Maïa Pal

AGAINST THE CURRENT interviewed Maïa Pal during and immediately following the campus occupation against outsourcing at Sussex, England, which was broken up by the police on April 2. Dr. Pal is an Associate Tutor in International Relations at the University of Sussex, member of the Political Marxism Research Group (http://politicalmarxism.wordpress.com/research/research-group/) and supporter of the Anticapitalist Initiative (anticapitalists.org). She has recently joined twitter at Maia_pal. We begin here with her April 12 account of the police crackdown and next steps in the struggle.

Maïa Pal: The 55-days-long occupation was evicted on 2 April, following an injunction and possession order issued by the High Court. This legal process was exciting for campaigners, because, to the management's surprise, the judge decided the occupation deserved to present a defense, and thus summoned the parties to a second day in court.

In less than 24 hours, we witnessed an incredible reaction from academic supporters, who produced over 40 individual statements of support. In spite of this, the injunction was granted, including a ban of all forms of protest on campus without the written consent of management. This outrageous clause is contested by the campus community, as shown by the several demonstrations on campus since. Moreover, a lawyer working pro bono for the campaign intends to appeal the decision, threatening to take the claim to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

In the meantime, five students have been arrested, four on the day of the eviction. Even though the 25 occupiers who had lasted 4-5 days under siege conditions (no open access, no heating, difficult access to food donated, no internet) marched out peacefully, they were “greeted” by 80 police officers, 12 riot vans, one helicopter, 20-30 private security guards, and 10 or so bailiffs.

Three students were arrested while sitting on the road in protest to the arrest of a student for alleged criminal damage and violent disorder. The background to this police presence is a national demonstration on campus on 25 March, which 2000 people attended, a first in Sussex history. The day was mostly peaceful and consisted in the closing down of most buildings and shops, a large procession across campus, and a general assembly of 500+ people representing over 20 universities and setting up a national campaign against privatization.

At the end, a crowd gathered and attempted to occupy management’s building, which resulted in the breaking of the glass door and with some protestors entering the building and burning a few documents outside. This supposedly “prompted” the reaction by management to evict (although this had been their intention for a while, as the dates of the documents prepared for the injunction show).

One of the students arrested for criminal damage on this day denies these charges, and the charge of violent disorder has already been dropped in his case for lack of evidence. This shows the attempts to criminalize students and silence dissent.

Since this eviction, losing the occupation space has been difficult, but it has not stopped the campaign, far from it. This evening (April 12) we have Noam Chomsky speaking to us through Skype, and we’re hoping to attract 400-500 people to this special event. Next week was declared a national week of action against privatization, calling on universities across the country to also engage in acts of solidarity and protest.

We have a big demonstration organized on campus and an event in London at the head offices of one of the potential bidders and providers for the services being outsourced, Sodexo. A previous similar action occurred last week, where students performed a “Sodexorcism”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N06AwuT-1l0&feature=player_embedded.

The campus trade unions have also got together to organize an indicative ballot of all their members on campus (not just the 235directly affected). This should send a clear signal to management and to the providers about how the campus feels and might react if the plans go ahead. The Pop Up union [see below — ed.] is also growing stronger, with 80+ members. And we now have statements of support from a large number of schools and departments at Sussex, highlighting their discontent with the management’s procedures and lack of dialogue (about which I wrote a piece here: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/maia-pal/outsourcing-battle-at-sussex-uni-censorship-dictat-and-mutation-of-managerialism).

Senate and Council (the university’s governing bodies) are meeting in the following two weeks, and we are expecting to get some form of result and pressure from these bodies on to how management has handled the process, and on how the university needs to consider more in-house alternatives, before selling 10% of its workforce off to the highest bidder.

Background to the Occupation

Against the Current: What are the university’s restructuring plans and why now?

MP: The university’s management plans are to outsource 235 members of services staff. These include porters, caterers, security, estates, residential services, etc. (full list here: http://sussexagainstprivatization.wordpress.com/list-of-jobs-affected/). These plans were unilaterally announced in May 2012. Two companies are being sought, but no information whatsoever has been released by the university over the bidding and negotiating process.

If an economic justification was provided at the time of the announcement, the reason given last autumn was based on a broader plan of massive student expansion. Management are arguing that to be able to deal with this expansion, which has not been discussed and is the subject of much uncertainty considering current international market conditions, expertise is required from the private sector.

Most recently, they started arguing that the performance of current services is also prompting them to restructure their management. This flies in the face of many improvements and reorganizations that have occurred in the last few years: for example, both caterers and porters have seen their work patterns and workplaces completely transformed (the former even receiving awards!), and have made considerable efforts to cut costs and adapt to changes.

This explains why the outsourcing came as such a shock and is basically a step too far which, we argue, requires wider examination and proper consultation. Not only is this a large-scale and unprecedented plan, but it also is veiled by secrecy, making its acceptance by workers, academic staff and students an act of faith in the management.

The dispute is therefore twofold, over the content of the plan as well as the form in which it was announced and is being carried out. On the second point, issues of censorship and freedom of expression (http://www.ucu.org.uk/6534) are seriously undermining the legitimacy of the process between management and the university’s governing bodies and representatives.

ATC: How did a campaign against the restructuring begin? How did you organize the various elements within the campus community?

MP: The campaign started straight after the plan’s announcement last May, mainly by workers involved who set up a blog and facebook group (see end of interview), and organized some well-attended meetings and demonstrations. The summer inevitably saw a decline in student and staff involvement. Many workers are very low-wage earners on flexible and short-term contracts and not all are unionized (and if so, coordinating the three unions involved can be challenging). Moreover, workers were generally very anxious and disconcerted by the unilateral form of the announcement.

