Today in London healthcare history, 1979: St Benedict’s Hospital, Tooting, occupied by its workers.

The staff at St Benedict’s Hospital, Tooting, South London, began an official work-in to prevent closure of their hospital on November 15th 1979. A strong support committee was organised in the local community with backing from Battersea and Wandsworth Trades Council, local pensioners and others who wanted to maintain the high level of geriatric care at St Ben’s. Local London Ambulance Service ambulance drivers pledged their support and refused to cross the picket line except for normal transport.

“We could have gone on for ever” recalled leading light of the occupation, COHSE delegate Arthur Hautot, “They had to end the occupation because we were doing the work better and so much cheaper.” Also involved in the occupation, on a daily basis, was Ernest Rodker, who was later a supporter of the South London Women’s Hospital occupation 1984-5, and was later still a mainstay of the anti poll tax campaign in Wandsworth, being jailed for non-payment of the poll tax.

The success of the Work-in led management (with the agreement of Patrick Jenkin, secretary of state for Health and Social Security) to resort to intimidation, confrontation and violence to break the staff and campaign organisation, and force closure of the hospital. Wandsworth, Sutton and East Merton Area Health Authority (AHA) took legal action, serving injunctions against eight leading members of the work-in. This included 4 staff members (from COHSE, NUPE and the RCN), 3 union officials (NUPE and COHSE) and 1 local campaigner.

The injunctions prevented those named from doing any thing to prevent the removal of patients and to prevent the union-officials from entering the building.

For six days in mid-September 1980, the Hospital was raided, and patients moved out, by force by the AHA, backed by a large force of police and a scab private ambulance company, Junesco.

Under the new Employment Act, the police were able to impose an arbitrary limit of two pickets on picket lines outside St Benedict’s…

Then on the fourth day of the raids, they refused to allow any pickets on the gate at all, and the private ambulances got through.

By September 19th, sixty three patients had been forcibly removed from the friendly security of their beds and wards and dispersed in chaos to a variety of other hospitals in the area. Twenty-three pickets were arrested during the raids, and charged with a number of offences, ranging from wilful obstruction to criminal damages. One woman who worked in admin at a nearby hospital was suspended from duty, although she was at the picket line on her day off.

After the closure of the long stay geriatric hospitals, reports began to emerge of the devastating impact on patient care of “relocation effects” – the impact of speedy closures on patients. Close to a third of patients forcibly moved in the “raids” on St Benedict’s died within the following six months.

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An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Save Reginald, Save Tidemill: resisting new enclosures and the destruction of social housing in Deptford

Users of Tidemill Community Wildlife Garden in Deptford, South London, are currently occupying the garden round the clock, the latest stage of their long struggle to keep the garden from being destroyed by Lewisham Council as part of a regeneration plan which would also see the demolition of the neighbouring council block of flats. The battle to protect Tidemill Garden and Reginald House focuses several of the most crucial struggles being fought at the moment in London – resistance to the destruction of social housing, the privatisation, exploitation & destruction of open space, gentrification and the social re-ordering of many areas of the city. (NB: None of which is unique to London – being worldwide phenomena…)

Open space is vital in London, in the city. Literally a lifesaver, Parks, commons, woods, from the heaths to the slivers of green at the edge of the canals… Green places in the heart of London, places of refuge, pleasure, places for picnics, barbecues, learning, meeting, playgrounds for wildlife and people … When work and stress and all the other shite rises up and threatens to overwhelm you… you can lie on your back while the wind dances in the trees. When you’ve got no garden, when your family drives you nuts, sick of pointless work and all the abuse, exploitation and suffering in the world – or when you just love the grass. For the mad endless football matches, falling out of trees, hide and seek as the sun dapples the moss; for dancing round your phone in the summer evenings… wiping the tear away as your daughter’s bike wobbles round the lake for the first time, even for when you’re masochistic enough to go running on rainy mornings…

The benefits of having access to open green space are obvious, for exercise, physical and mental health and wellbeing, learning about and connecting to wildlife and nature (all too rare in the city), having somewhere green to just relax; quite apart from the playgrounds, sports facilities, water features, running tracks… even the bloody festivals sometimes when they don’t trash the grass and lock us out for half the summer…

Trees and plants also obviously contribute to air quality and help reduce pollution, as mature trees absorb carbon emissions from vehicles… not to mention just being beautiful, sometimes climbable, a relief from the brick and sandstone, concrete and glass…

The parks and greens maintained by councils and other official bodies are crucial enough, despite the bylaws that hem you in there, the financial pressures that lead to massive commercial festivals that lock the big parks off for weeks on end…

There’s the wilderness too, where it survives, or has fought back to wreath old factories or abandoned lots, half-demolished estates in green and growth… This wildness in London has been vanishing more and more, it made a comeback from post-world war two to the 80s, often on bombsites, or where industry was closed down… A strange hopeful beauty, we used to trespass, explore, and sometimes build in.

Even more precious than either of the above, maybe, is the space that people create themselves, communally, working together, learning and building and planning. Many such spaces were created from abandoned land, some were originally squatted or more or less occupied, often bit by bit, gradually taken over, where money and authority had forgotten or lost interest, or simply didn’t have the resources to exploit or use. Like the squatting of houses from the 70s onward, small scale community spaces were created, here and there, sometimes evicted or given institutional blessing and becoming ‘official’.

New enclosures

As with resistance to enclosures in previous centuries, the wholesale removal of access to vast areas of land for large numbers of people, in the interests of the wealthy, the nominal owners, the rich, urban free spaces can also become contested. If some were granted some kind of legal status, this has not protected them forever from the possibility of being cleared, built on, lost. Just as cash-strapped or money-hungry councils see big parks as piggy banks that can be milked, self-created spaces are often viewed as awkward, unproductive, not neat and tidy-looking, lowering the tone, run by amateurs who don’t understand. And taking up space that could be put to more profitable use. By people who know best and should just be allowed to get on with planning our lives for us.

The freely given and collective effort put into creating and maintaining small community-run spaces, and making sure they are kept free and open runs counter to this. It’s not always easy and can stall or lose momentum, but its spirit is often lovely and inspiring. Councils pay lip service to this spirit because they know it’s bad PR to say what is really often thought in the offices and boardrooms – that this spirit is annoyingly uncontrolled and gets in the way of properly ordered progress and fiscal good sense. In this sense, while in theory many larger or smaller open green spaces are ‘publicly owned’ – ie owned by public bodies like councils – there is a chasm, its not ours, in the legal sense, though people who use and enjoy space often feel that it is ours, collectively, emotionally. Enclosure was often resisted in two parallel strands – common land (always in fact owned by someone) had developed customary uses over time, which people took to be legal rights, and some went to court to oppose enclosure on that basis. Others felt that whatever the law said about who owned a piece of land and could do what they want with it, it was theirs, collectively, because they had always used it and so had generations before them, and would right to maintain that – often with direct action, sabotage, sometimes with violence. Both strands had their successes, in truth, in saving many places we still know and love today. But often people had to go beyond what the law said was ownership to assert the collective ownership they felt and had experienced, an often  contradictory jumble of realities which law, contract, statute and certificate don’t and can’t quantify. This remains a central question in many struggles, whether its about housing, space, work…

Tidemill and Reginald 

So – Lewisham council are planning to demolish Reginald House and Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden, and on the site of the old Tidemill Primary School, which closed in 2012, near to the centre of Deptford.

The Tidemill garden was created in 1997, designed with the involvement of parents, pupils and teachers at Tidemill school. For a long time it was considered worthy of support by official bodies, being funded by Groundwork, the London Development Agency, the Foundation for Sport & Arts, Mowlem plc, Lewisham College — and Lewisham Council, which invested £100,000 in it in 2000.

The garden has matured, and now contains 74 well-established trees. In August 2017, it was cited as a case study for the importance of “Children at Play” in the GLA Greener City Fund prospectus, and it also has the support of organisations including the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the London Wildlife Trust. Pupils from the new Tidemill School have used the garden for many educational projects.

Some great pix of the Garden and some recent events here

Go, Move, Shift!

If the development plans go ahead, the residents of Reginald House will lose their homes, and a unique community wildlife garden will be destroyed. The vast majority of the residents of Reginald House and the users of the garden want the plans to be re designed in partnership with the community – to build the same or more social homes, but keep Reginald House and Tidemill Garden. The new plans trumpet the inclusion of new green space – but much of this will be private gardens (guess which tenure they will be for?) or playspaces for residents only, and the open access space planned is much smaller, includes no mature trees, much of it will be paved, sterile and free of the pesky wildlife and unplanned growth Tidemill hosts. And privately owned…

As Caroline Jupp has written: “The proposed green space to replace this extra-ordinary garden is named a ‘pocket park’ in the developer’s plans…. The sterility of many contemporary architect designed parks and gardens is not conducive to outdoor play. I have seen how the planted public areas on my newly built estate become dead zones. But here, in Old Tidemill Gardens, there are ponds, gazebos, tree houses, composting bins, greenhouse, sheds, climbing trees, undergrowth and wilderness, all to nurture play and kinship with nature. Why demolish this green space, used so regularly by schools and the community, and replace it with a neat pocket park? Local residents and visitors all value this community space, want to be its gardeners, and have a real stake in how it evolves. In contrast, most designs of contemporary green spaces don’t encourage the involvement of users, with with their choice of low-maintenance planting. No doubt, the keepers and sweepers of the proposed new park will be an out-sourced company…”
(from Buddleia Bulletin, no 4, ‘Tree House’, 2018, Caroline Jupp. The 5 issues of Buddleia Bulletin are well worth a read, and all proeeds from sales go to the Tidemill campaign…)

They and many supporters have been campaigning to prevent the demolition since 2014, when Lewisham signed a deal with Family Mosaic Home Ownership (a private spin-off of Family Mosaic Housing Association), which would have seen the currently ‘publicly owned’ land sold off cheaply. Through murky secret Development Agreements, Family Mosaic lies, council refusal to listen to the community’s protests or allow the residents of Reginald House to be balloted on the plan, the campaign has gained strength, drawing up alternative plans which would transform the re-development, keeping the gardens and allowing for more social housing. Since 2015, the local community has had a lease on the garden for “meanwhile use”, but despite granting this as a stopgap, Lewisham council, has refused to seriously entertain any alternative plan.

The subsequent new homes built under the initial plan would have had only 11% social housing, and the community resistance has forced the developers and council to increase this several times, and alter other aspects to try to deflect the opposition. Family Mosaic has since merged with Peabody Housing (housing associations are joining up to create ever large mega-monsters, raising rents and becoming more and more openly property companies). But the plan has remained, and the processes of planning and law have ground on.

Peabody now intends to build 209 units of new housing on the site, of which 51 will be for private sale, with 41 for shared ownership, and 117 at what is described as “equivalent to social rent”. This last is not in fact true –  rents on the last category will fall under London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s London Affordable Rent, around 63% higher than existing council rents in Lewisham.

Here’s an account by a resident facing losing her home: https://deptfordischanging.wordpress.com/2018/08/14/the-planned-demolition-of-your-home-has-so-many-repercussions/

The Middle Class Are Eating Your Street Again

It’s true there’s a housing crisis in London (and in the UK generally) – but currently councils, including Lewisham, are responding by planning homes that those who need them will never afford. The Tidemill proposals fall in with the trend to demolish social housing, with secure tenancies, and replace it mainly with private flats, sprinkled with some housing association tenancies or ‘shared ownership’, ‘affordable’ housing’ that isn’t affordable. A handy outcome of this is the slow replacement of working class people and those on lower incomes with more middle class or wealthy types, who help make the place more economically attractive to money, business and ‘exciting’ and ‘vibrant’. Ie everywhere starts to look as empty and soulless as everywhere else.

Many of the displaced end up crammed in to smaller spaces but paying more, moving to forsaken spots far out on London’s edge, or forced out of town entirely.

Deptford, for centuries a working class area, has stubbornly remained a mixed and interesting place, despite several decades of creeping gentrification. It’s a frontline of contestation, between profit and residents, planners and people, development and the precarious places and existences people make for themselves. There’s land there that greedy eyes see can be made much more of; but also where public officials see unproductivity that could be turned into assets. Occupied and used by people who they see as taking up space a better class of person could be making more of.

London needs homes, yes, but for rents we can afford, in the communities we want to live in, without destroying everything that makes those places a joy to live in. And there is plenty of housing lying empty in the capital. It’s owned by the wealthy, by property developers and corporations. Second homes and flats for business jollies. Palaces with hundreds of rooms for a couple of parasites.

Housing is not generally built for need, its built for profit. Attempts by councils, ‘social landlords’ like housing associations to alter this cannot be built on alliances with huge private developers or turning themselves into private developers and make any noticeable dent in the gradual erosion (now more of a landslide) of genuine social housing provision. Labour bollocks about ballots is smokescreening their complicity almost everywhere with social cleansing and love affairs with greedy property speculators.

It’ll take more than voting in any Corbyns or Sadiq Khans to push that back. It can only be based in people at the grassroots like at Tidemill and any number of struggles around London. And it’s hard, and often loses. It needs people to stand by them who aren’t facing that process themselves (remembering that social housing and open space are a collective legacy, a commons, the fruit of centuries of battling and campaigning, and belong not just to those who live or work or play there but to all of us, in common). And it needs to open the question of who the city is FOR, and challenge fundamental assumptions about housing, space, who owns things, who runs things…

The fight to keep Tidemill does closely echo the battle against enclosures of previous centuries. people have built up space, created uses for it, helped to survive through using it, built up emotional and practical ties to it. But the forces of cold financial or bureaucratic progress sees all that as irrelevant, counting only the hard cash or the planning gains. These days our years of struggle have made them more wary of proclaiming their contempt openly, so there’s lots of gloss and schmooze. But still bailiffs, fences and men with sticks to knock you down hiding round the corner, if you don’t buy their bullshit.

Ballots Not Bollocks?

Lewisham’s Labour council has refused to allow residents of Reginald House a ballot on the plans, though 80% of them don’t want their homes destroyed. This makes a mockery of Jeremy Corbyn and London mayor Sadiq Khan’s promise of ballots to all tenants on estates facing demolition. Khan endorsed the idea of ballots only for estates whose regeneration involves GLA funding – the Tidemill plan does involve GLA funding. But the mayor stealthily approved the destruction of 34 estates — including Reginald House — before his new policy took effect.  Lewisham also now has a stated policy of ballots on demolition: but not for Tidemill and Reginald. Tenants and leaseholders in Reginald House have also been effectively denied repairs since 2015 despite paying rent and service charges…

Instead, Lewisham Council’s cabinet approved the current plans last September, and terminated the community’s lease on the garden on August 29 this year.

Not Removing

Instead of handing the keys back, however, members of the local community occupied the garden, and are fighting court battles to prevent the demolition. They have crowdfunded over £10,000 to launch a Judicial Review of the planning application, but need more to help pay for this… In the latest court appearance, the judge confirmed the council’s right to possession of the garden, he ruled that it cannot take place until seven days after a High Court judge holds an oral hearing at which campaigners will seek permission to proceed to a judicial review of the legality of the council’s plans. This oral hearing will take place on October 17… they may be allowed to proceed with the Review, they may not…

Pledge some cash for this legal battle – the campaign’s Crowd Justice fundraising page is here: https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/save-reginald-save-tidemill/.

