‘Silent Grinding, Bit by Bit’: in the Occupation at the University of Sussex

After three weeks, an impressive student occupation at the University of Sussex against the privatization of services on campus is still in full-swing, even expanding, with flash occupations and disruptions of different buildings and events on campus last Friday. On February 28 I sat down with Maia Pal, a leading organiser of the campaign, to discuss its origins and dynamics to date.

Jeffery R. Webber interviews Maia Pal

March 3, 2013

It's our university.
It’s our university.

JRW: I’m here at the University of Sussex on February 28, 2013 with Maia Pal. To start off, do you want to tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do at Sussex?

MP: I’ve been at Sussex for 10 years, mainly as a student. I finished my PhD last year, and so I’ve also been teaching here for a few years. I obviously feel very involved with the campus, after living here for this long.

I got involved in the campaign last August. The actual process of outsourcing was announced in May, so there were a few demonstrations in May but then the summer stalled things to some extent. In August we started organizing again, just a few of us starting meeting, setting up a mailing list, you know the usual basic things. Then we started organizing meetings to try to get staff involved again – trying to unite the trade unions, the workers, and the students together. We had a few meetings of this kind around the end of summer, and then tried to keep that ball rolling throughout the autumn term, with a demo in September. This was slowly grinding and not very easy work, because the unions are of course caught up in these negotiating processes, full of bureaucracy and legalities. We were trying to get freedom of information requests, and this kind of thing.

Meanwhile, management was grinding them down as much as possible. So the workers were becoming more and more disaffiliated and uninterested, just accepting the plight and being quite anxious about the whole process. There was a problem of connection. There are three different trade unions involved, so linking them together was difficult enough, and then linking up workers who are not members of the unions with those who are. So we really just tried to keep going at it, keep going at it and slowly we’ve come to the situation where we are now, where we’ve had an occupation and the support has just grown exponentially with that occupation.

JRW: Can you give us the basics of the management’s restructuring plans that the occupation is responding to?

MP: The plan was announced last May to outsource or privatize, whatever words are used – “find external partners” is the latest expression – for the positions of 235 members of staff, which represents 10 percent of the workforce on campus. So here we’re talking about catering, porters, estates, residential, security, printing facilities, carpenters, electricians, a wide, wide range of services. Everything that makes the university tick, in other words. Some of these services are already privatized. We have a few catering services that are private, some cleaning, and no small portion of security, but this is just a massive extension.

A tending bid was issued toward the European Union in May. And this was simply announced. No consultation process was had with unions or with academic and non-academic staff. This is really one crux of what the campaign is, just in terms of the procedure that was initiated. So we were told what was happening, and then some type of discussion was eventually had. Some open forums were organized by management to present and explain the situation, and to create an illusion that there might be some kind of involvement of trade unions in the process. But in effect that’s been nil.

They haven’t even wanted to issue the names of the providers that are in negotiations. They’re looking for two big companies basically, one to cover the catering, and the other would cover all of the estates and management more or less. But they haven’t wanted to provide the names of those companies so we can’t even have a chance to influence the process of the negotiations between these companies, let alone dispute the process itself. Even the basic details of the process are not open.  They say that it’s apparently a cause of confidentiality for competition, in terms of competition law. But again that’s something that’s debatable I think. So there’s complete confidentiality and then we will be given the fait accompli in a few weeks apparently, when they are to give out the names of the companies and the outcome of the bidding process.

JRW: For other movements around the UK and around the world who might be seeking to emulate such resistance, they tend to hear about events such as the occupation in Sussex only once it’s reached the scale where it is able to attract media attention. This is helpful for inspiration, of course, but media representations tend not to reveal the previous, hidden processes of long-term organizing and campaigning that came before. So can you provide us with some of those details for people who might want to reproduce in their own contexts some of Sussex’s successful strategies.

MP: Yes, it’s very important to note that we’ve been working very hard since May and since August of last year. We were meeting regularly. Once a week we would have an organizing meeting, which would try to involve students, staff, and unions, always attempting to keep it open to all parts of the campus. The particularities of the struggle at the minute is that it is not just about students struggling against fees, it’s not just about academics fighting for their wages, it’s really about keeping the social fabric of the university as one, and under the control of this one institution, rather than different managerial bodies.

