7 March 2013
John Medhurst from PCS union speaks to the student protesters at Sussex University.
The Occupation banners were flapping in an icy cold breeze outside Bramber House of Sussex University, where a fluctuating number of students (a core group of 50 plus various supporters) had been occupying the top floor conference room for 17 days in protest at the proposed privatisation of virtually every non academic function and facility on the campus.
As I live nearby, have a daughter at the University, and work on privatisation policy for the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), the least I could do was offer support. In response to an e-mail, the students invited me to give a talk on privatisation and PCS’s campaigns against it.
The privatisation at Sussex is one small – but now extremely visible and significant – example of a wave of outsourcing across the public sector. In many ways privatisation of the UK’s public services is the core of this government’s philosophy. Austerity has little to do with "balancing the books". With the loss of the UK's AAA Credit rating, a triple dip recession and increasing public debt, austerity is clearly an economic failure.
But the Government's cuts are not driven by economic necessity. They are a political project to reduce what remains of the British welfare state to a patchwork of disconnected services delivered by private firms or charities. Pension "reform" will make people pay more, work longer, die sooner, and get less on retirement. Behind that lies the core agenda to privatise, as Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, let slip when he said: “The changes will allow the government to forge ahead with our ambitious plans for public sector reform, since the new pension arrangements will be substantially more affordable to alternative providers in the private sector bidding for public sector contracts”.
The examples of public service privatisation are too numerous to mention. My own union, PCS, faces a host of outsourcings across the civil service – government debt collection (after cutting debt management staff in HMRC), Criminal Fine Enforcement, the National Benefit Fraud Hotline (to Vertex), JSA online (to Capita), the helpline of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (to Sitel, which does not recognise trade unions), Crisis Loans and Community Care Grants (to local authorities, who may then outsource this last safety net for the destitute), and the Forensic Science Service (a privatisation slated by the police and the CPS!) There are many more.
Trade unions campaign against these, of course, but often in an ad hoc and defensive manner. And always with an eye on the "twin track" approach – i.e. whilst we oppose privatisation in principle, we have to recognise it may proceed and have a duty to secure the best possible terms for our members (TUPE etc). This is necessary, but not likely to turn the tide of privatisation, influence political and media debate, or synchronise with other protests. By contrast, the imaginative, attention-grabbing strategies of the student protestors, the Occupy movement and organisations like UK Uncut do have that potential.
Sussex is a good example. It began in May 2012 as a "standard" outsourcing – the University authorities led by Vice Chancellor Michael Farthing proposed to outsource "Total Facilities Management", which is basically everything including building management and maintenance services, cleaning services, estates management, fire safety management, grounds maintenance, laundry services, postal services, portering services, security services, waste disposal services, and all catering operations. This will involve transferring 235 staff to the private sector. The plans were declared with no consultation with the NUS and scant communication with campus unions. Representations from the students to negotiate and discuss alternatives were ignored.
Farthing and his managers were not expecting what happened next. On 7th February, over 300 students occupied the top floor of the Bramber Building, the campus conference centre. By the evening of 7th February students reported that uniformed dog handlers were wandering the campus.
The students bedded down and started a campaign that quickly went viral. Through social networks including Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Youtube and Indymedia they got the message out about their action. Solidarity and support flooded in. Thousands have now signed their Statement of Solidarity, including Noam Chomsky, Ken Loach, MPs Caroline Lucas (Green), John McDonnell and Peter Hain (Labour), Will Self, Owen Jones, Jonathan Miller, Tariq Ali, Frankie Boyle, and Mark Thomas. Caroline Lucas addressed the students from inside the occupation in the adjacent video. The Statement is also packed with the signatures of Sussex University academics, as well as union officers and other sympathisers.
A rolling programme of innovative events and benefits has kept the issue live and spirits up. Comedians Mark Steel and Josie Long have performed. Owen Jones and Laurie Penny drew massive applause for barnstorming speeches. And on 8th March Noam Chomsky is due to Skype the students in Bramber House. The occupation has garnered support from students, workers and academics across the globe.
