The University of Sussex had been slowly grinding to a halt since the start of the UCU strike. Things came to a head last week, with the students calling a national demonstration for 15th March, and the management’s decision to shut down campus in response. All sorts of emails were flying around from the VC’s office, telling staff that the UCU would ‘now face the wrath of their own members’ and that the real threat was ‘student action [which] can cause significant anxiety’ – thank you, Mr Westlake, we’ll hear more about you later.
The demo formed up in front of the library, with banners held high on the steps. Somewhere in the region of a thousand strikers, students and workers turned up in good spirits. After some welcoming addresses from the platform, we set off to walk around (an eerily quiet) campus. Security was relatively light, coordinated by the in-house security team; although since the strike started, Sussex has been drafting in temporary guards to try and keep on top of the student blockades and occupations, which they have spectacularly failed to do. Earlier in the day, for example, some 40 students had occupied one of the major building sites on campus run by Balfour Beatty.
On reaching the building site, the demo came to a stop to make links with the workers there. Sussex has been undergoing a lot of redevelopment, particularly around East Slope. The contractor, Balfour Beatty, is notorious for its anti-union stance, and this is important because construction workers suffer more injuries and fatalities than anyone else in the workplace. We learned from the Unite reps, who have been active at this site for the last six months, that Mr Westlake’s concern for welfare doesn’t extend past his self-serving rhetoric, and that he’s been actively blocking Unite’s access, while simultaneously refusing to reply to their representations. Those on the demo were asked to email Westlake directly to insist that he engage with Unite in this respect and another 150 students slipped away through the woods and climbed the fences to join the occupiers inside.
At Sussex we have seen possible ways to widen and extend the strike across the University, with students, admin and other workers on campus all being affected by the struggle. Even before the action began, local bus drivers and postal workers had already shown solidarity by declaring they wouldn’t cross picket lines. As the strike went on, it was those picket lines at the front gates that became catalysts for protest, conversation and confrontation across campus. The demo was an important and positive move in expressing the growing strength of the struggle within the whole social space that is formed by a University, from the lecture hall to the building site.
From a Sussex University worker.