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The Sussex occupation

‘Why protest?’ I ask one guy.

‘The first people you meet when you come to uni are the porters. They sort your post, fix your boiler and generally just help you out. The staff have worked here for years and they’re a part of the campus community.  If they all get replaced by staff working from private companies who are underpaid, overworked and moved around all the time – that sense of community will be broken up.’

The protest began on 7th February, when a number of students occupied a building in protest at the university’s decision to privatise campus services – including caterers, porters, security guards and kitchen staff – putting the jobs of 235 staff under threat.

By the time I arrived, they had been in occupation for over six weeks, costing the university over £300,000. This was partially because they occupied a conference centre which the university normal hires out, but also because of the round the clock private security keeping guard outside the door.

Everyone in the occupation had a small yellow square cut from felt pinned to their tshirts or jackets. This was copied from the red square symbol of student activists in Canada who successfully campaigned against the rise in tuition fees through a sustained series of occupations and student strikes.

A recent poll found that 70% of students oppose the plans and I saw lots of students wandering round campus wearing yellow squares, including staff in the union shop. Yellow sheets of A4 paper were stuck up in windows all over campus, both in academic buildings and in halls of residence. The yellow square had gone viral.

They’d also employed the tactic of targeting open days, making their own ‘Ask me’ signs to emulate the campus tour guides and explaining to prospective students and parents what was going on. Many accepted invitations of coming upstairs for tea, with one 6th former even staying overnight.

Meetings were run in the horizontal decision making style of the Occupy camps, with one person chairing the meeting to make sure people don’t talk over each other and that everyone gets to have their say. After six weeks of confined proximity, people who had barely spoken before the occupation had now become like family.

‘We haven’t just decided to have this occupation on a whim, this is a last resort.’ says one campaigner, Michael Segalov. ‘Plans to outsource staff were announced in May of 2012 and since then we’ve had ongoing demonstrations and multiple requests to meet with the university through either trade unions or the students’ union, but we’ve been consistently ignored.’

He is also critical of the unions themselves. “It was two weeks before our own students’ union came out and said they supported us. Initially, there was resentment towards NUS within the occupation over how little they supported us until Liam Burns signed an open letter to MPs urging them to sign out Early Day Motion. Vicki Barrs (Vice President for Union Development) also came down to show support. UNISON (the main trade union for campus staff) has been terrible. They didn’t want any form of strike or protest, they just wanted to negotiate the redundancy package.”

As a response, the staff and students set up their own Pop-Up Union with the aim of building for strike action.

Michael deals with most of the external communications for the occupation and has built links with the BBC, Guardian, Huffingdon Post, Times, Times Higher Education ( “very influential but often overlooked” ) SkyNews and the local papers. ‘I’ve been woken up every morning at 9am by a different journalist’ he says ‘To be honest it just becomes normal after a while. I think it’s important not to feel out of your depth and not made to feel like “an activist” or someone less important than the institutions you are fighting against.’

He explains his attitude to campaigning ‘It’s about always being one step ahead and setting the agenda. Always being able to provide references and evidence for everything, exposing their wrongs but also displaying that you’re right.’

‘We’ve been getting around ten emails a day of support from students and university not just at Sussex but internationally.

They tell me that one of the happiest and most unexpected moments of the occupation was when the comedian Frankie Boyle (a Sussex alumnus) rang up to express support and promptly ordered them all pizza.

 

They’ve also had messages of support from Noam Chomsky, Ken Loach, Owen Jones, ‘The Thick of It’ actor Peter Capaldi, Billy Bragg, comedienne Josie Long and Will Self.

 

Michael also persuaded his local Green party MP Caroline Lucas to table Early Day Motion 1216 in Parliament criticising the privatisation of Sussex campus services. An EDM is a petition exclusively for MPs that can occasionally pressure the government into changing their stance) and this one has so far been signed by twenty five MPs from various parties (though none Conservative) – including the Manchester Lib Dem MP John Leech.

In the space of just a few weeks, they built for a national demo on the 25th March that drew over a thousand people. Campaigners peacefully occupied all five cafes on campus (all of which are due to be privatised) with the aim of shutting down business for the day in order to put extra pressure on the university.

The demo passed by the main administrative building, Sussex House – symbolic because it houses the offices of the senior university staff behind the decision to privatise campus services. Campaigners scrambled up a signpost and onto the roof as well as hopping onto the balcony to raise the a red and yellow flag up the flagpole. Police were pushed aside from the main doors as protestors streamed into the building. They held it for only half an hour before returning to the main occupation at the conference centre. There, around three hundred people held a general meeting, shared similar stories of privatisation on other campuses and finally agreed to hold a national week of action in April.

Following the national demo, university management took out a court injunction preventing anyone from ‘entering or remaining on the campus and buildings of the University of Sussex for the purpose of protest action (without the consent of the University of Sussex)” until September 2013.

This essentially means that any protest whatsoever is banned unless permitted by the university. In yet another display of resourcefulness, the campaigners linked up with unnamed barristers happy to do pro bono work in an attempt to challenge the injunction in the European Court of Human Rights. Protests have continued both against the privatisation and against the injunction itself, together with 10,000 signing a petition against both.

The occupation was evicted on Tuesday 2nd April after eight weeks. Hordes of riot police evicted the twenty five peaceful protestors in the conference centre. Four arrests were made.

One was man arrested on suspicion of violent disorder and criminal damage, relating to an incident at the university on Monday 25 March. Two women and one other man were arrested for obstructing police as they tried to arrest the former.

With the occupation over, campaigners are looking at other means of resisting privatisation and are spreading the Pop-Up Union membership not just amongst the original 235 staff affected, but amongst all campus staff. For the time being, momentum seems to still be on their side, with strike action by campus staff looming round the corner.

 

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Khalil Secker

Former reporter for The Mancunion, now Campaigns Manager.
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