The Garden is now constantly occupied, with events happening all the time, displays on the history and ecology of the garden, and treehouses being built, banners being painted, and much more… A lovely and inspiring fight. If the court case doesn’t proceed, it will not be the end – far from it…

Four years of campaigning are now coming to the sharp point – the community is determined to resist the destruction of the garden, and this may well come to blockading the garden and trying to prevent their eviction physically. They need not only cash for the legal challenge, but help, support, publicity…

Contact the campaign: savereginaldsavetidemill@gmail.com

Phone: 07739 469097

https://www.facebook.com/savetidemill/

There’s more on the campaign, and other interesting current events in Deptford, here too:

https://novaramedia.com/2018/09/13/the-battle-for-deptford-and-beyond/

http://crossfields.blogspot.com/

https://deptfordischanging.wordpress.com/

http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2018/09/28/30-days-into-the-occupation-of-deptfords-old-tidemill-garden-campaigners-celebrate-court-ruling-delaying-eviction-until-oct-24/

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The community demands:

“Refurbish Reginald House, give residents a ballot Reginald House residents have good homes, but council has refused to listen to them or to consider a plan which keeps their homes. Instead the residents have been lied to and harassed by council officers, and their homes run down. Lewisham Council should respect its residents’ needs and wishes and not break up communities. As in other developments, residents must be given a ballot on regeneration plans.

Keep Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden a community garden for ALL Any redevelopment must include, not bulldoze, the thriving Garden which was built in the 1990’s by local people, teachers, parents and kids from Tidemill School. An alternative architectural plan shows how the garden and Reginald Road CAN be kept by building on the playground and developing the old school buildings. This area has some of the highest pollution levels in London, which will only get worse if the garden is lost. And the green space on the site should be kept public, not transformed into private gardens as under the current plans.

Public land, and public money, should be 100% used for the benefit of the public Lewisham Council want to sell this land, meaning a valuable public asset will be lost forever. Millions of pounds of public money is being spent to subsidise this development, behind a cloak of secrecy due to the ‘confidentiality clauses’ of the Council’s private partners. This land should be redeveloped in partnership with the community – to build as many social homes as possible but keep our invaluable current homes and community Garden.

We want the council and developers to truly partner with the community to redraw the plans for the site!”

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In case you’re interested…

… check out some other posts on historical resistance to enclosure of open space in London

Today in London educational history, 1968: students occupy Hornsey Art College.

On May 28th 1968, Hornsey Art College, in Crouch End, North London, was occupied by students and some staff. The occupation lasted until July 12 1968. The sit-in led to six weeks of intense debate, extended confrontation with the local authorities and even questions in Parliament.

Here are two brief accounts of the occupation – by participants:

Nick Wright’s account:

“In May 28 1968 students at Hornsey College of Art in North London – in a building now (1988) occupied by the TUC Education Centre – began a 24 hour work-in. The limited aims of the protest – for student control of student union funds – rapidly gave way to a deeper demand for thorough changes in the college regime and in art and design education. A dramatic shift of mood took place as students from the far flung outposts of the college came together across boundaries imposed by age, status, specialism and geography. A feeble attempt by the Vice Principal to re-establish his personal authority by threatening the assembled students resulted only in his eviction from the building. The startled students found themselves in occupation. The ancien regime fled. Twenty four hours seemed too little time to discuss everything.

Six weeks later the occupation was broken. Barbed wire and alsations enforced a six month’s lockout while the Conservative controlled council backed the college authorities in a thorough-going purge which closed departments, exiled teachers and expelled student activists.

Three strands of pedagogical thinking converged in the manifestos of the Hornsey College of Art students in May 1968. The first, partly derived from the reforming trends in progressive education, was nurtured by the movement for the common school. It argued for the elimination of GCE entrance qualifications and rejected examinations in art history and general studies. The egalitarian foundation of this idea was based upon a common experience of art and design students that their secondary education prepared them poorly for a higher education in the visual arts – that methods of assessment derived from the stratified structure of formal academic education were inappropriate and that entry should be open.

The second derived from a diffused idea that art and design constituted a discrete activity within higher education and could legitimately be considered separately from academic or technical and scientific studies by virtue of the special character of art.

The third constituted design, a specific activity and discipline distinct from fine art, admitted the historical continuities but took the machine and the built environment as a starting point for a celebration of a new rationality. This trend borrowed rather uncritically from emergent de-schooling trends, psycho-analytic theory, critiques of consumer culture, trans-atlantic notions of network learning and cybernetics.

These concepts were in daily contradiction with the art school regime and with the dominant trend among the rapidly expanding corps of art educationalists and art school administrators who were wedded to a rather narrow vocationalism.

Students were divided by the institutions, into two basic camps. The first followed courses leading to a Diploma in Art and Design (Dip AD), others followed courses leading to lower grade vocational regional certificates.

The distinction between the two kinds of student. was maintained physically – in Hornsey they studied in different buildings – and by quite different curricula. Generally speaking, vocational students were draw more from the locality, were less likely to be from well-off middle class families, were expected to eventual fill lower and intermediate positions in the expanding design world and followed a course whose narrow vocationalism was mitigated by a token nod in the direction of general studies.

By way of contrast Dip A D students were supposed to be degree equivalent. They received a mandatory grant – the most significant mark of academic respectability – but few were convinced that art and design education was comparable to university studies. Many students and almost all the administrators thought of degree equivalence as the key to comparability – in career advancement, in salary advancement, in salary levels and promotion prospects.

Two powerful currents fought out a subterranean battle in art schools. One held to the traditional centrality of fine art studies with vestiges of the atelier system enshrined in the peculiar status accorded painting and sculpture students and teachers. Hornsey prided itself on the large number of established or up-and-coming names who taught part-time. Drawn mostly from abstract expressionist and non-figurative trends they played an important part in the marketing of Hornsey as a prestige institution.

However, fine art studies played a declining and subordinate role in the life of the college. Painting and sculpture students were based at the Alexandra Palace building, they laboured in a shanty town of individually constructed work spaces in a huge hanger like hall. Some even constructed roofs to their work wombs, others preferred to work at home. As a metaphor for the dominant thinking among fine art student this peculiar perversion of the People’s Palace into an Arndale Centre of individualistic fine art boutiques is highly appropriate.

A second current placed design at the centre of curriculum. In part this was a mere reflection of the market lead pressures on the college to turn out a range of design specialists – in part it derived from the centrality accorded to basic design skills and visual research studies by the Modern Movement. Graphic design studies were based at a scruffy Civil Defence building on the North Circular Road. Graphics was run by administrators of staggering mediocrity but taught by part-time lecturers with one foot in the real world of commodity fetishism. To a greater or lesser extent the professional ideologies of fashion and industrial design dominated the design departments at Hornsey. There existed a striking discontinuity between the fashionable image of the college and the poverty of its buildings.

It has become conventional to attribute the Hornsey occupation, the Guilford strike which rapidly followed, the outbreak of similar manifestations throughout much of the art school world as somehow connected with the May and June events in France. Undoubtedly there was a resonance. But it would be misleading to suggest that these developments were in some essential sense spontaneous. They were characterized by a certain spontaneity – as is all mass action – as is all protest and revolt. But as with all social movements, the qualitative leap into dynamic action was preceded by, conditioned by, a slow accretion of signs – secret and public – that change was needed. In the case of Hornsey, the May 28 revolt was paradoxically and in part the product of an alliance between students, staff and the principal. He was a curious blend of petty minded ambition, obsessive bureaucrat and quite striking imagination. Self-promotion was fused with a sense of historical moment into a formidable drive for resources and publicity for Hornsey.

In 1967 his plans were threatened by a plan to incorporate Hornsey into a new polytechnic to be formed by amalgamation with Hendon and Enfield colleges of technology. Quite correctly, he and the corps of senior administrators, saw the Polytechnic Plan as a threat to their position. Enfield, in particular was run by a pair of high powered academic sharks, public advocates of polytechnic education, and well connected politically. The Hornsey incompetents would have been eaten alive.

Students and staff had other worries. Real concerns, about job security, status within the institution for art and design studies, and the future of art and design education as a discrete discipline were mixed up with daft Utopian ideas about the uniqueness of art education and the supposedly special character of art students as bearers of universal values in a machine age. An uneasy alliance came into being. The student union – which had gradually acquired a more politically experienced leadership and established contacts with the NUS and other London art colleges – organised a series of departmental meetings and demonstrations at the Wood Green civic centre to protest against the Polytechnic Plan. The principal and senior staff gave silent sanction to the protests. Theory and arguments were provided by a group of younger teachers; designers and general studies tutors in the main.

The campaign never stood a chance of success in the long term. However, it created a new atmosphere in the college. Cross departmental links were made, the experience of mass action generated new interest in the student union and strengthened membership of the teachers association. Delegations from Hornsey attended the annual NUS conferences and the newly instituted art colleges conference. The pressure for student participation in the college government began to be felt at departmental level and raised expectations among junior and part time staff that they too might gain access to power. A college chapter of the Radical Students Alliance was formed and its banner began to appear at anti-apartheid and Vietnam solidarity rallies. An art student candidate stood in the local elections to publicise the case for the college’s independence. A £100 (four times a policeman’s wage in 1967) was collected from students by the Young Communist League to buy a motorbike for the Viet Cong.

The case for student participation had been hammered out in a series of policy statements between the NUS and various associations of educationalists and local authorities. But these weighty documents had little effect on the college regime or the Conservative worthies on Haringey Council. The college continued to be run by diktat and informal committee. The Bursar and Vice Principal unilaterally ended the convention whereby the student union president was granted a year’s sabbatical and paid from the student union funds. By vetoing the president’s sabbatical the college authorities created a conflict over the issue of student union autonomy at precisely the moment when students wanted to play a more active part in running the college. Consequently, pressures which had been diffused at departmental level became focussed on this single question.

The rupture in conventional college life came about over the issue of student union autonomy but behind this lay more substantial issues. A constant thread in discussion throughout the Polytechnic Plan campaign -and a big part of the broader education debates led by teachers unions and the NUS was the issue of the binary system in higher education. Criticism was focused on the Polytechnic Plan precisely because it seemed to further institutionalise the disparity in resources and status which existed between universities and public sector colleges. Buried within this discussion were echoes of the controversies over comprehensive secondary education. It seemed as if a high proportion of Hornsey students came from outside London and from working classes and lower middle class backgrounds. A rather diffused sense of deprivation fused with more local and departmental concerns to produce a general demand for change.

Recovering the rather prosaic foundations of the Hornsey revolt from the spontaneist myths of ‘68 should not obscure the extraordinary boldness and imagination of the students and staff. The foundation of their discontent lay in the failure of the art and design education system to reconcile the contradictory pressures for vocational training and increased specialisation with the need for a broad education. Their demands were broadly democratic in character, their tactics strikingly original, their reserves of courage and organisational ability constantly surprising. As innocents they made the classic mistake of substituting dreams for reality, elevating the tactic of occupation to a principle and believing that an agreement with a more powerful adversary would hold. As a consequence they were defeated. But it is the victors who are forgotten.”

Nick Wright went to Hornsey College of Art in 1965 to study graphic design and typography. He became Secretary of the HCA Student Union in 1966 and President in 1967. In 1969 following the student occupation of the college the authorities obtained a High Court injunction preventing him from entering the premises. Fifteen years later he returned to Middlesex Polytechnic and completed his degree before taking an MA in Art History at Sussex University.

Hornsey College of Art uprising, by David Page

“On 28 May 1968, at Hornsey College of Art, what was to have been a one-day teach-in turned into a six-week occupation. There was a parallel occupation at Guildford School of Art, and the action spread rapidly round most of the art and design colleges in England in various forms. It produced two books, a film, an exhibition at the ICA, newspaper and magazine articles, demonstrations and street events, television interviews, a large number of educational documents containing analysis and proposals for reform, as well as posters, an articulate constituency and (indirectly) the only serious piece of government research into the sector (see The Employment of Art College Leavers: Ritchie, Frost and Dight, HMSO, 1972).

That’s one way of summarising it. In strict dictionary terms it was a revolution – the overthrow of the established government by those who were previously subject to it.

The authorities fled from the main college, which was then run for the duration by students and staff, 24 hours, seven days a week, demanding total commitment. There was a building to run and keep clean, a canteen to staff, food to be purchased, cooked and served, visitors to be monitored and controlled, alongside a system of seminars producing reports to be typed up, reproduced and fed back into the general meetings (and also to the outside audience), where hundreds of students and staff managed to debate and take decisions in an orderly fashion. Because the graphics department was in the hands of the authorities, printed matter had to be produced by available means – mainly linocut – but the rougher images produced seemed to meet the mood of the time, and were consonant with what was being produced via silk-screen in Paris. Some more sophisticated work found its way to printers, such as George Snow’s Snakes & Ladders, and a typographic poster of John Donne’s “No Man is an Iland, entire of it selfe” quotation, which was felt to embody the spirit of the sit-in, featured in a number of London bookshops.

There was much interest from notable people in other cultural areas – indeed, the establishment. William Coldstream, John Summerson and Shirley Williams (at that time Education Minister) treated it with respect, and even some admiration. None of that from the local councillors and aldermen, who had little idea what the institution in their control might be about, but were clear that authority, their authority, was being challenged, and they weren’t having it. Their stance culminated in “The Day of the Dogs”, when a team of security men with Alsatians were sent to surround and seal off the main college building. In the event, students tamed the dogs with biscuits, and the whole episode collapsed into farce. The people who did understand the educational arguments pulled back, saying that, regrettably, there was nothing they could do, thereby leaving the field to Haringey Council, which did not understand, and furthermore did not wish to understand, thank you very much. While this local political battle went on wasting a lot of time and energy, a social and spiritual development occurred alongside. What we aimed to do was simple: as William Blake put it, to build Jerusalem. William Morris, another artist-rebel who started with a concern about furniture and ended up grappling with the whole structure of society, followed a similar path. In 1964, surveying the new DipAD (Diploma in Art and Design), Quentin Bell wrote: “Henceforth it should be possible for a college to develop entirely on its own lines, to follow no matter what eccentric course it pleases, and it does not matter how eccentric that course may be if only the teachers are sufficiently enthusiastic.” (Crisis in the Humanities, edited by JH Plumb, Penguin, 1964.)

We would have said amen to that: what happened was nearly the opposite. The politics of Hornsey emerged from the conflict between Bell’s aspiration and the structures and practices we actually encountered. When eventually an unsatisfactory agreement was brokered between the authorities and the occupiers, the main college was briefly reopened. The authorities’ first act was to tear down everything which pertained to the sit-in: Hornsey posters, French student posters, etc. There’s no vandal like an official vandal. Within a week or two they had also broken all the terms of the agreement. Staff and student sackings and other repressions began. (“No way to run a whelk-stall, let alone an art school” – Lord Longford.) I managed to salvage at least some of the poster lino-blocks before they were destroyed. It was easier to gather documents (which had been sources for The Hornsey Affair): they remained in cardboard boxes through several house moves, and were sorted, years later, by two successive and devoted researchers (the first of whom had to sift out the mouse turds).

What Hornsey meant depended on where you stood, whether you were a teacher or a student, where you were in your life, and so on. This article expresses a partial view by a member of staff, so I asked two friends who were students then to sum up what it meant to them: “As a student on the industrial design course at Hornsey in 1968, I became very strongly aware of the powerful and pragmatic role design could have as an agent for social change and development. The sit-in burst into this environment, and its activities were a natural forum to explore these issues, both through debate and practical projects. Design for learning as a radical process has driven my work since that time” – Prue Bramwell-Davies.

“The Hornsey thing was a startling illustration of the potential for a disparate group of people with insignificant initial common cause to develop the ability to discuss and act together in such a way that cohesive and pragmatic philosophical and political expression emerges. That this phenomenon is extraordinary and deeply threatening to institutional establishments is a profound comment on our social organisation and the way in which it continues. It is significant that these were art and design students, doers and makers rather than talkers”– David Poston.

Various documents on the Hornsey occupation were presented by David Page in 2008 to the Tate Gallery.

