Menelik Lee: Thirty years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, London’s student-worker coalitions show why cross-class solidarity still terrifies autocrats

London universities behave like authoritarian tyrants when confronted by protesters over outsourcing. But, unlike Chinese communist dictators, our vice chancellors don’t have tanks to hide behind.

This month, the world commemorated the Tiananmen Square protests. They ended tragically in 1989 when Chinese government troops cleared the streets with live ammunition. Western observers remember the Tiananmen uprisings as a pro-democracy student movement, but they often overlook the part workers played in protesting China’s liberalisation. This radical fusion of workers and students terrified China’s ruling elite, who imagined it as an existential threat. History tells us their fears were almost certainly correct.

Today, London students and university workers engage in another struggle with the bosses. These coalitions have, over the past decade, made university managements tremble at demands for fair pay, fair benefits and for workers who maintain London’s world-leading scholarly institutions to be brought in-house. 

The wages of management

Like the students and workers who occupied Tiananmen Square, the London actions sought to expand democracy and workers’ protections. Since the 1990s, university marketisation has created sharp divides between staff and students; a system that tells students we’re customers with consumer rights. Meanwhile, corporate sector managers arrived to run universities like money-making machines.

Much of this is chronicled elsewhere, but the worst fallout of casting students as consumers goes unseen. In the meantime, cleaners and support staff have suffered silently, as outsourcing eroded pay and employment rights. Bosses, told to provide “value for money”, cut wages and benefits to extract profits. They argue outsourcing reduces costs, revealing their true priorities.

It’d be one thing if this financial logic was based on evidence. Predictably, it isn’t. For instance, at SOAS an independent auditing body found outsourcing yielded negligible savings. This clear example reveals that outsourcing goes beyond the balance sheet: it’s an ideology. But even if outsourcing was cost-efficient, profits should never come before people.

Making the bosses pay

Increasing security controls at universities, alongside marketisation, threatens campuses’ potential for radical freedom of thought and action. Students who pay £9,000+ fees are quicker to justify crossing picket lines if they believe their grades will suffer from joining strikes. Hence, by incentivising us to police ourselves, like little CEOs of our corporate egos, management sapped the fertile soil of university activism.

Despite these trends, students and workers have fought cuts to pay, conditions and dignity. To this end, one of our most radical tactics in this struggle is occupying university buildings.

In 2015, students occupied the event space at the SOAS Brunei Gallery to stop 185 course cuts and potential job losses. By seizing an expensive venue, the peaceful occupation caused direct financial losses that bosses can’t ignore. At LSE, earlier that year, 40 students locked themselves inside the central administrative offices, demanding “a university run by students, lecturers and workers.” They also wanted tuition fees and zero-hours contracts for workers to end. King’s, UAL and Goldsmiths students followed suit

The intransigence with which many universities faced down worker and student protests to these demands is shocking. Notably, black-clad bailiffs toting riot shields, in the past fortnight, forcefully removed University of London Justice for Workers campaign (UoL J4C) activists from their peaceful occupation at Senate house after only twenty-four hours. Following this violent reaction, we must be grateful that no one was seriously injured.

The vice chancellors have run out of tanks!

Despite decades of marketisation, campuses still contain great deals of righteous fervour. Indeed, management’s assaults sowed the seeds of their own downfall. In quick succession, we have seen triumphs for two in-house campaigns. The SOAS cleaners and catering staff were all brought in-house last year, soon followed by LSE cleaners. Similarly, under steady pressure from the IWGB union and UoL J4C, Senate House edged in the right direction, ending some outsourcing contracts.

Student-worker coalitions like this have challenged university managers on all fronts: through strikes, petitions, public letters and occupations – and they’ve won! For instance, even now, student occupiers representing Goldsmiths Anti-racist Action are occupying Deptford town hall. The campaigners intend to remain in the hall until their demands for true anti-racist policies and workers’ rights are met.

Management thwarted the Senate House occupation this time, but universities are up against it. Despite what disgruntled students and workers mutter in their cups, university bosses aren’t the authoritarian forces that brought a bloody end to the Tiananmen uprising. The tide has turned, and the vice chancellors are dismally short of tanks.

Menelik Lee is communications officer for the London branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and studied Chinese Studies at SOAS. He can be contacted via email at communications [at] iww.org.uk.

Photo credit: Mohamed Gaber, with changes, under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic and David Dahlborn.

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