A WFFE activist reflects on the controversy surrounding the recent SOAS Justice for Cleaners demo and the role of direct action that pushes the bounds of legality and respectability in social struggles.
On Monday, hundreds rallied at the School of Oriental and African Studies to protest the imposition of a new 5-year outsourcing contract upon the cleaners of the University. After 10 years of fighting and winning numerous demands management have still refused to bring them in-house, despite calculations that this move would even be cost-neutral. This betrays a deep ideological commitment to privatisation common across educational institutions in the UK. After the rally, an occupation of management corridors ensued with noise, graffiti, and other property damage, and messages of solidarity were strewn in spray-paint across the walls of campus. The backlash from some parts of the SOAS community has been condemnatory and inflamed.
- The rally was radical, broad-based and explicitly anti-management
It was an incredible act of unity, bringing together UCU, Unison, Palestine Society, Black Student’s Campaign, United Voices of the World and #FeesMustFall activists. Many interesting and salient connections were drawn: such as the acknowledgement that many private companies engaged in outsourcing and exploitative employment practices were also complicit in maintaining the checkpoints that police and restrict the lives of the subjugated Palestinian people. This is a campaign that has evolved to situate itself and struggle within complex intersections of racial, economic and social justice: advocating for BDS, fair working conditions for the most marginalized workers, against border controls, for greater democratic control over educational structures and an ousting of managerial bureaucracy.
Cries of ‘no justice, no peace’ were raised alongside calls for bringing the cleaners in-house and for the expulsion of management. And yet some of the internal forces within this campaign, notably the union bureaucracies, have rallied alongside the liberal tendencies within the populace to condemn the vandalism of management corridors. As always, their attempts to de-fang and pacify struggle are unwelcome, and clash with their professed conviction at the rally that there is no common ground or trust to be found with management, that dialogue had failed, and disruption is where our power is located.
- The graffiti is both insignificant and entirely significant
The SOAS Justice 4 Cleaners Campaign has been organizing for 10 years. Despite intimidation, continual threats, and even physical deportations by a violent and oppressive management, it has remained firm and resolute. Despite prior promises and assertions that the cleaners would be brought in-house, the University has not remained true to its word and has decided to sign an outsourcing contract for another 5 years. The campaign has won numerous victories including holiday pay, sick pay, pensions, and the London living wage, and has done so through an uncompromising and militant stance which has refused mediation and conciliation and maintained the necessity of disrupting business-as-usual to force change. In the framework of a management and employment structure which positions cleaners as disposable resources, which routinely silences them, and which has frequented attacks on their dignity, security and wellbeing, the campaign has had little choice but to adopt such tactics.
After 10 years of organizing, management is still betraying the cleaners and imposing their ideological agenda of privatisation, and it is only material damage that will force their hand – they have demonstrated again and again that there is no capacity to manoeuvre on the terrain of conscience, that there is no better nature to which we might appeal or good will we might sway, reaffirming that the interests of management and the University community are always in conflict. This is a contradiction that is fundamentally present and sharpening across all Universities, and we must be prepared to do whatever needs to be done to challenge exploitation – even if that means offending the respectable sensibilities of some. There should be no compromise on injustice – and the graffiti symbolized this, and was an inspiring act of reclamation. It should be maintained that drawing a moral equivalence between the damage to a wall and the damage to the lives and wellbeing of workers is misguided and deeply poisonous. We should not assimilate into the logic of management – their distorted moral criteria of condoning racialized violence yet condemning property damage should not be our frame of reference. This dominant framework of ‘respectable’ conduct and protest only serves to protect the structures of power we are opposing.
- This campaign has a life entirely of its own
The SOAS community is somewhat unique, in as much as it has always been a hotbed of student activism and progressive thought. This is in part due to its academic structure and courses, in part due to a Student’s Union which is actively engaged in grassroots campaigning (but still permeated by the same flaws as any other SU and acting as a buffer to struggle, as aforementioned) and, I would contend, mostly because sustained, robust struggles such as SOAS Justice 4 Cleaners have comprised a large section of its recent history and shifted popular consciousness. There is therefore a generalized predisposition towards left ideas (though dominated by an identity politics which fetishizes individual moral purity), and a culture of resistance which is more developed than the majority of campuses around the country, particularly considering the context of it being exam season and the rest of the student movement suffering demoralization and a loss of vitality nationally.