 The Hornsey sit-in, and one at Guildford Art School, which followed on a week later in early June, inspired a ferment of agitation and debate throughout the art-school world: there were sit-ins, active discussions and demands for radical reform in a large number of colleges. The Hornsey and Guildford students founded a national movement, the Movement for Rethinking Art and Design Education (MORADE), which held a conference in the Camden Roundhouse in London in July.

1968 saw a number of student occupations in the UK, inspired to some extent by the events of Paris, though also by homegrown issues.

Some more UK student occupation from 1968:

Essex University

Brighton

Bristol

There are a couple of books on the Hornsey occupation:
The Hornsey Affair, Students and Staff of Hornsey College of Art, Penguin Education Special, 1969. Hornsey 1968: The Art School Revolution, Lisa Tickner, Frances Lincoln, 2008

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London educational history: London School of Economics occupied, 1969.

In January 1969 the London School of Economics was occupied by its students in protest at the appointment of Walter Adams as Director, due to his links to the rightwing regime in what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The college authorities erected steel gates in an attempt to prevent students congregating and moving around…

An account and analysis was written shortly after by Martin Shaw, then a sociology student, member of the International Socialists and leading light of the occupation (now a professor of international relations and global politics at the University of Sussex):

“On 24th January the students at the London School of Economics tore down steel gates erected to control sit-ins and occupations, bringing on themselves a three and a half week closure of the School in which police and law courts were used by the LSE authorities against the students.

Although the authorities have now been forced to open the college, legal and disciplinary action is still (at the beginning of March) under way against some staff and students. Students are still faced with a long fight against these measures.

This struggle can be traced directly to the occupation of the School in support of the Vietnam demonstration in October 1968. It was after this action (which lasted for a weekend and was supported by 600 LSE students and thousands of outsiders) that the authorities began to prepare an offensive against the militant movement which had grown up over the previous two years. Since the successful sit-in of March 1967, supported by a majority of the students, students led by the Socialist Society had continually challenged the power of the authorities, without meeting any response. But if the actual events at LSE since March 1967 had not been of proportions to necessitate a showdown, the spreading of student action to other colleges, culminating in the summer of 1968 with the sit-in at Essex and the long bitter conflicts in the art colleges – which coincided with events in France – had made the university authorities determined to act against the students. Meetings of the University vice-chancellors in June, to coordinate their own response, and in October, to rally the National Union of Students to their support, prepared the way for the clamp-down at LSE. The LSE authorities themselves liaised with the Government and the police (as the report of Dr. Adams, Director of LSE, on the October occupation admits). When the lock-out came they received extremely strong backing from the State authorities. It is obvious that the Government, already attacking the educational system for its lack of subordination to economic priorities and determined at the same time to crush opposition in the factories, was ready to support an attempt to crush student militancy and expel the revolutionaries. By January events were coming to a head with the college. A strong movement had developed against the involvement of LSE in Southern Africa, and pressure for direct action built up as the authorities refused to act on student demands that LSE should give up its investments in companies with interests in Southern Africa, that governors should not hold directorships in such companies and that they should not be allowed to recruit on campus. When in mid-January the authorities’ new measures against student militancy, planned since October, finally became clear, a clash was inevitable. The Academic Board ignored an overwhelming student request not to approve the new code of discipline prepared by its General Purposes Committee of which the Director and other Academic Governors are key members. The authorities refused to negotiate over demands to remove the newly installed steel grilles, offering to discuss only the particular location of individual gates.

The gates were removed after a Students’ Union vote by a party of 300 students who walked round the School dismantling each in turn.”

Robin Blackburn: “I was a lecturer at the LSE from 1967. Partly because of the occupation of the college in ’67 the authorities decided that college shouldn’t be used to assist things like the VSC and should never again be open to things like being seized by the students. They put steel gates and grilles in strategic places throughout the corridors and staircases of the university. The Students Union decided to ask the authorities to take them down, which of course they refused to do. Eventually the radical group in the Students Union got a vote that the students themselves should directly tear down the gates, which they did, with the help of some building workers who were building the Barbican and with whom they had been involved. There had been a strike and people from the Socialist Society had been helping them picket and leaflet and so forth. So when the gates had to be taken down they were able to get a couple of building workers in who had the right equipment. I had actually had nothing to do with the decision to remove the gates but I did come out in public, and the papers quoted me afterwards, saying that they’d done the right thing. So the university authorities DECIDED TO give me the sack. That caused more reaction from the students and actually by this time the LSE had been closed down ‑ there was a lockout of the students and the staff.
During these occupations I did try to keep teaching. We did courses on the sociology of revolution, that type of thing.” (Robin Blackburn, in ‘Days in the Life’)

“After this was accomplished, the militants elected an action committee to coordinate action against the measures expected from the authorities. Although Dave Fernbach, an LSE militant, has written that ‘in the face of threats to close a college, we must show that we are prepared to run it – as a Commune …’, at this point the extreme ‘Left’ in the Socialist Society were just as much opposed as were moderates to a proposal to occupy the School to prevent its being closed. A fatalism about the inevitable showdown, which had already gripped many non-revolutionary students, producing a relatively low vote for the dismantling of the gates, extended at this point to the Left itself, which deserted the main buildings. (Most just went home – others stayed in the bar, where the police assault came, hours later.)

After the closure and the clashes with the police outside LSE and Bow Street police station, on the night of Friday 24th January, the Left began to organise. Morale recovered to the extent that ideas of storming LSE were seriously entertained. The main advocates of this were those who saw the LSE as a ‘red base’ from which to set society alight. Borrowing from Mao and Guevara (to the extent that one prominent supporter of NLR [I’m guessing this stands for New Left Review – ed] seriously suggested raiding a sea-cadets’ hall to get rifles in order to frighten the police!) they ignored the weakness within the base. Students who had been unwilling to occupy on Friday, or even to unscrew the steel grilles, were nowhere near prepared to storm LSE on Saturday or Monday. This became clear when the first large meeting, of 500, was held on Monday 27th. If any change had occurred, fatalism was giving way to a curious wishful thinking, with an inclination to believe a hint by the Director that the School would reopen the same week. In any case, few LSE students were prepared to come on a demonstration that afternoon, and if demands for a reopening without gates or police or staff informing were carried overwhelmingly, it was nevertheless without enthusiasm for action. The militants had clearly mistaken their own consciousness for that of the mass of students. Direct action could obviously be undertaken only if the militants substituted themselves for the mass. That ideas of such action were entertained, especially after Monday’s meeting had clarified the position, was due to two main factors.

One was the level of support from outside LSE. Whereas a weariness and fatalistic attitude persisted among LSE students, in many other colleges the authorities’ actions, in bringing the police on campus, cut through much of the liberal ideology of the university and aroused large numbers of new students to support LSE. The Left in many places made major advances. Of course, in many colleges motions of support were defeated, or were carried only in order to defeat proposals for action. And where solidarity occupations or demonstrations did occur, they were often minority actions and all of a token character (only at the most advanced, Essex, did action last for more than 24 hours). But a considerable enthusiasm gripped the Left in most colleges, who came to support the London demonstration. These were the people who found themselves in the University of London Union (ULU) building on Monday night, after the first demonstration, (representatives of most left-wing groups in London were also there, including some who found it much easier to cash in on the LSE than to organise solidarity in their own college.) Many of them – and some of the Left in LSE – believed that LSE would have a far greater impact on the rest of the world than the evidence actually suggested. Thus this outside support combined with some elements in LSE to produce a second factor which was decisive at the time – an ideology of the ‘red base’.

This was the idea that ‘the university or college with a red strategic majority can function as a revolutionary political presence or foco, expressing the ideas of socialist revolution to which the working class must be won.’ This conceives of the student struggle as necessarily a revolutionary struggle, the function of which is to ‘set fire’ to the working class (as in France in May). So despite the fact that most LSE students did not see their struggle as at all revolutionary, and were not even prepared to demonstrate, never mind to storm LSE, and that there was no sign of an insurrection in the universities, or even of token support from more than a handful of workers, it was necessary to take some action which would spark off such national developments. To many it seemed that to occupy anywhere would do. Unwilling to attack LSE or even the University of London Senate House just down the road from ULU, where the LSE students were meeting, they decided to occupy ULU itself – which was the most convenient if strategically irrelevant target.

Of course, LSE students needed a base in which to meet and from which to circulate propaganda among themselves, to other colleges and to workers. The ULU authorities had offered minor obstruction to the LSE militants, but there was no definite prospect that ULU would be closed to us. In any case, even if convenient it was not essential. And LSE students could not be mobilised to defend its use – indeed only a few of them could be mobilised for anything at that point. There was little justification in the LSE struggle itself for seizing ULU – unless it was argued that this would spark off nationwide actions. And, this was in fact the basis on which the occupation was voted, by a meeting in which LSE students were a small minority. Outsiders, identified with Maoist and Posadist tendencies, proposed an occupation in order to establish a ‘revolutionary centre’ for the ‘working masses’. They were not challenged by an NLR spokesman from LSE whose ‘heroic’ speech decided the issue – he too saw the act as indicating a ‘rebirth of a revolutionary movement’. LSE students who spoke against it, and for maintaining direction of the struggle by LSE students, were shouted down.

It became clear the next day that LSE students who had not been present the previous night were even further alienated by this ‘revolutionisation’ of their struggle. It was a big mistake for the militants, because it gave the impression that the struggle was not for non-revolutionaries in LSE, but for ‘revolutionaries’ from all over London (who were themselves isolating themselves from any local base they may have had). It could not have the effect outside LSE which only a strong united stand of the LSE students themselves could have had. The LSE militants began to understand that this was what they had to work towards, and that the ULU occupation was actually a threat to this task. On Tuesday the occupation was ended by a virtually unanimous vote of LSE militants. Many of those who had supported it on Monday were however to disappear from the scene after this, and left-wingers in other colleges who did not understand what was done were disillusioned.

Later that week it became clear that the authorities were not prepared for an immediate reopening, unless it was clear that most students would capitulate to disciplinary measures. These were now being prepared: three lecturers were to be tried for their jobs, thirteen students were placed under injunctions restricting their political activities, and a porter sympathetic to students was suspended. The Director wrote to all students demanding guarantees of orderly conduct and acceptance of disciplinary proceedings if LSE was to be reopened. A special meeting of the LSE Union, called for February 3rd by the Union Council with the support of the right wing in the hope of crushing the militants, roundly refused the Director’s terms and adopted the militants’ demands instead. A committee was elected including ten students under injunctions, which was to act as coordinator for two and a half weeks until LSE was reopened. The militants’ strategy now was to keep the students together while waiting for the pressures to build up on the authorities to open the School – the point being that action was much more possible at that point, with the mass of students constantly around and less intimidated. By Thursday the same week the Academic Board, a powerless if quite influential assembly of the staff, voted for a reopening within eight days. The Director had indicated that the authorities’ intention was to keep the School closed until March 10th while disciplinary proceedings were taken, but next week the Governors announced a reopening on February 19th – a few days after the academics’ deadline.

The reopening of the LSE was accompanied by a firm threat to continue disciplinary action against staff and to launch it against ten students when legal proceedings are concluded. The Governors also threatened renewed closure if students took direct action. The students’ response was a militant march into the LSE, but at a meeting of more than 1,100 a proposal to occupy on the demand to end victimisation was defeated by about 7-4. Another meeting has also rejected this, albeit more narrowly, while verbally reaffirming opposition to victimisation. Students may act when expulsions actually take effect, as they did in 1967 in the cases of Adelstein and Bloom after refusing any action before the verdict was known. But it is difficult to see how this will be possible if the authorities wait until the vacation. This has raised again the question of minority action by the militants.

Although this is often raised as a question of moral duty, it is also argued for on the basis that only a minority will ever act. This of course is very much opposed to the concept of a ‘red base’ with a ‘red majority’, although paradoxically supported by many of those who put forward at least the former slogan. It is contradicted too by the experience of the first LSE sit-in, and of many actions in Britain, that it is possible for a majority to act, or at least for a minority to take action with the definite acquiescence of the majority. There seems to be little reason to wholly exclude this at a later stage of the LSE struggle. The organised right wing is growing, but it is only a small minority who will definitely refuse to act on the issue of victimisation at any point. What is true, however, is that the majority will only act (in the present, non-revolutionary, situation) on limited issues. Although influenced by revolutionary ideas, because the socialist students are in the lead on every major issue in the college, it is not a ‘red’ majority which is likely to won decisively to revolutionary politics. Those who are, are still a small minority; but in order to win these socialists must advance demands around which a mass student movement can emerge. It is in demonstrating the relevance of socialist ideas to meaningful demands within the universities, as well as by general political propaganda and agitation, that revolutionaries will win adherents.

The concept of a ‘red base’ is dangerous because it constantly obscures the nature of the student movement in a non-revolutionary situation, and the relationship of revolutionaries to it. When revolutionaries believe that mass support on Vietnam, or Rhodesia, or repression within the university means they have a firm ‘red base’ ready for any challenge, they are likely to minimise their tasks and resort to the kind of substitutionism seen in LSE. There is a strong danger of isolation and defeat. But in another sense, too, the LSE struggle has demonstrated the danger of the ‘red base’ conception for the revolutionary left. Such ideas derive largely from the May experience in France. On the basis of this it is argued that the proclamation of the ‘red university’ is likely to fire the workers and create a revolutionary situation. This idea was expressed both after LSE closed, and when there was a prospect that an occupation of LSE would coincide with the Fords strike. This hope is a constant temptation to the ‘revolutionary’ gesture. But even in France it was not by general gestures but by a determined fight for their own demands that the students provoked the strikes and occupations. And it is a mechanistic approach which learns nothing from France which expects even this course to be followed here. Revolutionary situations are products of more than just a clash between students and police. Such clashes have occurred on a large scale in many countries without resulting in a significant response from the workers. Revolutionary students must make a real attempt to build links with the workers. Their ‘example’ will not suffice.

One task rather neglected in the LSE lock-out was the attempt to gain trade union support. The LSE branch of ASTMS supported students’ demands, but took no action. Some propaganda work among workers was done by LSE students leafleting, mainly in Fleet Street among printworkers. This was done partly through contacts already made by IS. Much of the leafleting of workers about LSE was done, however, by local socialist groups, and its impact must have been affected by previous activities of these groups. And the only regular information and propaganda about LSE for workers was carried by papers like Socialist Worker. Similarly, support given by LSE students to Ford workers has been organised through contacts at Fords made by IS in months of regular work beforehand. In the LSE struggle the slogan ‘Students Workers, Unite and Fight’ has begun to receive some meaning through the support given to each other’s struggles. But it has depended on a more permanent unity of students and workers inside socialist organisations. The building of such organisations inside the working class is a much more important means of raising the level of working-class activity than the attempt to ‘spark’ working-class militancy from the ‘red base’. What is more, it offers the only possibility that a revolutionary situation will be resolved in a socialist direction. These questions of strategy and tactics, arising from the LSE struggle, will increasingly confront the revolutionary student movement.” (Martin Shaw)

A couple of days after the lockout started at LSE, students also occupied the University of London Union buildings (on January 27th):
‘University of London Union is now liberated territory occupied by  revolutionaries The buildings are yours to use as you want. It can be turned into a permanent base for agitation in the London area.The facilities can be used by anyone joining us. We are using the duplication facilities in the Union office on the ground floor, and they can be used by anyone wishes to circulate any kind of document. There is no control over free expression. This goes for the rest of the building ‑ so far only partly explored. The only thing which needs to be organised in common is defence and basic survival ‑ food and sleep. Inside the building, we are all responsible for resisting any bureaucratic organisation of activities: discussion, decoration, planning for agitation, music. Remember there is a swimming pool. If anyone tells you what to do, report them to the security committee. IT IS FORBIDDEN TO FORBID. EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED.
The Security Committee’

Amongst those who answering the radical call to occupy ULU, were some of those involved in the ‘pro-situationist’ King Mob group:
“When we took over the ULU building, Chris Gray and the Situationist mob decided that the only interesting part of the student union was the kitchen, which they took over immediately and rifled the fridge. He just thought it was fantastic that he could fry all these steaks simultaneously. I remember them all cooking and thinking this was brilliant. They could have started their own restaurant right there down in the basement of the student union building.”