But in August, students started reorganizing and set up weekly meetings for staff, students and unions, to try and develop some unified strategies. Slowly but surely we built up a solid base of dedicated activists. The two main goals were to inform the campus about the outsourcing, its origins and causes, and provide logistical and physical support to affected workers. We set up mailing lists, put events together, produced bulletins, regularly went leafleting and door knocking, organized weekly boycotts and pickets of busy cafes. Still small, our group was growing and maintained a mix of students, union reps, and academic and non-academic staff.

With January, however, came the realization that the campaign was still not getting the attention it deserved. We launched a visibility campaign, and replicated some of the tactics used by activists in Quebec. We adopted the color yellow, and started door knocking offices, providing them with yellow sheets of paper to stick on their windows. We madie yellow squares to wear as badges, and stickers to cover the campus.

We translated the stickers “I support the 235” and “Save our Services” in Chinese; UK universities are more and more dependent and desperate to attract foreign students, and Chinese students constitute a large part of this demographic. With this increased awareness, we organized a big demonstration on 7 February, out of which the occupation sprang.

Since the occupation, the campaign has exploded. We’ve attracted attention from across the country (and even the world!), and from a very wide variety of academics, workers and intellectuals (see list here: http://sussexagainstprivatization.wordpress.com/list-of-names-in-support-of-occupation-and-campaign-2/).

Our activist base grew so large that the campaign developed many different working groups: daily events in the occupation by academics at Sussex and elsewhere, photo exhibitions of workers, art fundraisers, phone blockades, lecture shout-outs, open mics, comedy shows, political discussions, poster making sessions; the usual weekly demos, meetings with staff, and cafe pickets; and of course, daily campaign meetings, leafleting and door knocking.

On February 28, we also escalated the campaign by occupying two other important buildings and disrupting events in which management were to participate. Between the demo and the occupations, we had 500+ people actively protesting against the outsourcing. These were flash occupations which lasted a few hours, meant to show the strength and potential of the campaign. There are some fantastic videos (http://sussexagainstprivatization.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/videos-of-thursday-28-february-occupation-bonanza/) of this historic day of action.

Importantly, the campaign and occupation are not controlled or directed by one political group; nobody claimed leadership or ideological primacy. At the same time, the variety of activists and opinions from across the left political spectrum has been a big asset. Obviously there are disagreements over tactics and directions, but people have made efforts to not let these be obstacles to the aim of the campaign, supporting the affected workers.

Outsourcing and Austerity

ATC: How does the university restructuring fit in with the general drive for austerity in Britain?

MP: The outsourcing reflects the power of managerialism in public institutions, and their constant drive to innovate and restructure without consultation or comparing of alternatives. There is a growing tension towards what the role of decision-makers is: the push to dictate and drive, regardless of the opinions of those whom the changes affect, is increasingly put into question, especially considering the fact that this hasn’t actually proven economically successful.

Even the IMF is condemning Britain’s austerity plan. Protests against outsourcing are occurring in many other sectors and institutions, and are exacerbated by a general climate of extreme austerity and of the most virulent attacks on the public sector in British history. We are effectively seeing the end of public services in the UK, and this is especially strong in Further and Higher (i.e. vocational and more academic) Education.

Universities have an ambiguous private/public identity (registered as charities but having to independently secure funding), but the fact that they manage a very wide range of services on a non-profit basis makes them much closer to the public sector.

What is confusing about this process is that it is justified by the conditions of the market (i.e. students, who have become the university’s main source of income since government funding cuts, hence the rise of tuition fees from £3000 to £9000, roughly $20,000); in our case, this market is declining and more and more uncertain. But selling off a whole chunk of the campus to private contractors who will determine working conditions, prices and quality of service in much stricter accordance with their wider and even more uncertain market pressures (stocks, other sectors in which companies are involved, global capital flows and changes in political conditions and legislation, etc.) will inevitably result in more uncertainty over the future of the university.

The fact that management are only considering the “expertise” that these companies will bring, without considering the potential risks or providing guarantees against them, is a scandal. For example, the management cannot guarantee the workers’ pensions after the outsourcing. Considering that many of the workers affected are at the end of their careers, and have been working and contributing through the campus schemes, being outsourced will result in a 6-7% pay cut so as to maintain their pension plan. This is simply unacceptable.

ATC: One of the big problems in fighting against austerity is that the attacks seem unrelenting, so many times people seem to give up hope that it’s possible to build an effective campaign. How does your struggle deal with this problem?

MP: I think the main difference of this campaign, and why it has attracted a broad interest and concern, is the way in which it has mobilized different groups (students, workers, academic staff), and is thereby going against the tide of individualism and dissecting of workforces and communities. The fact that students are fighting for changes that don’t directly affect their own lives, at least not in the short term, has really galvanized the workers affected and people outside the campus who normally wouldn’t care about changes in the structure of education.

It’s basically a movement that unites different classes, and that physically proves that solidarity exists, is productive, and can effectively resist decisions made by tiny executive groups. Students aren’t self-interested middle-class parasites, as some caricature them; they actually care about what goes on around them.

I think it also has a lot to do with the unprecedented attacks on our social fabric, through cuts and closures of essential social services and benefits, rising prices of food and energy, and the propaganda against the poorest segments of the society.

British people are very resilient, and accept a lot from their government, when compared to other more Southern European countries. But this is starting to change. I think people are more and more realising that if changes are not resisted, there will be nothing left to fight for.

How You Can Help:

Please sign our petition! http://www.change.org/petitions/stop-the-protest-ban-at-sussex-university?

Blog: http://sussexagainstprivatization.wordpress.com/

Facebook group: http://www.facebook.com/groups/407080325992943/

Twitter @sussexworkers and @occupy_sussex

May/June 2013, ATC 164

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