So, yeah weekly meetings, the usual kinds of petitions, flyering, having regular demos. And events as well – so having academics from outside the university come and talk about privatization, try to find similar examples elsewhere to compare, producing leaflets, producing brochures, doing basic research into the actual process, comparing with other processes, using the internet and social media networks as much as possible, to publicize it all.

We also organized pickets and boycotts of the different cafes. So every Tuesday we would have a boycott picket in front of a café where we would leaflet and flyer and try and tell people not to use the café in support of the campaign. We would move around the campus so we wouldn’t be applying pressure simply to only one locale, because obviously these were the workers who we were trying to defend and fight for. So it was difficult get that balance. But that was really important in terms of grabbing people who were just walking around campus. Trying to chat with them, getting them to sign the petition, and get involved. So it was a kind of silent grinding bit by bit, and building up very slowly.

We also started developing a visual campaign. We got the idea from the red squares in Quebec. We began plastering every window with a yellow square. We took on the colour yellow for the campaign. So you’ll see all over campus quite a few offices have this yellow square. We’ve got our yellow badges, and everyone’s been wearing yellow squares. That has worked, I’ve got to say, just in terms of reminding people of the support that we have, and that it is not just evaporating. It keeps that constant visibility there.

Then, the occupation has obviously done a lot, in terms of organizing, and having a space, reclaiming a space and using it constantly, and pinpointing geographically exactly what it is that we’re doing. And opening up this space to new people. There are so many new faces now. Every time I go on a demo there are new faces. Every time I come into the occupation space there are new faces. And that’s terrific.

JRW: How do you think you’ve been able to overcome the traditional obstacles of left sectarianism and to reach out to the broadest layers of students possible?

MP: That’s been really important. There hasn’t been any reclaiming by any radical left group on campus of anything in the campaign. Nobody’s been organizing or speaking in the name of a political group.  This campaign has also come at a time when radical left groups aren’t that strong as well, in dissolutions, or are trying to find new ways of organizing, putting aside the ideological drive of that and working on the actual struggle and uniting.

Also, because the campaign was about the workers there was a necessity of not having that kind of vernacular, that half-academic, half-student desire to prove a point. It was really just about connecting with people, and trying to find practical ways to get together.

The actual terms of the campaign required that. But also people just being sick of being driven by the same ways and just wanting to innovate. And there are so many new people as well. That’s the strength of student campaigns, is that people don’t really know what they’re doing. So it’s quite interesting, because people just get together, and bring their own ideas, and their own ways of doing. It’s a bit groping around in the dark, to some extent. I think everybody’s been very wary of speaking in anybody’s name. The occupation has been about sitting in circles, and these new kinds of methods that have come out of the occupy movement to some extent, in terms of democratic acknowledgment and signing, and all that sort of stuff. It’s undeniable that that’s had some kind of effect and influence.

JRW: How do think we can best situate the local struggle in Sussex inside of the wider efforts to build anti-austerity across the UK, and even more widely in the processes of struggle that are engulfing different parts of the Eurozone in the fallout from the ongoing global economic crisis?

MP: I think there’s something about people feeling like they need to do something and not knowing how or what’s the best way to do it. But needing to engage in some kind of practice. I was chatting with a tutor yesterday and we were like, it seems as though the students are so much more interested in the occupation than they are in doing the readings. And I think there’s something to that, that people are really quite excited about doing something, whatever it is.


They are getting more and more aware of what neoliberalism is. That word has really entered the general debates. And that there are some alternatives, and that people can get together. It’s obviously very difficult, and there’s always a pull toward broader, electoral acceptance. You know, like the British Labour Party is saying that we have to cut at the end of the day, and even the Greens in Brighton at the minute are cutting the local budget. So trying to fight just the idea of cuts is something in and of itself.

But it’s more interesting in terms of people getting together and actually finding methods of resisting in their own ways. It’s all related to practice in a lot of ways. I don’t think it’s helpful to generalize massively, because I think there is a lot to say about local, and small-scale struggles and to see how they develop. But when people leave the struggle, whenever it ends, they’ll take that to somewhere else they’ll make contact with other people, like we’re doing right now. We’re talking about this now, and I’ve had other contacts from Canada as well, with some people from British Columbia wanting to do a Skype connection between there and here, for example. Just forming these networks and contacts has got to be a good thing. I don’t know where it will lead to in the end, but it’s a process that just keeps going on and on, and it’s organic, and we’ve got to just continue I guess.

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