“When King Mob was going at full blast, after the LSE sit~in there was a sit‑in at the University of London Union and we got involved in that. It lasted several days Everyone was sleeping on the floor and all that. The New Left crowd tried to run it. We gave Robin Blackburn a really bad time, howled him down, told him he was a wanker. They were very worried this, we might damage things ‑ don’t scratch the paintwork ‑ so a bunch of people went and bust open the swimming pool and had this huge swimming party. The whole thing was very fraught because you’d got this mass of students, the New Left people telling them to be serious and responsible, and King Mob telling them to get their rocks off, let it all hang out, etc. It was very iffy, because the great mass in the middle were swaying both ways. Only a minority supported us; the majority wanted to be quiet and respectable, but these two guys came out of the crowd and joined in with us and said, ‘We’re with you.’ They were a couple of art students from Goldsmith’s and one was called Fred Vermorel and the other was called Malcolm Edwards. They both had long, dirty khaki macs, a couple of impoverished an students. And of course Malcolm went on to finer things and became Malcolm McLaren…” (Dick Pountain, in ‘Days in the Life’)

According to some accounts, it was King Mob who had demolished the LSE gates in the first place:

“Before they could do anything the director, Pall) Dahrendorf had these security gates built so you couldn’t get into the library. They’d just been installed and the Trotskyists were talking about sitting down in front of the gates and standing in pickets and walking around saying ‘No gates’ and the anarchs listened to this meeting which was going on and on. Robin Blackburn of the International Millionaires Group: ‘We think, comrades, that what we should do is blah,bIah, blah… Then Duffy Power got up, pissed out of his mind, and shouted, ‘We’re the International Mine s a Pint Committee and this over here is my friend from the Black Hand Gang and we think we should fuck the gates and take them away and burn them.
‘And they got screwdrivers and they went up and stole the gates.” According to Fred Vermorel, Dave and Stewart Wise’ supplied the muscle (and 2 sledge‑hammers) to despatch the infamous ‘gates’…’ King Mob and The Black Hand Gang (Chris Gray and the Wise brothers) subsequently put out ‘Comrades Stop Buggering About’ LSE poster mag (KING MOB 49) including:’THIS IS YOUR BUILDING. GO WHERE YOU WANT. TELL YOUR SECURITY GUARD To FUCK OFF!’; ‘furtively taken down by the security guards… The LSE, like all other occupations so far, was a mere introjection of the bourgeois order. What do we want: all the shit of bourgeois society?’ (Dave Robins)

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London rebel history: Savoy Hotel air-raid shelter occupied by Eastenders, 1940.

In the early days of World War 2, after the German Luftwaffe’s attack on Britain’s air defences failed, the planes turned their attention to bombing of civilians.

During the early days of the Blitz the Government controlled media tried to show that life in London was carrying on as normal, and there was much coverage in the press of people going to parties, dining out and clubbing in the West End.

The reality was very different, especially for the largely working class population of the East End, which received especially heavy bombing throughout the Blitz. This was partly due to its proximity to the vital London docks, a major Luftwaffe target, but civilian areas were also deliberately attacked in an attempt to break their support for the war.

Stepney, West Ham, Poplar, as well as Deptford and Bermondsey on the south side of the river, were particularly hit. During August 1940 there was relatively light bombing, but on September 7th very heavy bombing began, and soon the East End was burning.

The government was accused of a lack of readiness when it came to building shelters to protect civilians in East London – contrasting with the more extensive preparation in wealthier areas of the capital.

Initially, the civilian population had attempted to take refugee in the government’s proscribed trench shelters but these had soon filled with water, the street level shelters had been destroyed and the famous back garden Anderson shelters, made of corrugated steel, offered only limited protection from bomb blast and splinters.

Anderson shelters were named after Sir John Anderson who stated in the House of Commons in 1938 “I do not think we are prepared to adapt our whole civilisation, so as to compel a large proportion of our people to live and maintain the productive capacity in a troglodyte existence deep underground”and on 12th June 1940 “I am devoutly thankful that we did not adopt a general policy of providing deep and strongly protected shelters”.

How Londoner’s paid for such stupidity, as Londoners were according to Ted Bramley “uprooted, blasted from their homes, scattered over the face of Britain”
The few deeper shelters which were situated mainly underneath large warehouses and privately owned and open to the public, once deserted werenow full to overflowing, poorly lit, wet, and unsanitary. People lined up from 12 in Stepney to enter the Tilbury shelter, originally planned for 1,600 now holding 10,000. Meanwhile, Godfrey Phillips shelter in the City, a shelter for 3,000 was locked every night at 5.30pm. Ted Bramley estimated another 200,000 safe shelter places were available in the City, but locked at night.

East Enders joked in the early days of the Blitz on how when caught out during a raid they had learnt to “hug the walls”.

Many other Londoners were forced to travel “trek” from East London to North London, West London or South London and even the Kent countryside (Chislehurst Caves in the side of the North Downs), or coaches taking people out into the countryside to sleep by the roadside at 2s 6d.

Eastenders invaded Liverpool Street Station on the 8th to take shelter there.

To highlight the plight of the people of the East End, the Stepney Communist Party decided to stage a stunt to highlight the drastically unequal conditions of air-raid shelters for rich and poor. The Party had previously organised an occupation by 200 people from the East End of the Mayfair Hotel shelter on the night of Thursday 12th September, but this seems not have secured much press coverage. The next target was a jewel of the West End, the ultra-posh Savoy Hotel, occupied on September 14th 1940.

Phil Piratin, then a Stepney Communist Party member (later MP), takes up the story:

“The shelters, which until the blitz were deserted, were now packed to overflowing, and now the conditions were revealed. The little trench shelters in the little Stepney parks were a foot deep in water. The benches were half-a-dozen inches above the water. It was quite impossible to use them, and certainly impossible to stay in them night after night. Now the street surface shelters were being put to the test. Many of them were destroyed.

The Communist party immediately began to organise Shelter Committees in the shelters in order to secure proper conditions and to provide for the feeding and amenities in the shelters. This idea caught on, and within a short while was being carried on throughout Stepney and indeed the whole of London. Later the authorities took over certain responsibilities such as refreshments. The Communist Party was the first to organise entertainments in the shelters. The Unity Theatre did excellent work in this connection; mobile groups went to different shelters to sing songs and to perform their lighter sketches. Later, other organisations began to organise entertainment.

The conditions in the shelters were frightful. Most notorious was the Tilbury shelter, which accommodated several thousand people in conditions which I find it impossible to describe. Many people were without shelter, and every evening there was a trek from Stepney to Central and West London to take shelter in on of the basement shelters of the large buildings there. The next morning thousands of bleary-eyed East Londoners were to be seen on the buses and trains coming back to East London from the West End.

The contrast between the shelter conditions for the rich and the poor called for exposure. This was done. When the blitz had continued for some days, we in Stepney took the initiative. One Saturday evening we gathered some seventy people, among them a large sprinkling of children, and we took them to the Savoy Hotel. We had heard from building workers of the well-constructed and luxurious shelter which had been built for their guests. We decided that what was good enough for the Savoy Hotel parasites was reasonably good enough for Stepney workers and their families. We had an idea the hotel management would not see eye to eye with this proposition, so we organised the ‘invasion’ without their consent.”

Within minutes and with the help of sympathetic waiters the group had invaded and occupied the Savoy Hotel shelter:

“In fact, there was some effort to stop us, but it was only a matter of seconds before we were downstairs, and the women and children cam streaming in afterwards. While the management and their lackeys were filled with consternation, the visitors from the East End looked round in amazement. ‘Shelters,’ they said, ‘why we’d love to live in such places!’ Structurally, the lower ground floor had been strengthened with steel girders and by other means. But the appearance of the place! There were three sections. In each section there were cubicles. Each section was decorated in a different colour, pink, blue and green. All the bedding, all the linen, was of course the same uniform colour. Armchairs and deck chairs were strewn around. There were several ‘nurses’ – you could easily recognise them. One happened to be standing around and she was wearing the usual nurse’s white outfit, with a big red cross on he bosom. We were not quite sure what she was supposed to be nursing…

…We had earlier appointed our marshals to take care of all our people. They immediately made contact with the waiters, and asked for water and other such provisions. The waiters were most helpful. We were expecting trouble; we knew that the management was not going to allow us to sit there, just so easily. After a few minutes the police came. A plain-clothes officer said to me, ‘What is it all about?’ I explained. He said: ‘We will have to get you out.’ I said ‘OK – I’m curious to see what you do with the women and children.’ (The blitz was on). I said: ’Some of these men have seen mass murder, God help you if you touch the women and children.’ He wasn’t very happy. They tried intimidation, such as calling for identity cards, but we sat there.”

During the confusion an air raid alert, (all to helpfully), was sounded, and the Savoy Hotel manager realising that that could not be seen to send the “invaders”out into danger was forced to allow them to remain until the “all clear” siren was sounded.

“The management was in a dilemma. They urged the police to throw us out. We were able to impress the management that any such attempt would meet with some opposition, and that some of his guests in the dining room were likely to be disturbed. The manager left. He agreed to ignore us; that was what we wanted. Then we settled down. The first thing the marshals did was to call for refreshments. Many of our people had sandwiches with them, and therefore we asked one of the waiters to provide tea and bread butter. The waiter explained that they never served tea and bread and butter, and in any case the minimum price for anything was 2 shillings 6 pence. We said to the waiter: ‘We will pay you 2 pence a cup of tea and 2 pence a portion of bread and butter, the usual price in a Lyons restaurant. Three of four of the waiters went into a huddle, with one in particular doing the talking. He was evidently convincing the others. How they convinced the chef and management. I do not know, but within a few minutes, along came the trollies and the silver trays laden with pots of tea and bread and butter. The waiters were having the time of their lives. They were obviously neglecting their duties, standing around, chuckling and playing with the children.

The next day this news was flashed across the world. The contrast was made in bold headlines between the terrible conditions of the shelters in Stepney and the luxury conditions of the shelters of West London.”

The next day the press was full of stories about the audacious occupation of the Savoy Hotel shelter and the terrible conditions of the shelters in Stepney. The Communist Party had succeeded in its objective. At St Pancras The Party organised a picket of Carreras, the tobacco factory, demanding its shelter – capable of holding 3,000- be opened to the public at night.

In Walthamstow Councillor Bob Smith went with some homeless “bombed out” families and occupied empty houses, and similar actions took place in Chiswick (Heathfield Court) and Kensington.

“As a result, the Home Office took special steps to improve conditions in the Tilbury shelter and others. But this militant action led to further developments. A demand had been made for the Tubes to be made available as shelters. The Home Secretary, Mr Herbert Morrison, said that this was impossible. The only valid reason he could give was that children might fall on to the line and be killed. This was not a very impressive argument, when you consider the hundreds who were being killed because they had no shelter. The police were given instructions to allow no-one to use the Tubes for shelter. Loiterers were moved on by the police. The Communist Party decided that the Tubes should be open for shelters. This was done.

Two or three days after the Savoy incident preparations were made to break open the gates of the Tubes which the police were closing immediately the air-raid siren was sounded. At a number of stations these actions were taken. Various implements such as crowbars happened to be available, and while the police stood on duty guarding the gates, they were very quickly swept aside by the crowds, the crowbars brought into action, and the people went down. That night tens of thousands sprawled on the tube platforms. The next day, Mr Herbert Morrison, solemn as an owl, rose to make his world-shattering announcement: the Government had reconsidered its opinion in the matter of the Tubes being sued as shelters. From now onwards, they would be so employed. They were expected to accommodate 250,000. Arrangements would be made for refreshment and first-aid facilities. Later. Bunks were being installed. ‘The Government had reconsidered the matter.’ They had indeed! They had been forced to by the resolute action of the people of London which they had been powerless to prevent.”

(Phil Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red).

Another account of the Savoy occupation gives a slightly different take on the numbers involved…

“There were forty of them. There were eighty. There were a hundred. They marched. They sauntered. They were angry. They were bewildered. They came with two dogs and they came with none. Theirs was a daring act that saved thousands of lives. Or it was a pretty piece of propaganda, gift-wrapped for the Führer. What happened beneath the Savoy Hotel on 14th September 1940, the eighth night of the Blitz, depended on the position of the observer: whether she or he was Red or anti-Red; East Ender or West Ender; dreaming of revolution or restoration. That Saturday night, when those forty or eighty or a hundred arrived at the doors of the hotel – with their dogs, or dogless – a small army of journalists was on the premises for a briefing by the Ministry of Information. Few, however, wrote about their uninvited fellow guests until the war was safely over. The government also maintained a public silence on the story, despite the urgent Cabinet discussion held the following Monday morning – a discussion with sinister undertones. But old comrades, years later, made that West End outing into a famous victory, a second Battle of Cable Street. It worked its way into plays and novels, into the mythology of the British Left. And though no horses charged and no batons swung, the Savoy Hotel invasion was the most serious political demonstration of the war – and dramatic evidence that conflict with Germany did not bring the class war to an end.

Max Levitas has spent most of his long life on the front line of that conflict. He was part of the famous human barricade that halted the Blackshirts’ progress through the East End in October 1936. He stood his ground at Brady Mansions during a twenty-one-week rent strike – brought to an end only by the government’s decision to freeze rents for the duration of the war. He was one of the dozen Communist councillors elected to the Borough of Stepney in 1945, during that giddy moment when the electorate could still see the avuncular side of Joe Stalin. He was there in 1991 when the Communist Party of Great Britain voted for dissolution and secured victory in the long war of attrition against itself. He was there, too, on that Blitz- struck Saturday night in 1940, shouldering the red banner of the Stepney Young Communist League as his group of demon- strators marched from the Embankment towards the silvered canopy of the Savoy. They marched for better air-raid shelters in the East End. They marched against the myth that the Luftwaffe had brought equality of suffering to Britain. And they received their marching orders from a series of urgent editorials in the Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker: ‘If you live in the Savoy Hotel you are called by telephone when the sirens sound and then tucked into bed by servants in a luxury bomb-proof shelter,’ the newspaper asserted.‘But if you live in Paradise Court you may find yourself without a refuge of any kind.’ And above these words, in thick bold print:‘The people must act.’

Max Levitas nods in agreement when I read the article back to him. ‘The surface shelters protected you from shrapnel, from flak, but not much else,’ he reflects. ‘If a bomb fell on one of those it would collapse and kill everybody in it. The Communist Party argued for deep shelters. But the National Government wouldn’t listen. They wouldn’t even open the Underground. It was easy to ignore that message if you were sitting in the basement of a very nice hotel. So we decided to march on one.’ I ask him why they chose the Savoy. Max Levitas smiles a tolerant smile. ‘It was the nearest.’

