soas occupation challenges immigration raid with mixed results

An article by activists involved in the recent SOAS occupation covering the story of the dispute and the lessons learnt from its results

Even for those well used to the low standards and dirty tricks of private contractor ISS and the UK Border Agency (UKBA), the brutal immigration raid on cleaners at the School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London last month came as a shock. It sparked a protest movement and occupation which – for 48 hours at least – constituted a significant show of strength against the university management and promised to win real concessions from those directly involved in the shameful intimidation of workers who – the timing was not coincidental – had only recently won union recognition and the London living wage.

That SOAS Director Paul Webley eventually managed to get his office, the Directorate and two conference rooms back without having made any real concessions proved a disappointment for many involved in the action. As activists continue to assess ‘what went wrong’, and rue an opportunity missed, it remains to be seen whether future gains made by the ongoing campaign will vindicate the strategy of those who wanted to end the occupation early.

Immigration attack

Workers had been instructed to attend an “emergency staff meeting” at 6.30am on Friday June 12. Forty Border police, kitted out in full riot gear, were hidden behind a stage in meeting room G2. As managers barred the exit during the first part of the meeting, an ISS manager used a code word as a cue for the immigration officers to emerge and begin making arrests. The SOAS campus was sealed off while the cleaners were locked in a room, and interrogated one by one, without legal representation or translation.

Of the nine detained, six were deported within 48 hours and three placed in detention. Luzia, six-months pregnant, was one of those on a flight to Colombia that weekend. Two cleaners, Marina Silva, a 63-year-old who had applied for asylum after the murder of her husband in Bolivia, and Rosa de Perez, a Nicaraguan supporting four children, remain in detention at Yarl’s Wood as The Commune went to press.

The focus for anger and resistance against the raid quickly became the role SOAS had played in facilitating it. By the morning of Monday June 15th, a broad coalition (from student union activists to anti-deportation campaigners, the Campaign Against Immigration Controls (CAIC), University and College Union (UCU), Unison, the SWP, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Latin American workers’ organisations and several members of The Commune) had been mobilised to, amongst other demands, work to halt the deportations and ensure SOAS did all it could to secure the release of the cleaners in detention.

As SOAS Director, Paul Webley, conducted a Monday-morning conference in the main campus building at Russell Square, dozens of protesters entered his office to call on him to make immediate representations to the Home Office on the cleaners’ behalf. The 20-minute ‘dialogue’ that followed – all posted to youtube shortly afterwards – show Webley feebly claiming that SOAS had had nothing to do with the raid and refusing to lift a finger in support of his own staff. It would lead to ‘chaos’, he said, if he was expected to frustrate the objectives of the UK Border Police. ‘Friday’s visit was not arranged or influenced by any member of staff at Soas,’ he continued to claim, setting the tone for 48 hours of lies and evasions from university management who still deny they were complicit in the attack.

Occupation

After Webley had been turfed out of his palatial offices – the academic and administrator earns £193,000 a year – activists moved to occupy the space and begin the work of building a movement capable of sustaining itself for the long haul and winning immediate and urgently needed gains for the workers fighting deportation and detention. Numbers were regularly bolstered by rallies in the square which the first-floor offices overlooked (and it was to those gatherings that other cleaners were able to come – though this remained a limited line of communication, something that was to prove important later on) and on Monday evening over 50 people were crammed into one of the Directorate’s conference rooms to decide on the direction and tactics of the occupation. Two dozen protesters stayed the night – a successful, radical and long-lasting action seemed possible.

But that evening turned out to be the height of the protest’s strength and coherence, as debates and divisions over negotiations throughout Tuesday gradually allowed the SOAS management to wriggle out of making significant concessions. The occupation ended by Wednesday June 17 with a victory rally but few real gains. A statement released in the afternoon by some occupiers admitted that the ‘concessions’ made by Webley in a signed letter, were ultimately more ‘symbolic’ than real.

Those concessions included Webley writing to the Home Office and a commitment by him to arrange a Governor’s meeting to discuss the issue of ending the contract with ISS and bringing the cleaners in house.