This was no better demonstrated than in the wildcat strikes which occurred in response to the suspension of union activist Sandy at the end of last year, which organically and spontaneously shut down the University with a hard picket with just one day’s notice. Combined with the rent strikes occurring at UCL and Goldsmiths, the resistance to cuts to catering staff at Manchester, the #DontDeportLuqman campaign at Sussex: these powerful, militant and localised activities could well coalesce into a horizon of revitalized struggle for the student movement. SOAS Justice 4 Cleaners has and continues to consistently carry that flame, and must be supported.
- The backlash: liberalism under the guise of radical left language and principles
The backlash has by and large adopted a different rationale relative to the usual overt reactionary response – perhaps testament to the more left-oriented composition of political identities at SOAS at large – of denigrating the protestors as unenlightened ‘thugs’ and ‘vandals’. It has largely assumed the form of branding the campaign ‘ableist’, ‘unsafe’, even ‘culturally appropriative’, and latching on to the painting of ‘Black out now’ on Richard Black’s (a member of management) door to brand the campaign ‘racist’. Of course, no campaign is immune from oppressive tendencies – we are all moulded and conditioned by an oppressive world. And yet a genuine on-the-ground knowledge of the composition, practices and goals of the campaign would be sufficient evidence to dismiss many of these cynical attempts at delegitimization.
We must be critical of the strain of politics within the student movement that condemns militancy as uniformly exclusive and unsafe – not only does this patronise oppressed groups and prescribe on their behalf what form of action they can engage in, it is also ahistorical with regards to how oppressed people have won their freedoms and glosses over the power dynamics at play. The neo-liberal university is inescapably constituted by injustice, exploitation and a distinct lack of safety – no one knows this more than the 9 cleaners callously deported from SOAS in 2009 – and we ultimately cannot negotiate, will, regulate or abstract that structural oppression away: it must be actively confronted, and fought. We must be wary of those who wield and co-opt left principles against us, in order to frame us as enemies within regardless of political ties, allying themselves with the management and state seeking to crush us.
It is interesting to note that some peoples’ commitment to opposing injustice apparently seems conditional on not marring the sanctity of property with a smear of paint – which is telling of how capitalism re-aligns our moral priorities, and is something we must challenge. Indeed, taking stock of the backlash from demo and non-demo participants alike, it might be imagined that the #FeesMustFall speaker at the demo was party to a struggle that blocked the tuition fee hike through closed-door negotiation and sitting around the table and not through fighting with cops, occupations, property damage and other militant street tactics.
- This was a new kind of escalation
Despite how management and the liberal account might like to frame the tactics and actions that ensued after the rally, they were not conducted by a specialist and hardened black-bloc clique. We must be careful to not assimilate into such narratives which draw dichotomies between the ‘ordinary’ student or activist and the seasoned militant – again, these narratives are often propagated by the capitalist media and structures of authority to demonize and fragment us and delegitimize effective resistance – but this action was a spontaneous force of its own, inspired by and emerging from a generalized atmosphere of frustration, betrayal and anger. To suggest those engaging in militant tactics are not also engaged in the groundwork of mobilizing and organizing generally within the campaign would be deeply disingenuous. To conceptualize the campaign itself as homogeneous, and not a site of complex internal political tensions – where bureaucratic forces may act with undue influence, especially shaping outward facing narratives – would also be insincere.
It would be a misstep to characterize this protest as simply a flash of insular, spectacular resistance wishing to revive the spectre of ‘neo-anarchism’. The readiness of students to risk their own safety, degrees and futures to support workers relentlessly exploited by management should be considered courageous, not condemned as adventurism. This was the climax of a long, hard-fought and gritty process of escalation, including convincing hearts and minds, rallies, dialogue, and a diversity of tactics, and I hope this spirit can persist to force management into retreat – and inspire waves of resistance elsewhere. Where the student movement often falls into rhythms of ebb and flow with the turnover of each cohort, the SOAS Justice 4 Cleaners campaign has provided an essential infrastructure and repository for the collective history and struggle of the past 10 years within SOAS – this must be an example to the rest of the student movement.