I meet Max Levitas at the Idea Store, that gleaming cultural institution planted in the East End to compensate locals for the assimilation of their much-loved public library into the Whitechapel Art Gallery. He is a small, cloth-capped nonagenarian, wrapped tightly in a raincoat and muffler. Standing on the studded purple rubber floor of the foyer, he looks like a preserved fragment of the old Stepney. It is a chilling morning in February, and he can spare me an hour before he goes for his Turkish bath – a weekly ritual since the 1920s, when his father took him to the long-vanished Schewik steam rooms on Brick Lane. We catch the lift to the top-floor café, secure two cups of tea and a table with a view of the bristling City skyline, and he tells the story of his association with the area: how his parents fled the Lithuanian pogroms in 1912 and made landfall in Dublin, where Max was born three years later; how his father took the family first to Glasgow, and finally to Stepney, where work could be found among a supportive community of Jewish exiles. History radicalised those members of the Levitas clan it did not destroy: Max’s Aunt Sara and her family were burned to death in the synagogue of the Lithuanian shtetl of Akmian; Max’s father became a leading member of the distinctly Semitic, distinctly Red-tinged International Tailors and Pressers’ Union; Max’s elder brother, Maurice, fought against Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War; Max gave his youth to the Communist Party of Great Britain and was name-checked by Oswald Mosley in a speech denouncing the enemies of British Fascism.

The organisers of the Savoy invasion shared a similar ideological background: they were all revolutionaries. ‘And they’re all dead,’Max sighs. ‘Some were clothing workers. Some were bootmakers. Some were dockers.’ It is an inventory of lost trades. The first names he sifts from his memory are two stevedores, Ted Jones and Jack Murphy, veterans of pre-war campaigns for unemployment relief. The rest comprise a knot of men from the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League, which organised rent strikes against slum landlords in the East End: George Rosen, its bullish secretary, known as ‘Tubby’; Solly Klotnick, a furrier and a veteran of the Battle of Cable Street; Solomon Frankel, a clothing worker who took a bullet in Spain that robbed him of the use of his right hand. Michael Shapiro, a wiry young academic from the London School of Economics. At the head of the group stood Phil Piratin, Communist councillor for Spitalfields, chief spokesperson of the invaders, and the author of the most widely read account of their night at the Savoy. His memoir Our Flag Stays Red (1948) puts seventy in the hotel lobby, among them a number of children and pregnant women. Max’s memories are different. ‘There were forty of us,’ he affirms. ‘I’m sure of that.’ I ask if there were any dogs. He shakes his head. ‘No dogs,’ he says. ‘It was the Savoy.’ ”

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Yesterday… and 2004… in Holloway Prison history: from Pauline Campbell, to Sisters Uncut

Some actions are just a stroke of genius. In a brilliant action, at 2:30 yesterday, Saturday 27th May, activists from the feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut occupied the former Holloway Prison building in protest at cuts to women’s services and proposals for the site to be used for luxury flats.

Around 100 women entered the visitors’ centre of the North London prison. They have called for a women’s centre and affordable housing to be built on the 10-acre site, which is currently earmarked for a potential £2 billion housing development. The activists, who entered the red-brick building through an open window, set off flares of coloured smoke on the roof and unfurled a white banner saying: “This is public land, our land.” 

Police surrounded the prison Saturday night and blocked people from getting food into the occupiers… Sister Uncut are organising a week long program of events in the occupied part of the old jail. Get down and support them!

The occupiers have erected a large blue and green sign reading: “This is a huge piece of public land and there are lots of powerful local campaigns and discussions in place to demand the land is used to benefit the community.” 

The group is critical of prison overcrowding and the nine multi-million pound “super-prisons” the conservative government plans to build. Its members intend to occupy the visitor’s centre for a week, in advance of the general election.

Aisha Streetson, a Sisters Uncut activist said: “We are reclaiming the former prison, a site of violence, to demand that public land is used for public good. Prisons are an inhumane response to social problems faced by vulnerable women – the government should provide a better answer.” “46 per cent of women in prison are domestic violence survivors.” A local domestic violence support worker, Lauren Massing said: “If the government have money for mega prisons, they have money for domestic violence support services. 46 per cent of women in prison are domestic violence survivors – if they had the support they needed, it’s likely they wouldn’t end up in prison.” 

Holloway prison, which once housed 600 inmates, was one of the largest women’s prisons in Western Europe until it closed suddenly last year. The inmates were moved to Bronzefield and Downsview prisons in Surrey and the site has remained empty. There has been a strong local campaign opposing the planned luxury housing development, and calling for social housing instead.

More on the occupation here

Email them: nlsistersuncut@gmail.com

Or Phone: 07947 115541

Today, the second day of the occupation, also marks a campaigning anniversary connected to Holloway Prison.

On 28th May 2004, Pauline Campbell, a former civil servant and college lecturer, was arrested outside the jail while protesting the inhuman treatment of women inmates.

She had been a vociferous critic of the prison system since the death of her 18-year-old daughter, Sarah, at Styal prison in 2003. Sarah, an only child, was the third of six women to die at the Cheshire jail in a 12-month period.

Pauline had pledged to picket every women’s prison in the UK immediately after the death of a prisoner there. She was repeatedly arrested trying to block prison gates to call attention to the terrible record of suicide and sudden deaths among female inmates. She was arrested for this on 15 occasions though the authorities nearly always backed down from charging her.

The arrest outside Holloway was her third in this sequence; she was lifted after attempting to prevent a prison van from bringing inmates to the north London jail.

The protest was her sixth in as many weeks, and followed the death of 28-year-old Heather Wait, who was the second woman to die in Holloway in the course of a few weeks.

Pauline’s aim in trying to stop vans entering jails where a woman had died was to “demonstrate that they were unsafe places which constantly failed to uphold the duty of care that the Prison Service has to all prisoners.”

She was painfully aware of the effect of a premature death on the children and parents left behind.

“One of the worst imaginable things that can happen to a child is for its mother to die. Two-thirds of women prisoners are mothers. When a woman prisoner dies, not only does it remind me of the loss of my daughter, but, if she was a mother, there is the added pain of knowing that the motherless children will suffer. I speak from experience: my mother died when I was three.”

Pauline’s daughter Sarah was a troubled teenager who had problems with addiction and a history of self-harm.

Despite her mental health problems, a catalogue of errors meant Sarah was put in a segregation unit at the prison. She took an overdose of prescription drugs in a bid to get transferred to the hospital wing.

Her cry for help was ignored – 40 minutes elapsed before an ambulance was called. Paramedics were further delayed at the prison gates.

By the time they reached her it was too late. She died, aged 18, after less than 24 hours in Styal prison. The police notified Pauline of this tragedy by phone. Sarah was the youngest of six women to die in Styal that year.

This statistic, along with the many other hidden facts about the scandalous treatment of vulnerable incarcerated women, triggered a breathtaking campaign that Pauline would lead to the end.

Along with her regular pickets, Pauline was “a prolific letter writer, hardly a week would go by without her eloquent words launching a stinging attack on the prison service in the local and national papers.

As a public speaker she was both articulate and informative, having educated herself about every aspect of the criminal justice system and its failings.

In 2005 she won the Emma Humphries memorial prize for “highlighting the distressing realities of women’s lives and deaths in prison”.

She was also a trustee of the Howard League for Penal Reform and an active member of the campaigning organisation Inquest.”

Tragically, Pauline Campbell was found dead on 15 May 2008, not far from the grave of her daughter Sarah.

She would have been glad to see Holloway closed down last year, but even happier to see the Sisters Uncut occupation this weekend: a wonderful continuation, if in a different form, of Pauline’s inspiring spirit…

Check out a blog dedicated to campaigning in her memory.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London education history: Lewisham bridge school occupied to prevent destruction & privatisation, 2009.

On the morning of April 23rd 2009, parents of children at Lewisham Bridge Primary School, in Elmira Street, Lewisham, Southeast London, occupied the roof of the school buildings. They were protesting against Lewisham Council’s decision to demolish the school and replace it with a new school run by a City of London guild. The school had been closed down – pupils had to arrive an hour early to be bussed to a temporary school in New Cross, which meant a ridiculously long day for the children. Safety concerns have been raised concerning this busing of coach-loads of children every morning, including the fact that buses had been involved in two accidents.

The Council’s plan after demolishing Lewisham Bridge was to hand the school over to the Leathersellers Company, one of London’s medieval City guilds, to run a new school for ages 3 through to 16. The planned new school was to be a “foundation” school, which could set its own admissions policy. Staff would be employed by the governors, not by the local authority. It would probably have become part of a “Trust” federation, sponsored by the Leathersellers’ Company that backs the Prendergast federation of schools (although the section of Leathersellers that runs the educational charity is separate institutionally). The council had already handed two schools over to the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Academy federation and wanted three more to become a trust backed by Goldsmiths College. They really had a thing for unaccountable medieval guilds running schools in Lewisham! Lewisham Bridge was really being knocked down as part of a plan to break up the already limited comprehensive education in Lewisham; although, while Leathersellers is certainly interested in influencing local education and promoting ‘meritocracy’ it doesn’t profit financially from its sponsorship.

Leathersellers did have a long involvement in Lewisham eduction: having provided the site for the original site for Prendergast School in 1890, and funded its move to another location in 1995. The school became known as Lewisham Prendergast School in 1927, Prendergast School in 1951, and Prendergast Hilly Fields College in 2008.  They then were given Crofton Park (Prendergast Ladywell Fields) – considered then to be a, ‘failing school’, and still is – before being offered the Lewisham Bridge site.

The proposed new school was to be squeezed into a site previously occupied by the primary school, and cramming a projected 835 pupils in (twice the number Lewisham Bridge had), so play areas and room sizes would fall below government recommendations. The new school was planned to only have one primary class per year, instead of the current school’s two. (which was itself down from a four class intake a few years before).

Frustratingly for the Lewisham administration, (led by New Labour ‘elected mayor’ Steve Bullock), the school buildings had been ‘listed’ by English Heritage, preventing it simply being knocked down. However, campaigners pointed out that the situation was in many ways entirely of Bullock’s making, coming as it did at the end of years of one bad decision leading to another where Lewisham’s schools were concerned.

One of the rooftop occupiers writes: “Lewisham council’s approach to pretty much all its duties and responsibilities including education was and still is, is summed up in the phrase ‘being enablers not providers’. They certainly put a lot of energy into the promotion of soft and hard federations at this time. Think of it in terms of more of the arms length management style crap they had done in housing… I think it’s important to situate it the context of Lewisham Council plans for the overall area. The demolishing of an local estate which was well regarded if not particularly pretty. It was in fact meeting most of the council criteria for what makes a good area, including mix tenure. The removal of the travellers from nearby and continually redevelopment of the nearby area into a mini Croydon of flats in and around the two railway lines.

The plans to demolish the school and replace it with a private institution came against a shortage of primary school places across London and a local shortage of secondary places in the north part of the Borough of Lewisham. The shortage of secondary places dates back to Labour’s decision to demolish the Telegraph Hill Boys School in the 90s, due to poor results, and replace it with the Crossways Academy 6th form centre; Telegraph Hill had itself been an attempt to rebrand and remake the ‘failing’ Hatcham Wood’s boys school by appointing a superhead. “But what made Lewisham Bridge the target was it own ‘poor preforming’ status which was largely day to an intake of large numbers of kids from deprived families, English as second language and the children from the the then existing traveller site. It was never going to do well in the fucking league tables. But had fantastic pastoral care.” Most of the other schools in the north of the borough operated some sort of selection, meaning that many local children could not get into them. After losing a council seat to a local education campaign, Bullock recognised that a new secondary school was needed. He then prevaricated about a site before settling on Ladywell Swimming Pool, which at the time was the borough’s only open full size swimming pool. A vigorous local campaign by pool users, combined with crucial losses for Labour in wards local to it, meant that Bullock relented on using the pool site. Lewisham Bridge was identified as an alternative because it was next to another development site, and, having a high proportion of parents whose first language isn’t English, was seen as a soft target that could be bulldozed through without much opposition – or not by anyone who mattered.

This turned out to be a miscalculation…

Firstly, although the idea had first been mooted in 2006, the council hadn’t got a any planning permission and with the buildings listed, the council’s appeal was always likely to take many months. And ever since the proposal was first announced parents had expressed their concerns and objections in the form of petitions, letters and lobbies. This campaign had exhausted most other avenues when the roof was occupied (though it was the long campaign to save the school that would lead to its being listed – see below)

On April 23rd three parents climbed on the roof of the school to protest about the way parents children and staff have been treated in the entire process to attempt to privatise our school which culminated in the decant to the Mornington Centre against the wishes of the majority of parents and the local community. Support for the protest grew quickly and by 9am that morning 4 more parents had joined us on the roof and a number of supporters stayed on the ground gathering signatures for our petition.

The occupiers demanded that the school be re-opened, and that it should remain a local community primary school open to all, not be handed over to a private unaccountable body. 

As the protest went on, more parents and local supporters joined the occupation and solidarity links were built with workers then occupying the Visteon plants in Belfast, Basildon and Enfield, the Vestas wind turbine factory occupation in the Isle Of Wight and the Tower Hamlets college campaign. Links were also forged with parents occupying four primary schools in Glasgow in April that were being closed; and parents at another school in Southeast London, Charlotte Turner primary school in nearby Deptford, also occupied.

The Lewisham Bridge protest was not confined to the school roof. Hands Off Lewisham Bridge organised a 300 strong march through Lewisham, lobbied the council and disrupted then PM Gordon Brown’s visit to Prendergast School, run by the Leathersellers, brandishing placards and shouting and leaping out in front of Brown’s motorcade.

The roof top occupied by the parents was transformed into a lively campsite with running water and kitchen area and used for meetings and even for a re-hearsal by local socialist choir, The Strawberry Thieves. The South London local of Solidarity Federation and Autonomy & Solidarity, the Goldsmiths student group, were heavily involved in the campaign, doing regular shifts and building infrastructure. On Monday 8th June the garden area behind the occupied buildings was seized, opened up as it was a lot less daunting than climbing a ladder. A compost toilet was built, flowers planted, a mural painted, and coffee, tea and cake shared, amongst other activities.

The occupation of the garden seems to have prompted the council to start eviction proceedings

But in June, 100 people gathered at the School on June 24th to resist a scheduled eviction attempt: “A youthful and lively contingent joined local parents on the roof whilst local supporters gathered outside the front of the school. The mood remained positive, despite a strong police presence including a helicopter earlier in the day. Bailiffs entered the school but made no attempt to gain access to the roof where the tents stayed up and the occupation continued. Police left at around 12:30 with most of the bailiffs leaving shortly after. The occupation continued.

In August the Department of Culture Media and Sport) secretary announced that the English Heritage Grade II listing awarded to Lewisham Bridge Primary School remained in place, which as greeted by some campaigners as a sign of victory. After the plans to demolish were put on hold, the occupation was ended, after five months.

But in the end, while it put a spoke in the Council’s plans, the protection for the listed building didn’t prevent Leathersellers taking over and creating pretty much the school it had envisioned. The following year, a Lewisham Council planning board approved revised plans to replace Lewisham Bridge School. The Leathersellers-sponsored Prendergast Vale School opened on the site of Lewisham Bridge, in 2011, after pupils spent some time in temporary buildings on two other sites. The listing in the end didn’t prevent the building of the new premises (as with other listed buildings redeveloped, some large leeway can be taken to fit in with new buildings…)

More recently, in 2015, the three schools run by the Leathersellers Federation in Lewisham, including Prendergast Vale, undertook a ‘consultation’ on whether to apply for academy status, a further step into private control. Pupils and teachers at several of the schools demonstrated against the plan… Prendergast Vale saw students refusing to work in class and demanding to talk about the threat of academisation. Also playground demonstration and corridor sit ins…Teachers went on strike a couple of times in 2015 to protest against the idea. A staff governor at one of the other ‘Prendergast’ three schools did manage to veto the entire move, under a technical loophole, and the ‘Academy orders’ were rescinded in June 2015; inspiring the many similar struggles against academisation from parents, kids and teachers around the country.