Crucially, there was no commitment by SOAS not to facilitate further raids nor a more limited agreement to notify the union, on health and safety grounds, before future ‘visits’ by the Border police. There was certainly no apology. The 11 original demands made by the occupiers, including the reinstatement of Jose Bermudez Stalin, who had done so much to organise his fellow workers at SOAS, had been swept aside or qualified into non-existence. For many of those involved throughout what was often an inspiring protest, the question remains: Why did the occupiers walk out when still in a position of strength and with so little gained?

‘Victory’ claimed

Some members of the occupation were shocked to read the ‘victory post’ that went up on the FreeSOAScleaners blog on the Wednesday afternoon, and have since collectively released a counter-statement to temper the triumphalism. It called not only for the continuation and renewal of the campaign against ISS, union-busting and collaboration with the Border police, but stressed that lessons must be learned from the occupation after so much promise and negotiating strength on Monday evening was allowed to dissipate in the rush for a deal.

It identified a failure of participatory processes and a lack of consultation with cleaners as key determinants of the occupation’s rush to a deal. ‘There was never a decision made at the occupation about who would negotiate on its behalf,’ the statement read. ‘This role was taken by the Student Union representatives, in particular the outgoing Student Union president. At the first meeting with the directorate the occupation’s demands were not even presented. Following this, occupation participants who were also elected to the Student Union were present at the negotiations, but still control was not held by the occupation over the negotiations and, as they continued, the demands – which were collectively agreed and changed in a series of meetings – were progressively watered down.’

‘Crucially the cleaners themselves were not involved in the decision making process of the occupation. While it may have been difficult to make the occupation a ‘safe’ place for the remaining workers to visit, the occupiers could and should have made a more concerted effort to inform, talk to and take direction from the workers directly affected by the raid. This could have helped to increase the occupations militancy and keep it focused on demanding tangible concessions from management.’

‘We should be clear that whatever gains were made during the occupation were made by taking direct action against the SOAS management and that many demands – including bringing all contract staff in house, keeping immigration officers from entering campus under any circumstances, the reinstatement of Jose Stalin Bermudez and even an apology for their role in the raids – were not met because of the continued intransigence of that same management.’

Why did it end?

The drift towards agreeing to Webley’s offer – one that was not voted on at any stage, even on Wednesday morning – was ultimately determined by the priorities and perspective of the SWP and the leading SOAS students involved in the occupation. Collectively they had, of course, been the most prominent figures throughout and had assumed responsibility for conducting negotiations through the elected student union (at least one of whom, Nizzam Uddin, was clearly opposed to the action and had a vested interest in cautious compromise), using a line of communication which Webley had stipulated on Monday afternoon for reasons of delegitimising the broader membership of the occupation, on the (as it turned out, correct) assumption that indirect, fragmented dialogue would work to his advantage.

This is not necessarily to criticise the role played by those negotiators: the SOAS student and SWP position within the protest was privileged by what they had contributed to it, and by their greater knowledge of, and access to, the university management. Whatever the reason, personal or structural, a ‘natural’ hierarchy emerged which, combined with the SWP’s eagerness to claim a victory, and the general sense among a majority of occupiers that things were getting ”riskier”, contributed to the willingness to accept Webley’s limited offers.

There was, without doubt, a gap opening up between some more concerned about the ”threat” of eviction than others, and the panic decision-making that the mass meetings degenerated into was seemingly born out of that. However frustrating this may have proved for those advocating a more militant stance, it remains true that many activists who wanted a different, more uncompromising negotiating strategy were unable to persuade the majority because they hadn’t put bodies on the ground when it most mattered: over both evenings and the Wednesday morning. At least a dozen activists had the potential to shift the direction of the occupation but relationships of trust hadn’t been built in time to enable that to happen. The ‘privileged position’ of the SOAS students and the SWP was, in a sense, ‘earned’, and the analysis that the SWP brought – and what they considered a ‘good outcome’ – could only be challenged (amicably and productively) by investing as much time and energy into the protest as they had done.

The problem of the negotiators pushing for a deal, and the imbalance of information and power that entrenched, became seemingly unstoppable by Tuesday night. While it reflected the divisions between the occupiers – in politics, outlook and organising principles – that began to emerge once the management started making offers, however derisory, it might have been more effectively countered by focusing more clearly on the cleaners’ key demands – namely, the guarantee that SOAS would not facilitate any future raids – and by reassuring the majority that the threat of eviction was not as high as some were claiming.

