Privatisation and ‘Pop-Up Unions’: Occupy Sussex fights on.

14 February 2014) By John Medhurst, Policy Officer, PCS John Medhurst looks back on what we can learn from the activity of the first ‘pop-up’ union.

Commentary icon14 Feb 2014|Comment

14 February 2014)

By John Medhurst, Policy Officer, PCS

John Medhurst looks back on what we can learn from the activity of the first ‘pop-up’ union.

It began in May 2012 as a standard outsourcing – Sussex University proposed to outsource its “Total Facilities Management”, meaning building maintenance, cleaning services, estates management, fire safety management, grounds maintenance, laundry services, postal services, portering services, security, waste disposal, and catering. This would involve transferring 235 staff to the private sector. Representations to negotiate and discuss alternatives were ignored so on 7th February 2013 over 300 students occupied the top floor of the Bramber Building, the campus conference centre. By the evening uniformed dog handlers were wandering the campus.

A campaign labelled Occupy Sussex quickly went viral via Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Youtube, and Indymedia. Solidarity and support flooded in. Thousands signed their Statement of Solidarity including Sussex University academics as well as union officers and other sympathisers. A rolling programme of innovative events and benefits kept the issue live. Noam Chomsky delivered a talk via Skype to the students in Bramber House and answered questions. The occupation rapidly garnered support from students, workers and academics across the globe, all seeking 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.

Eventually, after the students had held the Bramber building for 55 days and a 2,000 strong demonstration that brought the campus to a standstill, the University authorities obtained a legal injunction against the occupation. The Bramber building was surrounded by new security personnel, heat was cut off and no food was allowed in. Even then the students did not give in and so a large body of police broke in to the occupation and arrested those who had stayed to the end. The injunction not only ordered the students to desist the occupation but banned all privatisation related protests, including further demonstrations, for six months after the eviction.

The University authorities expected this to be the end of the matter. They were wrong. The struggle simply took new forms. Although many of the campus union members and local representatives were sympathetic and sought to help, the three unions themselves were cautious in their response to Occupy Sussex, wishing to preserve their role as the recognised representatives of the employees and to negotiate collective agreements that would, if privatisation proceeded, protect some of their terms and conditions and preserve union recognition rights.

Understandable and necessary in itself, this response entirely missed the nature of the occupation and the enormous potential for new allies and resources that it created. There was a high degree of impatience and disillusionment with the sluggish official response of the campus unions.

Working together, some of the rank and file of the campus unions (without reneging their existing membership) created with the students an innovative “Pop Up Union” specifically designed to exist on the Sussex campus alone to fight this one privatisation proposal, and to bring members of the three campus unions together under one umbrella. It exists to enable its members to take whatever action they see fit to halt the outsourcing process. It is a legally viable trade union run entirely by those members who had created it and it does not have to abide by or wait for the decisions of the big national unions.

Nobody would claim that the Pop Up Union does not need time to iron out teething difficulties, but it is a bold attempt to provide alternatives. It is a viable alternative union organised in parallel to the official union structures, which offers a form of legal protection to individual activists who might otherwise have to take illegal wildcat action and so be vulnerable to dismissal.

The Pop Up union balloted for legal industrial action in June last year but was stopped at the last moment as management’s lawyers had found a slight technical discrepancy in the membership data provided to the employer as part of the complex and byzantine legal requirements that unions must now go through before they can call a strike. This was disappointing, but a useful learning experience for the new union.

It did, though, highlight that there are immense obstacles and complexities to taking and sustaining legal action against outsourcing that the Pop Up Union had not anticipated and that were not all the fault of the national union. And for all the publicity and sporadic one day occupations that carried on into the autumn and winter of 2013, the outsourcing at Sussex was not stopped. Chartwells took over the catering services in September 2013, while Interserve will shortly take over Estates and Facilities Management.

Given the enthusiasm and energy of the initial occupation this is a disappointing outcome, but the campaign did make real gains. Due to the unrelenting pressure on unions and management the negotiations around the transfer won better pension arrangements and severance pay for staff. The campaign also shone alight on the secretive and undemocratic nature of decision making at the heart of the University. More importantly, it created a real sense of solidarity and community between staff and students and led to better understanding of exactly what was happening to its services and why. Since September last year there have been weekly campaign meetings, demos, lectures on outsourcing and privatisation, pickets in front of outsourced cafes, information stalls and “flash occupations” of short duration.

The constant campaigning of Occupy Sussex and the Pop Up Union saw fruit in the strike by UCU on December 3rd 2013 against education cuts. Pickets were on campus from 7:30 am to 3:00pm and the four picket lines saw up to 120 people participating throughout the day. Pickets were mainly UCU and student activists with Unite and Unison members as well. Local unionised bus drivers refused to drive buses onto campus. Cars were effectively blocked and prevented from entering campus due to large student barricades at the entrances of the campus.

This created a fertile atmosphere for another major “flash occupation” of the Bramber and further protests, following which five students who took part in the protests were suspended and barred from the campus. The accusations against them included “encouraging a team of protestors with a megaphone”. A letter from 40 Sussex University academics supported the student’s right to protest and hundreds of their supporters planned a stoppage of the entire campus. At an internal kangaroo court set up to decide the fate of the “Sussex 5” the eminent Human Rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, offering his services for free, demolished the claim of the panel to be neutral, and the suspensions were lifted.

The impact of Sussex Occupy cannot be measured simply in strikes and membership. The newly formed Autonomous Student Network and the Sussex Democracy Project are looking to create alternative and more democratic representative assemblies on campus than that of the highly “institutionalised” NUS. Sussex students and the activists of the Pop Up Union are part of the wider national network of resistance to education cuts and university campus privatisations. Where these networks ultimately go is hard to say, but they offer a more politically engaged membership and more potential to resist privatisation than simply conceding its inevitability, negotiating on TUPE and then stepping back.

John Medhurst

John Medhurst John Medhurst John Medhurst is a Policy Officer with the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS). Prior to this he was a civil servant for 22 years and a CPSA/PCS lay activist in Jobcentre Plus, HSE and DCMS. He was HSE London HQ Branch Secretary, DCMS National Branch Chair, and a member of the PCS National Executive Committee. He is PCS representative on the EPSU Public Services Network and has been published in the Journal of Contemporary European Research (JCER).