Doubtless further attempts will be made by a government ideologically bent on splitting up education and turning it into a profit-making concern as much as they can get away with…

Check out the campaigns opposing academisation of the Lewisham schools:

https://www.facebook.com/SavePrendergast/

https://www.facebook.com/StopAcademiesinLewisham

Watch a video interview with some of the Lewisham Bridge roof top activists:

 

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London radical history: Visteon workers occupy their factory, Enfield, 2009.

A Post-Fordist struggle

Report & reflections on the UK Ford-Visteon dispute 2009

NB: This is a long post. No apologies. It was written by a supporter of the Visteon occupation shortly after it ended, (a longer version of an article originally written on request for the Wildcat group in Germany) and published online (on libcom) as well as put out as a free pamphlet by past tense. It’s worth re-posting in its entirety. 

In June 2000 Ford Motor Company outsourced the production of certain component parts to a new company called Visteon – in reality a spin off company of Ford and in which Ford retained a 60% holding. Visteon runs factories all over the globe: in America, Europe and Asia, for example. In England a deal between the Ford company and the union promised all former Ford workers – now employees of Visteon – that they would keep the same wage and pension conditions they’d had with Ford (ie, mirrored conditions). But all newly hired Visteon workers were employed under inferior contracts.

On 31st of March 2009 Ford/Visteon announced the closure of three factories in the UK and the sacking of 610 workers(1). The company was declared insolvent and put into receivership. The receivers visited all three plants; with no prior warning workers were sacked with only a few minutes notice and told only that the company had gone bust. No guarantees were given concerning redundancy or pensions payments. The management had made the workers work up to the last minute, knowing that they would not even receive any wages for their final shifts.

On the 31st workers in Belfast responded to the closure announcement by occupying their factory spontaneously. After a clash with security guards, workers secured the building and within two hours several hundred local supporters had visited the occupation. Two KPMG administrators were on the premises at the time of the occupation and refused to leave. So the workers locked them in a portakabin – where they apparently stayed for 36 hours with no food, before finally agreeing to leave! Such pointless dedication to their job… Some managers’ cars also remained locked in the occupation.

Having heard the news about Belfast, the Basildon (Essex), and Enfield (north London) Visteon plants also occupied the next day. The Basildon plant contained no stock or machinery of much value to the company; so the workers trashed the site offices. A group of riot cops appeared and the workers were ‘pursuaded’ to end their occupation, presumably under the threat of ‘leave or you’ll be nicked for criminal damage’. They then began 24hr picketing of the plant.

At Enfield the workers were called to a meeting and within six minutes had been made redundant. They were told they could return the next day to collect belongings from lockers. But the next day (April Fools Day) the security guards refused them entry; no doubt on instructions of the company now alerted to the Belfast occupation. After 40 mins waiting – and inspired by Belfast – they decided to also occupy. Knowing where there was an unlocked gate, they returned to the factory and managed to secure part of it for themselves; about 100 workers occupied the paint-shop and the roof.

The character of the dispute at the three plants was determined by local conditions; at Belfast many workers lived close to the plant and had strong links with the immediate local community, having shown solidarity to many local causes over the years. So they were provided with plenty of practical support; within hours local people and shops were providing food and other resources for the occupiers. Unlike the other plants, Belfast was also demanding that the plant be reopened and their jobs saved (though maybe few saw this as a very likely outcome).

West Belfast MP Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein backed the Belfast occupation from the beginning. As one Belfast supporter explained;
“The workforce in Visteon/Ford Belfast was 50-50 Catholic and Protestant so this was not an issue in terms of workplace make-up. However, the plant is in a part of west Belfast that is almost 100% Catholic and while the plant has huge support from both sides of the community, west Belfast is particularly politicised and republican – so Gerry Adams, neccessarily being a populist, jumped behind the campaign. If the plant was in east Belfast, which is mostly Protestant, I very much doubt he’d give a fuck.”

Despite Sinn Fein’s behaviour – typical of a party committed to managing the capitalist economy – of courting bosses to encourage capital investment in the region, Adams could hardly ignore such an issue at the heart of his voter constituency.

At Basildon and Enfield workers travelled from a wide area in and close to London to work there. At Enfield many of the generally middle-aged workers – a lot of them women – had worked for Ford/Visteon for 20-30 years, and had seen the factory shrink from 2,000 to 227 workers, after spark plug and electronic production was relocated to other factories – some of them as far away as Turkey or South Africa. The workers had a diverse composition; about half of them born in India, Sri Lanka, Italy, the Carribean and so on.

[Note; the rest of this account concentrates mainly on the Enfield plant, as this is where we were involved as supporters.]

Workers at all plants were members of the Unite union. From the start at Enfield, Unite’s only contact point and involvement was via the factory’s convenors(2). Some union bosses came down briefly to pledge support, but actually delivered nothing, apart from poor legal advice. The occupiers were left to sustain themselves – despite workers paying years of union subs, no money was given (after 3 weeks or so, it is rumoured that the union finally provided a little finance). The union gave no mention on its website of the dispute, nor encouraged their members to give active support. So all the resources needed to sustain the occupation and picketing were provided by workers and supporters.

At Enfield, local support was very weak – though close to a working class residential area, the plant was separated across a main road on an industrial estate and the workplace, as commuters, did not have the same immediate local links as Belfast. So despite thousands of leaflets being distributed to locals, it brought very little response or involvement. This is a sign of the times and a symptom of 25 years of defeats in class struggles; people are now far less likely to recognise themselves and their own common interests in the struggles of others – solidarity has become an alien concept for many in an increasingly atomised reality. The working class has become largely a fragmented, individualised class in itself rather than a class acting for itself with any great unity. Part of the optimism over recent UK workers’ struggles is that they may be the early signs of overcoming this long and weary fragmentation that has so changed the atmosphere in the UK since the defeat of the 1984-85 Miners Strike.

For most workers it was the first time in their life that they had to deal with complicated legal matters. At the beginning they relied on legal experts provided by the union – who turned out to be quite useless; it was activists with squatting experience who informed the occupiers that squatting was not illegal but merely unlawful (an important legal distinction defining severity of potential consequences).

The Basildon workers found documentary evidence suggesting that the closures had been planned for years, that the spin off of Visteon from Ford may been have part of a long term plan as the most convenient and cost-effective way of closing unprofitable parts of the business. Further evidence of long-term planning was shown by the fact that the management had protected their pensions by secretly moving them to another fund. Evidence was also found that one of the bosses had intentions to reopen the plant with cheaper labour later; so they paid a visit to this boss’s country mansion. Unfortunately he was not at home and Visteon had already provided his house with security guard protection. The workers delivered a letter expressing their demands. (Video here: http://libcom.org/news/video-visteon-factory-occupation-workers-go-bosss-house-08042009)

Protest or class struggle?

The occupation coincided with the G20 protests in London’s City financial centre, where around 10,000 activists gathered to express their anti-capitalism to the gathered world leaders. The City protests were leafletted to inform protestors of the Enfield occupation, but to little reponse. As was later commented on an internet forum:
“It was a real contrast to see how much energy and resources went into the organising of the G20 protests compared to how much support the Visteon occupation was given. This is partly an indication of the difference in priority, for some, given to activist protest on the one hand and class struggle on the other – and partly that many useful G20 resources [which could have been used at the occupation and, later, picket] had already returned to their sources outside London. […] The occupation’s been going for about 10 days now, and I doubt there’s ever been much more than 300 people outside the factory, including workers, family and friends, and SWP. In comparison with the thousands at G20, not all of whom, it’s true, live in London; but many of whom are not ‘class warriors’ either and reject such an outlook.”

Activists sometimes complain that unions, the state etc try to isolate struggles – but some people’s political ideology does the job without any outside help.

In occupation

The occupation organised itself in an informal way – familiar workmates now found themselves together – but with their use and relation to the workplace transformed. Tasks were organised and carried out as needed and according to abilities.

Out of a total workforce of 227, the occupation was maintained by a hardcore of 70-80 ex-workers, plus a handful of supporters. One occupier, a libertarian socialist pensioner involved from the start of the occupation, described conditions;
“70 or so people sleeping in a paint shop , on work benches or the floor, or in chairs, is clearly a difficult position, Some were even without sleeping bags. People kipped down anywhere , though many of the women used a cubby hole that was both warmer and darker than outside,. The lights were always on, as some people were awake to ensure the barricaded entrances were safe. I slept on a work bench. Many people went home for washes or showers , and a soft mattress. Others stayed put, making do with baby-wipes for the time being.” […]
“Food. At first we were overwhelmed with food, specially bread and milk. S and D who ran the “canteen “area, kept everything in its place. The toaster and two microwaves were in frequent use. The area was very crowded especially in the evening when those on the roof came down.” […]
“The food was soon systematically organised.” […] “S P , chair of the Shop Stewards Committee, who had been in a family catering concern, would start early at home and cook up breakfasts for the 70 or so people who were here on average. This was home cooked food and high quality too.
The same was even more true of the evening meal . T. would go home and cook up two or three delicious chefs bowls of curry, rice , pasta or what ever. This was really high quality. Selected contents, without the strong tasting ingredients of restaurants, was eagerly eaten and many had second helpings as well. It was excellent compensation for the hardship.” 
(Ford Visteon Workers Occupation – an eyewitness account and first thoughts; Alan Woodward, CopyLeft, Gorter Press, c/o PO Box 45155, London N15 4SL.)

As the occupation continued, a support network emerged; a rally was called on the 4th day of occupation, a Saturday. Afterwards a meeting was called among the broadly anarchist and libertarian activists. A Support Group was set up, largely (but not exclusively) based around the existing Haringey Solidarity Group, a libertarian community activist grouping. For the rest of the occupation and subsequent 24hr pickets, it was this hardcore of around 15-20 people who provided most of the support to the ex-workers. This was important; the workers have stated that it was the surprising support they received that sustained them in their struggle. Leafletting, fundraising, publicity and picketing was all done as co-operative efforts between ex-workers and and supporters. This was not a workplace with a militant history (though a few older workers remembered a nine week strike in the late 70s), and few had any experience of political activity. So, after the spontaneous decision to occupy, the solidarity that appeared – limited though it has been compared to earlier periods of class struggle – came as a welcome surprise.

The left groups appeared for various events and photo- and paper-selling opportunities(3) but – with one or two individual exceptions – provided very little active contribution to the struggle. In fact, their patronising attitude during the occupation resulted in SWP (Trotskyist – the UK’s main left party) individuals being asked to leave.

After 9 days the occupation was ended on April 9th.

As we said at the time;

“The occupation was an inspiration for many – the spirit of the workers who refused to submit to being blatantly robbed by their bosses seemed to be what many had been waiting for, for far too long – the early possible signs of a resurgence of class struggle. Now that the occupation is ended without any clear victory in sight, some reflection is needed on the strengths and weaknesses of what has happened. It is always easy to be wise after the event, and necessary to be careful not to forget who initiated this struggle and took the risks. Any criticisms are as much of ourselves as supporters as of the occupiers. Still, we’ll never get very far in developing our struggles if we don’t reflect on where we went wrong and how we all might do things better next time.

The union pursuaded the workers to end the occupation today (Thursday Apr 9th) without any details of the rumoured deal being made known to them. They are told all will be revealed on Tuesday. The obvious question is – why then not wait until Tuesday to decide whether to leave the factory? There will be different answers from different interested parties. Some workers may say they are tired from constant occupation and/or that they have been pursuaded/pressured by the union that the bosses have insisted the occupation must end to guarantee the unspecified possible deal. The union may also claim that there could be legal penalties for failing to comply with the undertaking given in court on Monday to leave the factory by noon today. But none of this appears very convincing or in the workers’ interest; they have surrendered their greatest bargaining asset, the possession of the plant, its machinery and stock. So the negotiations restart on Tuesday from a weakened position for the workers. The picketing that is planned to replace the occupation will be less effective in preventing repossession of Visteon property. And legal threats can probably be applied to enforce restrictions on picketing activity too.

The rough conditions in the factory shouldn’t be underestimated, but another few days might have made all the difference to the outcome that may determine the workers’ long-term financial future. (The Ford pension fund is already 100s of millions in the red.) It had already been suggested that a rota system could’ve been set up, with help from supporters, to ease the strain of manning the occupation.

The union may claim that the undertaking they gave in court on Monday – that the occupation would end by noon today – left them open to legal penalties; but even the judge queried if they could guarantee the obedience of the occupiers. One would think that all the union would’ve needed to do to protect themselves is to say that they had made an effort to pursuade the occupiers to leave. The occupiers themselves could have stayed with no legal sanctions hanging over them other than a standard possession order common in squatting cases. The agreed undertaking with Visteon was that they would not seek possession while negotiations continue. Visteon – and the union – made that conveniently obsolete by agreeing to postpone revealing any details of the deal until Tuesday (if there even is any deal). One can speculate that if a really satisfactory deal was on offer the union would already be shouting it from the rooftops.

The union and the left have already begun to claim this struggle as a victory on the grounds that it forced the company to the negotiating table and that it has inspired other workers. These are partial truths, though any real assessment would have to be made after any deal is sealed. But the fact that the workers have been maneuouvred by the union into a vulnerable position where they could easily be screwed is something not to be glossed over, as the left will want to. This false optimism is only a means of repressing reflection on limits and strengths of what has happened, and a recipe for a repeat of the same errors in the future.

In the final meeting of occupiers no real opposition was expressed to the union’s direction to walk out. This despite some occupiers in earlier conversation expressing a desire to carry on until a decent deal is struck. The same union convenors, who in the beginning had said they and the other occupiers would never leave until a satisfactory deal was agreed, were now obliged to convince the workers they must leave with nothing guaranteed, only rumours of a possible mysterious deal to come. Some in the meeting voiced serious criticisms of the union for keeping them in the dark about developments and not giving enough support to the occupation, but most were by now either relieved or resigned to walking out. The union’s authority to ultimately decide the fate of the workers was not challenged. Early on in the occupation, when it was mentioned that the union might pressure an end to the occupation against workers’ wishes, a couple of workers replied “ah, but we are the union”, as if the workers’ collective voice could control the union structure. But once negotiations were organised by officials – on the other side of the world – and the whole process becomes remote and secret from the workers in the hands of specialists, they become dependent not on what they know, but on what they’re told. And we know from long experience that the union hierarchy has its own vested interests to protect that often don’t coincide with that of the workers.
[…]
But it is often awkward to stick one’s neck out; given the general identification with the union, many supporters felt sensitive about being openly critical of the union and its underlying agenda, for fear of being seen to be divisive. But at the end of the day it’s no good repressing these criticisms – or glossing them over for the sake of some image of unity – when only the explicit recognition of these realities may prevent defeat.”
 (http://libcom.org/news/enfield-ford-visteon-occupation-ends-no-conclusion-10042009)

The original court case brought by Visteon against the occupation on April 6th included the threat of legal sanctions (supposedly imprisonable offences) against two of the union convenors. The exact potential charges the union claimed were being threatened have never been explained; all that has been explicitly referred to are the possibility of costs being awarded against the convenors (which the union could have easily covered). Though UK injunction laws are draconian, this is another example of the union failing to inform the ex-workers of the full facts – which, deliberately or not, made it easier for the union to pressure workers to comply with the union’s wishes.

From a video of the final occupation meeting, showing the union explaining why it must end, (video here; http://libcom.org/news/video-visteon-workers-eviction-enfield-14042009) it’s apparent that scare tactics, deliberately vague information and dubious advice were used. The legal arguments and assessment of risks were extremely dubious, on several grounds. If the occupiers had refused to leave and the case had gone back to court it could have been argued in Unite and the occupiers’ defence that the undertaking was originally to give time for negotiations to occur. But as the company did not announce any offer at the previously agreed deadline of Thurs 12 noon – the occupiers were then freed from keeping their side of the bargain to vacate the premises. But union bureaucrats don’t like things like occupations – they get insecure when they see workers taking initiative for themselves.