Indeed, it was known by Tuesday that the injunction that had been served that morning was of dubious legal value. With Webley regularly threatening to evict throughout the day, only to then ‘give more time for negotiations’, it was clear he was trying to avoid having to use force. It was equally clear that he was desperate to get his offices back. The strength still lay with the occupation on Wednesday morning.

The ‘decision’ to leave has wasted the chance to win gains for the SOAS cleaners in detention and for those that remain to work in an institution that has proved itself complicit in union-busting and racist immigration controls. The campaign, of course, continues; and the SWP and others hope that a decision of the Governors in November ending the contract with ISS can’t be discounted. It was also their view that ‘forcing’ Webley to make representations to the Home Office was a significant concession which would have been put at risk if the occupiers’ had been expelled from the building by police. This is arguable: but anti-deportation experts were wary of giving too much weight to any letter sent by SOAS and were far from confident that a late call from Webley would have much practical effect.

The SWP position also maintained that the power was with the ‘students’ and the faculty’s sympathy with the occupation in general, and the students in particular, and with the end of term coming that week, the presence of both those groups was going to diminish sharply, and with it the strength of the movement. There was moreover a view among students that it was they who were going to have to take the brunt of any repressive measures following a forced eviction. They also argued that the chances of SOAS authorising another immigration raid are now minimal, irrespective of any formal written agreement to this effect.

These are legitimate differences, argued in good faith; but the undemocratic way the occupation ended remains a cause for concern. As an activist who stayed on Tuesday night said: ‘People were already tidying up when I got up [on Wednesday morning]. It seemed like people had decided from the start that it was going to end on Wednesday, no matter what. There certainly weren’t any conversations that I was involved in that talked seriously about maintaining the occupation if the managers came back with less that the agreed minimums.’

‘It all started to get a bit worrying when people in the room started requesting that the management write up its own wording of what they thought the occupation was trying to get out of them. This left us with two documents – one that the occupying group had been working on collectively for days with agreed minimums, and one that the management had drawn up that gave very little – and certainly didn’t meet many of the agreed minimums.

‘The group was discussing how to marry the two together (i.e. make even more concessions) when Nizzam [the outgoing Student Union president] got frustrated by how long discussion was taking. At one point he highlighted that the statement was between management and the SU which meant he could go and get it signed without the support of the group!

‘Everyone panicked and that only strengthened the perceived need to basically pass the management back the document they had typed up to sign. Any act of signing was seen as a victory.’

Another commented: ‘There was a frustrating level of deference to management: Nizam gets a phone call to say [a deal] must be signed by 11am and everyone panics – we say, ‘Hold on a minute. Since when do we defer to their deadlines and their requirements for negotiation – we’ve occupied his bloody office!’

Moreover, Webley’s rhetoric since the end of the occupation doesn’t provide much hope that SOAS will begin to respond to the demands made. In a letter sent to SOAS staff on June 22, he wrote: ‘Thankfully many colleagues are aware that the allegations being made against SOAS are untrue, most notably that we had invited immigration officials on to our campus. This is something that has caused a great deal of concern and anxiety to our staff, students, stakeholders and peers.

‘Throughout this entire process SOAS has acted in good faith and in accordance with the law. SOAS is obliged to co-operate with the authorities and not breach any law that could lead to prosecution.’

The campaign continues

While an open and self-critical debate is needed to ensure that future occupations realise their potential, many aspects of the SOAS protest nevertheless offer hope for the future: the breadth of the coalition assembled, the willingness to adopt militant action, the barriers (at least initially) that were broken down between workers and students, and the growing awareness of the connections between immigration policy and exploitation in the workplace.

As the counter-statement by the ‘dissenting’ occupiers put it: ‘We hope the campaign will become bigger and stronger after this occupation. Cleaners are still facing deportation, while union busting tactics and the frequency of raids against migrant workers are increasing. Practical victories are urgently needed and these will only be achieved through a realistic understanding that management, the police and the government are not on our side. It of course takes longer than two and a half days, but the occupation was a significant show of power. In future we should be more confident about what can be achieved when we stand together.’