It also has enormous support on campus. The first thing I noticed when I arrived were the many windows across the campus plastered with yellow A4 paper, the adopted sign of support for the occupation. The yellow A4s are everywhere, a visible rebuke to Farthing. His management has instructed local union reps that they are not to sign off official e-mails sent from campus PCs with a message of support, but this has had little effect. When I arrived, lugging a big bag of PCS anti-privatisation and anti-austerity material, the security guards placed by management outside the main conference room were friendly, even holding the doors open. The students told me that they were sympathetic and didn't hassle them.
The main conference room was like a M.A.S.H tent. Sleeping bags were pushed into corners, and walls were covered with leaflets and slogans. Several laptops were set up on a desk by the balcony. A long chaotic table ran across the top of the room, overflowing with papers, books, food, pots and pans, and a big simmering wok. I was well wrapped up, but still felt cold. Some students hugged sleeping bags around themselves as we sat chatting. In the unusually cold weather, the heating system was apparently "faulty" and the authorities were not rushing to fix it. There were two portable heaters, which made hardly any difference.
It was a Sunday afternoon and the constantly rotating cohort of occupying students were down to a hard core, but we pulled up some seats and had an invigorating discussion. As well as bringing a personal message of support from PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka, I told them about PCS’s campaigns against privatisation and the more general anti-austerity campaigning of trade unions. They were not at all naive about efforts made to separate student and campus unions and were determined to see that did not happen.
They were very clear on the links between specific instances of outsourcing and the general policies of governments since Thatcher to shift the education curriculum towards a diet of business friendly subjects whilst de-emphasising the humanities and social sciences, with the aim of producing well-schooled future employees burdened with debt and unaware of past struggles or social injustice. They pointed to a new building opposite the Bramber – once intended for Sociology, it now taught Business Studies.
When I left, they were preparing for another night on the floor of the conference centre. What impressed me most was that they do not have to do this. Most outsourced services will still be delivered, though probably not as well. The transferred jobs are not theirs. But they are there to defend the principle of an integrated higher education community that looks after all on campus (students and staff), against that of fragmented services delivered for corporate profit on the backs of outsourced and de-unionised workers.
Seeing the occupation for myself, I was reminded of the end of the appropriately titled Appeal to the Young by the anarchist writer Peter Kropotkin: "All of us together, we who suffer and are insulted daily, we are a multitude whom no man can number, we are the ocean that can embrace and swallow up all else. When we have but the will to do it, that very moment will Justice be done: that very instant the tyrants of the Earth shall bite the dust".
In the week following my meeting with the occupiers, Registrar John Duffy stated that even if all students and staff complained about the privatisation it would make no difference. Following his comments, two further buildings on the Sussex campus were occupied on Thursday February 28th. The students issued the following statement:
Students and staff have occupied the Jubilee lecture theatre. This is currently the third occupied space on campus. We have taken this space temporarily as a portent of things to come.
These actions are part of a broad movement to halt the privatisation of services and bring attention to management’s refusal to engage in any form of dialogue. John Duffy has stated that even if all students and staff personally expressed concerns over outsourcing, that the process would go ahead regardless. They have left us no choice. We will disrupt, block and destroy their ability to manage our campus.
We wish to extend greetings and solidarity to the organisers of the event that we disrupted. After discussion with us they professed their support for our cause and our actions. Our quarrel lies with management, and we recognise that our interests ultimately lie together. Indeed, in taking spaces such as these we hope to materialise that unity. Once again we re-state our demands:
An immediate end to the privatisation process
An immediate end to management intimidation and attempts to stifle dissent
The establishing of a means for us to hold management to account
Here, we have demonstrated our power. We leave the Jubilee and Michael Chowen lecture theatres with management on the back foot. Let them know that we will continue to escalate until they capitulate to our demands. We call on all staff and students to join us. To reclaim the spaces of our campus. To strike. To occupy. The university is a factory – shut it down.
This blog was first printed on the Institute of Employment Rights website.
Photo used under Creative Commons licensing, thanks to DanielJPHadley.