Only shortly before the Visteon occupation, other workers had broken the law with no prosecution occurring. Prison officers are legally banned from industrial action but had taken action recently. The prison officers’ union leader justified their action with, for a screw, quite ironic words; “The right to strike is the only defence of our freedom. If this means breaking the law, we are prepared for this”.

The same week as the occupation the NUT and NAHT teachers’ unions were preparing to boycott the SATS test for children aged 11 from next year. They planned to get votes at their Conferences. This was clearly illegal, as government Ministers proclaimed on television . This would arguably be a “conspiracy” to breach the law – a criminal offence punishable by prison. The recent Lindsey oil refinery wildcat strikes also escaped any legal sanction. Similarly, the Belfast Ford-Visteon ocupation suffered no legal penalties.

The evidence suggests that the government wanted the Ford Visteon dispute dealt with sensitively. As one of the first major disputes of the credit crisis, with redundancy and pensions the issues, its handling – and possibly workers’ responses – would be a template for future company bankruptcies. A heavy-handed violent eviction of workers who had been blatantly robbed by their employers after a lifetime of employment would be likely to inflame the situation by informing the millions of soon-to-be-unemployed of what they might also expect. As other companies fail, the government is worried that things might escalate.

Meanwhile, Belfast remained in occupation and the company – realising the greater local support there and history of militancy – had not yet applied to the courts for possession proceedings. When the court possession papers did arrive at Belfast, the occupiers ceremoniously burned them and remained in occupation. A supporter described the situation there:
“Since 2000 the negotiation has been an ongoing process. The ‘520’ agreement said that workers at one of Ford’s ‘Visteon’ plants had the right to work in another Ford plant as Ford employees. At one point when a ‘Visteon’ plant in England was shedding jobs many of the employees flowed to a nearby Ford plant and replaced outsourced workers with temporary contracts. The workers at Visteon plants in England have nearby Ford plants in which they are potentially eligible for work, for example the Ford plant in Bridgend was 11 miles from the Swansea Visteon plant [both plants in Wales]. However in Belfast, there is no such nearby plant. The 520 agreement only applies if the workers go to a Ford plant, so obviously the Belfast workers in Finaghy feel this plant closure is ripping the heart out of their community (the majority of whom are from greater Belfast area and a significant minority of which are directly from the immediate Finaghy/West Belfast area.

This is perhaps why the focus of the campaign is not on redundancy pay (as has been reported in the news) but rather the focus is on keeping the factory open. “I don’t want a redundancy package,” one worker told me. It was Belfast workers refusal to leave that inspired similar direct action resistance at the two other closing Visteon plants in Basildon and Enfield (England). On Wednesday a supporters’ march with a couple hundred people started at a local shopping centre and walked out to the occupied plant. The Northern Ireland Parades Commission normally requires 28 days notice before any kind of march can happen (because sectarian marches have resulted in violence). However the police were down to the plant the day before to fast track the permission process so that the March could go forward legally. Support for the Belfast workers occupation has so far been very strong from all quarters.”

With the end of the Enfield occupation, to retain any leverage in negotiations it became essential to prevent stock and machinery being removed from the plant. (Of the three plants, Enfield held the most valuable company property – including expensive plastic moulding machinery.) 24hr picketing of the plant’s five gates began. Still the union failed to provide any resources; braziers, portaloos, tents and a caravan being provided by ex-workers and supporters. The ex-workers were by now very disillusioned by the union – but at the same time the union’s lack of support meant they began to learn some skills of collective self-organisation.

Unite – a force for isolation 

In the car industry the economic crisis means most workers are now on reduced hours. As a relatively well paid manual job, most car workers have mortgages and other debt commitments, so the increased economic insecurity in the present crisis meant workers were unwilling to risk their income for on-the-job solidarity action with the ex-Ford-Visteon workers. But most of the finances were coming from local union branches (not just car workers) sending donations via the support group; though the union finally, after 3 weeks, coughed up some cash. Unite also failed to mention the dispute on their website or send out information to local union branches – showing their real attitude to the dispute and concern to keep it isolated. As the dispute went on, ex-workers’ disillusionment with the union increased to a permanent cynicism – unsurprisingly, given their lack of support and Unite’s failure to keep ex-workers informed. Many felt their convenors were too close to, or influenced by, the union bosses and that this affected their ability to act in the best interests of all. But, without having space here to say much, we must note that any criticism of the union must recognise that it is not simply – as some supporters and workers have implied – that the union is ‘not doing its job properly’, but that it is doing its job all too well as a capitalist institution. As always, it has prioritised its own organisational interests and tried to limit workers’ gains to what can be accommodated to those interests and to the wider interests of the economy.

Union bureaucrats helping Nu Labour manage capitalism in crisis 

The close political and financial relationship between UK unions and the Labour Party continues (often rewarded by a seat and title in the House of Lords for retired union bosses). Disputes like this make clear that unions are one of the mechanisms by which the financial crisis will be managed for capital. The 55% stake taken by America’s UAW union in Chrysler is another example – the deal includes a no-strike agreement until 2015!

The first round

Meanwhile, convenors from the three plants were flown out to the US, alongside Unite bosses, to negotiate with Visteon bosses. Ford bosses refused to participate – they still denied any obligation to their former workers. Therefore a satisfactory deal was always unlikely to be won from these negotiations. According to one report, the convenors were not present in the meetings, but were left in the bar while the bosses on both sides decided the fate of ‘their’ workers.

After this first round of negotiations an offer was made by the administrators – but this was simply 90 day’s wages, which was the minimum statutory obligation anyway! In response to this insult the Enfield pickets now reinforced the barricades around the factory exits. The 24hr picketing was, unsurprisingly, proving far more difficult to sustain than an occupation. But rotas were organised and, between ex-workers and supporters, a presence was kept on the 5 gates. Ford dealerships around the country were also being regularly picketted and leafletted. One account;
“On a Saturday afternoon, 3 of us went to leaflet a Ford dealership in Waltham Cross. There wasn’t a lot of pedestrian traffic – but the dealership was on a corner of a crossroads with traffic lights. So we started leafletting cars as they stopped, waiting for the lights to change – getting out on the road among the cars, giving leaflets thru windows. Then Ian (ex-worker), his partner and daughter joined us – Ian in white boiler suit with “toot for the workers” painted on his back, and they brought placards, whistles and plenty of energy and noise. So we got a good number of cars honking support and taking leaflets, plus some pedestrians. And talking to one not very sympathetic worker who came out of the dealership – who questioned the point of us being there and complained “we’re not Ford, we’re just a dealership who sell their cars”! – she confirmed that, though management don’t work weekends, they would have been informed by e-mail of our presence.”

A New Deal

While the 70-80 active Enfield ex-workers had been maintaining occupation and then picketing the other nearly 200 ex-workers had been passively waiting at home (or seeking other work). When a new improved deal was then announced, many of these passive 200 suddenly reappeared to find out what was on offer, causing understandable resentment. The improved offer was in response to a threat from the sacked Visteon workers to begin picketting the profitable Ford low emission engine plant at Bridgend – the one Ford UK plant still running at full capacity and an essential part of their supply chain. This apparently followed a meeting of Ford Unite convenors in London, where it had been arranged to send delegations of ten ex-workers each from the three plants.

Ford found this more threatening than the previous solitary visits to Ford plants to ask Ford workers to black Visteon products – they didn’t like the idea of ex-Visteon people actually trying to picket out Ford workers. This brought Ford to the negotiating table; they brought the Chairman and CEO of Ford Europe to negotiate with the Joint General Secretary of Unite – Unite then told the ex-workers to call off the Bridgend picket.

There may have also been pressure from the UK government on Ford to offer an improved deal; if Ford-Visteon were to set a precedent for companies of avoiding all financial obligations in such workplace closures this would massively increase the amount the state would have to pay out in benefits in future to sacked workers. (Whereas if workers receive redundancy payouts they cannot claim benefits until that money has been spent – the state specifies how long one can ‘reasonably’ be expected to live on specific sums. So one cannot just blow the redundancy on a flash car and holidays in the sun, then stroll into the dole office expecting money. Unfortunately…) As other global motor giants crash, Ford may also have taken into account their position as, at present, the comparatively healthy survivor of the car industry. If they are to maintain this dominant position, they may feel the need to maintain a minimum reputation as an employer who pays up in the eyes of present and future employees.

While the new offer was being considered, some supporters organised a Mayday picket of KPMG, the accountancy firm administrating the receivership procedure of Visteon. They would decide how much all the creditors, including the ex-workers, would get from remaining assets. The weather was kind, and a sunny day found us outside their offices with around 60 people; a small mobile sound system also turned up with music and some Ford-Visteon ex-workers used its microphone to express their disgust at their treatment. A leaflet was distributed;
KPMG: Those who helped make the crisis now profit from it 
KMPG are one of the biggest accountancy companies in the world, offering ‘creative auditing’, profit laundering and tax avoidance advice to big business (http://visar.csustan.edu/aaba/Davosspeech.pdf) They are currently facing a $1billion lawsuit for malpractices in the US subprime market that contributed to the present economic crisis. Now they are acting as ‘administrators’ for Ford-Visteon motor company – helping to rob sacked employees of their redundancy pay and pensions. This is why we are picketing KPMG today.” […]
Putting people into misery: KPMG are protecting the motor giants’ profits by witholding what is owed to the workers, threatening their homes and futures -Some workers now face repossession orders and many others could lose their homes too, if Ford, Visteon and KPMG get away with their dirty tricks.” […]
KPMG’s job is to protect the profits of capitalists at the expense of those who create the wealth- all through the dispute, they have rejected the workers’ claims and demands, using the same excuses as the Ford-Visteon bosses that “The company is insolvent. Ford and Visteon UK are completely separate companies”. KPMG have used threats of injunctions and sought possession orders in court against the workers’ factory occupations.
Support the workers! But the sacked Ford-Visteon workers are bravely standing up to Ford, Visteon and KPMG- not just for themselves, but for all of us affected by the recession. The attempted theft of their redundancy pay and pensions is how many bosses are sacking and robbing workers-with suitable advice from the likes of KPMG, of course. So the Ford-Visteon workers fight is the fight of all vulnerable workers – support them!”

The vote on the offer

Prior to voting, Enfield workers had the details of the deal read out to them by convenors, and some saw a handwritten version of its points. In their haste to get the vote passed and get this regrettable outbreak of industrial unrest concluded so they could go back the smooth and tidy bureaucratic functions of trade unionism, it was too much to expect the union to type and print out a copy for each worker to study and so vote on their long-term financial futures in the most informed way. The vote on the deal was deliberately arranged by the union so that Enfield and Basildon voted on it on the Friday, May 1st; then Belfast, still in occupation and with a more militant reputation, would vote on the Sunday. So, inevitably, the acceptance of the deal at Enfield and Basildon was designed to encourage acceptance at the Belfast vote. All plants did vote acceptance; the Enfield vote was 178 to 5 and Basildon was 159 to 0. Belfast voted 147 to 34.

Soon after the euphoria of the securing of an improved deal and the acceptance vote, workers began to wonder what exactly they had voted for. The normal shift patterns workers had been on for years had changed in the last months leading up to the plant closure – when workers were working shorter weeks – and these shift patterns were used as part of the calculation of payments. So no one was clear how it would all add up for them. Since then, workers seemed to have gained a clearer idea and, rightly see it as a partial victory – and worth the struggle. They have won as much as 10 times the original offer. But one small group of ex-workers – ‘CCRs’ employed after Visteon took over(4) – had inferior non-Ford contracts and so were given smaller payments. Some workers – both CCRs and ex-Ford – saw this as unnecessarily divisive and blamed both Ford-Visteon and union bosses for this; but, still, there was some resentment between workers about the disparity and at the failure by the rest of the workers to stick it out for a uniform deal (though at Belfast it was rumoured that other workers would each donate £300 to compensate for the shortfall in CCR payments). It’s unfortunate that some are leaving the dispute with such feelings. Part of the reason for this is probably;
1) through the dispute workers didn’t hold enough regular general meetings so they could insist on being fully informed of what was developing and could discuss it between themselves as a whole group. So, eg, at Enfield cliques around certain gates formed (people tending to always be picketting on the same gates), without enough contact/debate between all workers.
2) Prior to the vote, the union didn’t give people a printed document of settlement terms and time enough to consider the deal, discuss and seek advice on it and what it meant for each individual and for different groups of ex-workers. This rushing through of acceptance was clearly deliberate by the union, as was the arrangement whereby Belfast voted after Enfield & Basildon.

Remaining outstanding issues are; the ex-workers’ pensions – this will be decided by a (possibly 2 year-long) court case, unfortunately conducted on workers’ behalf by the union’s so-far incompetent (but no-doubt expensive) lawyers. If little comes of this, ex-workers have been led to expect to receive 60-90% compensation of their pension from a government scheme. But, whereas the pension would be paid from age 58, government compensation begins only at 65. (A more recent calculation has suggested that workers may only get 45% of their original pension under this scheme. As usual, the union has been slow in informing itself and its members of the accurate facts of the pensions issue.)

Rob Williams, a militant union convenor at another spun-off plant, Linamar (formerly Visteon) in Swansea, was sacked for his support of the sacked Ford/Visteon workers. (He was visiting other workplaces encouraging support for the dispute, though this was presumably done only through union channels at convenor level rather than directly appealing to the workforce.) Williams then barricaded himself in his office and workers walked out in his support; he was eventually reinstated under suspension. Shortly after he was permanently sacked. Management removed the door to his office to prevent another barricading and foremen threatened workers with the sack if they walked out again (see; http://libcom.org/news/swansea-union-convenor-sacked-supporting-fordvisteon-workers-28042009). A support campaign has been organised demanding his reinstatement and Linamar workers in Swansea have voted 139-19 (with a turn out of 88%) for an indefinite strike to force Williams’ reinstatement. Probably also prompted by wider issues, such as recent management intimidation, looming redundancies etc, the strike is due to start shortly (In fact on was Rob Williams reinstated on 10th june due to the threat of strike action).

The business of unions as mediators and defenders of capitalist exploitation 

This dispute shows, once again, the contradictions and limits of a rank’n’file level of unionism; shop steward and convenor positions – often taken by the most militant workers – must mediate between shop floor interests and the union bureaucracy’s organisational interests. Workers often see the union as an organisational framework giving them a collective identity and protective strength; and on a day to day level it often does so, within existing conditions and agreements. What workers often don’t acknowledge (or fail to act upon) is that this strength is their own power mediated by the union structure as its representation – and therefore limited by it; a power that has the potential to conflict with and go beyond both the control of their employers and their union leaders. This conflict was made explicit in this dispute when many workers saw that the union was more interested in doing things through its own bureaucratic channels over and above their heads while giving no practical help to the struggle on the ground. This was undoubtably a mixture of bureaucrats’ instinctive dislike for spontaneous outbursts of workers’ unrest – which threaten the smooth functioning and efficient reputation of unions – and an attitude whereby bureaucrats assume they’re the experts who always know best how to handle these situations. But it was also indicative of a class relation; unions are generally run today primarily as financial service brokers – “negotiating deals on insurance, mortgages and pensions, medical cover, holidays and car breakdown services” etc – and investment funds with a sideline in industrial arbitration. Unite boss Derek Simpson, close friend of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, earns more than the PM. A free £800,000 house for life, nearly £200,000 of pay and benefits, 17% pay rises etc, he stays in £400 a night hotel rooms when on union business. Undoubtedly Gordie and Del have discussed how best to manage worker unrest during the present crisis in the best interests of the capitalist system that rewards them so well for their management.

