I support the SOAS occupations
According to different blogs, on Friday 12th June a number of ISS cleaning staff attached to SOAS were summoned to an impromptu meeting by their bosses. At the meeting, immigration officers appeared (Clare reports that they were hiding, awaiting the arrival of all the cleaners) and nine members of staff were detained by immigration officials. ISS is the private company to which cleaning has been outsourced by the School of African and Oriental Studies. It pays its workers in the region of about £6.00 per hour (as this job advert shows).
Since that incident on Friday, events seem to have moved with shocking speed. Rumour abounds that no less than five members of staff have already been deported. Students from SOAS and other London universities have occupied buildings on the SOAS campus in protest at the treatment of staff. All of this is set in the context of a fight for unionisation and better conditions; ISS only recently recognised the right of UNISON to negotiate for terms and conditions, after a campaign that involved both the NUS and UCU.
Today, Tuesday 16th, an injunction was filed, ordering students to vacate the buildings they occupied. Following this, the students involved used the internet (and presumably other means of communication) to invite a rally in support of their occupation. University authorities revoked their threat to send in bailiffs and as of approximately 6.30pm, negotiations have resumed with the students in occupation. How things turn out in the end is still up for grabs, though if you are near London, get down there and help out if you can!
The only reason I am writing about this, since there are any number of excellent blogs from the people involved (even beyond those I’ve linked to), is because I’m quite irritated by the number of lazy reactions I’ve witnessed on Facebook and Twitter to the student occupation. Ranging from “misdirected” to the usual anti-student prejudice, I think quite a few people need a good shake to awaken them from the stuporous indolence in which they languish, amidst their ivory towers. Yes, Brian, this means you.
Consider the situation. This private company has colluded with the state to have some of its own workers arrested. The only crime that these workers committed was to seek whatever work they could to sustain themselves. Against the forces of the state, mere students have no weapon that they can use. By occupying the SOAS buildings, however, they are making clear their opposition to this new tactic by a company to undermine efforts to unionise its workforce. We should be clear that this is what is involved, by the way.
Through fear of the immigration authorities, companies can exploit a near-endless supply of immigrants and the cheap labour they represent. The students are doing the only thing they can: bringing pressure to bear against the university, and in turn against the company, for its devious tactic. A subsequent outcry may very well convince the government to permit the immigrants to stay, as has happened on previous occasions where sufficient agitation has been built up beforehand.
More criminal than occupation, in this situation, is the amount that these cleaners at SOAS are paid – and in this, UNISON, the UCU and the NUS are to be applauded for their efforts. Such pitiful wages call to mind the words of Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy: What is freedom? – ye can tell / that which slavery is, too well – for its very name has grown / to an echo of your own. ‘Tis to work and have such pay / as just keeps life from day to day / In your limbs as in a cell / for the tyrants’ use to dwell.
The people at the forefront of the unionisation efforts are now following through on their convictions by basically doing the only thing they can to stop the deportation of colleagues; occupying a SOAS building. I for one am proud to know some of them, and to have supported their endeavours now and in the past. What they’re doing may not be enough, but it displays the correct political orientation. It asks for support from workers first, rather than relying solely upon a legalistic approach, the outcome of which is almost certain to be negative.
In this case, as in the case of occupations over links between universities and arms-dealers, the occupation is a concrete step to put pressure where pressure might do some good; against university bureaucracies. By appealing to workers for support, through solidarity rallies, the students and workers involved are stretching out their hands to others who are victims of exactly the same sort of exploitation. Depending on how negotiations proceed, there may later be a case to extend occupations and call for additional students from other universities to occupy SOAS.
What I think is most heartening however is the strong link evident between students and workers, and the preparedness of both to ask for support from the public at large. It shocks me that some people are prepared to be so crass as to attack these students for it from a position of such material prosperity, bearing in mind that if the occupation is lost, the university may well wish to pursue sanctions against its students, or the private company against the remaining members of its staff. If that should happen, then it is one less group of allies for any of us to ask support from when (not if!) we get into the same sort of fights with our employers, over poor pay and increasingly bad terms and conditions.