Unions are partly an organisational manifestation of the immediate limits of workers’ own aspirations, values and confidence (and, under normal circumstances, usually the limits of the actual realistic possibilities in a given situation – workers do want a deal negotiated). Often stewards are the most militant and pro-strike of the workforce. By their participation workers animate unions.

The potential struggle against union domination is one within and between workers to overcome the contradiction of being labour power bought and sold and moving beyond that; but workers have to live and eat this side of the revolution! They don’t just accept unions because they’re naive/lack consciousness – alongside their cynicism, they know unions deliver something and to be without a union would usually be even worse under present conditions. (Those employers who want union-free workplaces want to be free of certain union-mediated obligations.)

Any real break by workers with unions will come from confronting the limits of these contradictions in practice – and, insofar as it occurs within a unionised workforce, will probably occur as something emerging out of the union and the role of union militants/stewards (as a radicalisation of stewards and/or a confrontation with their role). That doesn’t mean one has to advocate a struggle within unions (though rank’n’filism etc inevitably occurs) – it means recognising that workers’ power is expressed within union structures, but is not inevitably forever bounded by the limits of union forms. It spills over, makes partial breaks, is usually reincorporated or lapses into a new form of mediation. And we seek to encourage that break further in real struggles – as a development of taking control of our own struggles rather than passively accepting the representation of union or other mediation specialists. Most of the time that occurs at most on a small scale so we are limited by the existing mediation process.

The ability to pursue interests and demands within the union form – and for the form to at the same time function as a limit on radical developments – is a key to understanding its continued strength.

A real workplace radicalisation would see workers not only in conflict with management and union bosses – but also some conflict between stewards and workers, ie, between those stewards and other workers for and against confronting/organising against the union – and also would mean workers confronting their own fears and lack of confidence in making these breaks, confronting their own habits of ‘leaving it to the experts’ – be they union officials or perhaps even the future emerging specialist council delegates of workers councils set up in radical opposition to unions. (In the Russian Revolution, for example, there was a ‘bureaucratisation from below’ as well as from the ruling party above; factory, district & soviet committee delegates spent more and more time away from the workplace on delegate business and so gradually became permanent representatives/bureaucrats.)

So the working class doesn’t only have to defeat external enemies, it has to confront and overcome what internally perpetuates its existence as the working class; the above-mentioned fears and lack of confidence, old habits and structures and their accompanying values, thought patterns, hierarchies etc. Some of these questions were hinted at during the Visteon dispute – but things never developed far enough to really confront these contradictions. This is not just a remote ‘question of revolutionary strategy’ – it is a concrete question of how most effectively to conduct struggles now. Under present conditions this inevitably often means confronting union control of struggles – and it is this that has potentially radical implications.

After 48 days – on Monday 18th May the Ford-Visteon workers ended the dispute at all 3 plants. Partial though the victory is, and with all the limits and weakness it contained, the struggle is highly significant. The ex-workers have achieved more than might have been expected (particularly after Enfield ended their occupation, and despite the absence of solidarity action by other car workers). Despite the pensions uncertainty, under present conditions and compared to most UK labour disputes of the last 25 years it is a pretty good result; and it sends a much more encouraging signal to workers who will face similar situations.

– A supporter

June 2009

(Thanks to Frank, Conor, Georgia & others who provided info.)

For various documents and comments on the dispute, see;

http://libcom.org/search/node/visteon

http://libcom.org/tags/visteon-occupation

Footnotes

1) 17 or so Enfield workers were not sacked but kept on by Visteon. The plan was that they would be used later to prepare stock and machinery for removal from the factory. But in the meantime some of these workers were involved in the occupation and picketing – and when the company called them in to work the ex-workers and supporters group responded by circulating a general call-out which brought a larger presence on the picket lines. All the workers (but one, a manager?) refused to cross the picket line, rendering their skills useless to Ford-Visteon.

2) Convenors are workers elected/appointed from the stewards in large factory complexes with different shops and processes.The nearest equivalent in other workplaces would be branch secretary (the branch may or may not cover a single workplace). So the difference relates to whether a union is organised by workplace or branch. Basically, the branch secretary or convenor have a direct link to the union regional structure and gain legitimacy and influence from that relationship, a legitimacy not so easily gained by a steward. Convenors and branch secretaries are usually entitled to varying levels of paid time off for union duties. Historically, shop stewards’ committees gained their legitimacy from the rank’n’file power they wielded, which forced the district and regional union officials to take notice of the shopfloor. The decision-making process in Enfield illustrates how much that relatively independent power has been eroded and so the terms do not have quite the same resonance these days. In times past convenors apparently worked the day shift and were compensated for loss of shift allowance by levies raised on the shop floor.

3) For example, when the Enfield occupation ended, there had been very little recent presence of the SWP around the plant. But they put a general call out to members to attend: As the occupiers came out, the SWP – never ones to miss an opportunist photo-opportunity – swamped the crowd with their placards and chanted ‘the workers united will never be defeated’. Under the circumstances, this had a hollow and ironic ring. It began to feel, as nearly every strike has in the past 20+ years – like one more predictable stitch up by union bureaucrats – more interested in helping Nu Labour manage capitalism in crisis than feeling the need to win even modest gains for workers.”  (an excerpt from this account)

4) CCR stands for Competitive Cost Rate, apparently introduced for newer employees at Visteon to relate their pay to the going current rate in the industry, not the pay of Visteon staff on existing or Ford mirrored terms and conditions. The argument of the ex-Visteon CCRs appeared to be that the union was negligent in allowing these differentials to develop for what was presumably the same job.

*****************************************************************************

Postscript: The Visteon workers from four plants faced a long fight to recover large chunks of their pensions which were lost to them when the company went into administration. Five years later a settlement was reached.

This re-post is dedicated the only occupier of the Visteon plant who was not a Visteon worker, Alan Woodward, a veteran union activist and socialist and (among so much else) founding member of past tense’s friends the Radical History Network of Northeast London. Alan was one of the first on the spot after the occupation started and remained inside for the duration. He died in October 2012, and we miss him. His account of the Enfield occupation is also well worth a read.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s employment history: unemployed workers occupy Edmonton factory, 1921.

After World War 1, with the end of the war economy, and the de-mobbing of millions of soldiers and sailors from the armed forces, Britain (and much of Europe) sank into recession, with mass unemployment, poverty hardship the main reward working class people received for supporting and fighting in the war.

However, the end of the war had also thrown up revolution, mutiny, mass movements aiming not just at fighting for a bigger slice of the social pie, but a whole new arrangement of society.

While attempts at revolution shook Russia, Germany, Hungary, in the UK, one of the biggest movements that arose in the post-war years was that of the unemployed. Originating in local committees of the unemployed, struggling for livable levels of relief (the dole), and support for those out of work and their families, and against the harsh social control the workless were then subject to, by 1921 the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) was born.

Many of the committees were based on groups of ex-servicemen, out work and angry after years of the trenches…
… but the movement was also very much a continuation of the pre-war industrial unrest of 1910-14, the wartime shop stewards’ struggles, and, to some extent, reunited the strands of the socialist movements divided by the war.

One of the early campaigns the unemployed committees focused on was against the working of overtime in factories, arguing that those out of work could be employed instead of existing workers doing longer hours. In 1921, in London, the main tactic was to invade workplaces where overtime was being worked and convene meetings of the workforce to argue for an overtime ban and the hiring of those on the dole to instead.

Wal Hannington, national organizer of the NUWM, who organised the raid with Lilian Thring, takes up the story:

“The success of these raids on the smaller firms encouraged us to tackle the big factories. The first big firm to be tackled was one at Edmonton, where approximately 1500 men and women were employed. The raid took place on 15th December, 1921. It was carefully prepared, all the necessary details concerning the plan of the building being ascertained beforehand. A much larger body of raiders was needed to carry out this job. We used about 150, and great care had to be taken in mobilising them near the works in order not to arouse suspicion. I was in charge of the raiding party, and at 4.15 pm I gave the signal for all raiders to rush the main entrance of the firm, enter, and close the gates behind them. The commissionaires on the gates were taken unawares and with the first inrush they attempted to slam the gates to, but the raiders tackled them while the rest of their colleagues entered.”

Once inside, the gates were firmly shut and the telephone exchange near the entrance was captured by a group detailed for this task; but subsequent events proved that we still had left a loophole for communications with the police. The bulk of the raiders proceeded to the main workshops. We selected a shop where there were millions of finished fragile articles [lightbulbs] and where considerable damage would have been done if the police had been brought in and caused trouble.”

Sympathetic engineers inside the factory switched off the production line. Lilian Thring went to address a meeting to the many women working in the factory.

“The news of the raid spread rapidly through the works and the workers gathered in large numbers to hear what we had to say. Many expressed warm sympathy for our stand against overtime. After the meeting had been in progress half an hour we received a message asking us to send a deputation to the main office to interview the responsible officials of the firm. The deputation was courteously received by the management who stated that they were very desirous of getting on with the interview as quickly as possible in order to facilitate the withdrawal of the unemployed from the factory. Whilst the interview was proceeding a knock came at the door and we were informed that 200 police had been brought into the factory. They were, however, not interfering with the men but were just standing about awaiting orders from the management. After a further quarter of an hour’s discussion with the management, the principal of the firm and another manager decided to sign the following agreement which we put to them:

  1. That all overtime should cease at Christmas.
  2. That in the event of the management contemplating the working of overtime at some future date, before putting it into operation they should first explore all channels to find suitable workers by applying to the local labour exchange, local trade-union branches and the local unemployed organization.

The main argument of the management had been that they had to work overtime because they were unable to obtain suitable workers. We, of course, had strongly disputed this, but the agreement which they gave us met with our approval and when the results of our interview were reported to the men in the shop it was accepted without dissent. We then asked the manager if the workers would be paid for the time which they had been stopped working by the raid. We received a promise that they would be paid and then the raiders formed up four abreast and marched out of the works, singing the ‘Red Flag’ and the ‘Internationale’. As they came out they were cheered by a huge crowd who had heard of the raid and had gathered outside.”

This phase of the unemployed movement was by far the most successful, creative and autonomous. Organised locally, at the grassroots, addressing issues shared by millions but at an immediate level. Increasingly, however, through the 1920s, the NUWM became more centralised, controlled by members of the Communist Party who had always formed the central plank of the movement… The creative, local focus was also more and more submerged into a culture of mass national stunts like the hunger marches, which drew mass attention but absorbed vast amounts of energy. However the unemployed movement of the 1920s and ’30s represents a movement of huge importance, especially in their constant attempt to link waged and unwaged workers, their challenge to daily austerity as it was implemented directly in people’s lives, and an attempt to work out how to share out the meagre resources allotted to us under capitalism while also fighting for more…

Two books worth reading on the NUWM: Unemployed Struggles, 1919-36, by Wal Hannington, and We Refuse to Starve In Silence, Richard Croucher. 

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s art history: Camberwell Art College occupied by students, 2010.

During the wave of occupations of universities and colleges over the winter of 2010, part of a wider movement against increased student fees and cuts generally, students took the upper main room at Camberwell Art College’s Wilson Street building, staying throughout the Christmas holidays.

“University of the Arts London, Camberwell College of Art is now OCCUPIED! We now have an Amazing space at Wilson Road (SE5 8LU) which is occupied…!! The Lecture Theatre will become a space for students to plan action, make, work and perform. It will act as a student union and catalyst to create ideas for action and organisation. We call for more support and involvement! The space is open and everyone is invited to be involved in discussion making and workshop building. Open meeting today: 6.12.10 at 3.30pm”

Arts groups such as London’s Radical Education Forum and Ultra-red presented workshops at Camberwell as part of an open program. Food and support were brought by local groups in solidarity.

A Statement from the Occupiers:

“We, the students of Camberwell College of Arts, believe that if the massive cuts proposed for education happen, it is unlikely that academies such as ours will continue to exist. Arts and humanities courses are being targeted with the largest cuts, while still requiring a great deal of funding, which even a rise in fees will not cover. In response, we have decided to occupy the Wilson’s Road building at our college.
We see the arts as occupying a vital place within society, one which benefits us all, both culturally and economically. If arts education ceases to be a viable route for students, that benefit will be lost.

An artless society is a heartless society!

We oppose the transformation of education into a market. Education should be a forum for all publics, not just those who can afford, to learn, experiment and debate.

Therefore, we call for all arts students, especially those from UAL to join this occupation, and call for more arts-led occupation and actions. We propose to use our space for a practice led resistance.  We will run workshops, performances, debates and experiments, creating a collective space of generative discourse. At no point will we disrupt any fellow student’s education, allowing all scheduled lectures to continue. We wish to propose, rather than simply oppose!

We demand that UAL:

  • Issue a statement condemning all cuts to Arts education, and the rise in tuition fees and defending the value (economically and culturally) of Arts education for society, and its place within government funded education.
  • Put pressure on the MP of every borough that UAL has a college in to vote against the educational reforms.
  • Guarantee that there be no more course closures, or course amalgamations. This includes, if possible, the re-instatement of the Ceramics course at Camberwell.
  • Safeguard all jobs for our teaching, research and support staff.
  • Issue a statement guaranteeing no further cuts in access time to workshops and facilities. This means no losses of current facilities, studio space or access time to workshops.
  • Provide full details of the existing budgets, and any projections of how the budget is likely to be spent if cuts and fee reforms do happen.
  • Provide all cleaning, catering and security staff with a full living wage package, again with no loss of jobs or hours, and that all outsourced staff and services are brought back in-house.
  • Provide a more effective, regular structure for student feedback which effects positive change, in the normal running of the University.
  • Do not victimize anyone taking part in this occupation.
  • Allow free access in and out of the occupation for all students, staff, speakers and other visitors.

The Occupiers, Camberwell College of Arts.”

Over two-hundred students and lecturers from Goldsmiths, the Slade, St Martin’s, Camberwell, and other art and fashion colleges also occupied Tate Britain during the live, televised presentations of the Turner Prize.

Some more info related to the Camberwell occupation here

Here, a lecturer discusses the movement against cuts in arts education, in its wider context:

“The college occupations were not something that occurred while lessons ceased, but were themselves a reimagined artistic and educational alternative in action. In one go, boundaries were dissolved – the borders separating one discipline, subject area or medium from another, one year from another, even one college from another, as well as the divisions between so-called theory and practice, and between students and teachers. Education became a critical problem-posing process necessary for the immediate task in hand, and one which therefore opened up naturally to a much wider curriculum. Something emphasised on the Slade Occupation blog is how valuable the physical space offered at art college is in educational terms – studio space being precisely something which from a marketing outlook becomes a quantifiable commodity, and therefore under threat from more ‘resource-efficient’ courses. So a declaration of what is precious becomes simultaneously a new use of space as a communal forum rather than something to be individually allotted, or fought over (one thinks of the annual scramble for degree show space). In Deleuzian terms it was a question of nomadic distribution rather than monadic division. The profound change that occurred, mirroring the more general mood of the historic moment, was the shift from the individual to the collective, signalled by the proliferating use of the word ‘we’ – an inspiring transformation in an environment that prizes individualised development and the authorship of isolated works. One RCA student spoke of ‘an enormous sense of togetherness and empowerment’. Occupying BA students at the Slade honed particular skills towards the collective good, with mini-groups working on banners, on ‘outreach’ (making contact with other organisations), on Twitter, on video production etc.

It may in fact have been the culture of openness at these relatively more ‘privileged’ art schools – with regular group seminars and less emphasis on processing students through units and modules – which facilitated the move to occupy and the sense of shared ownership which came through that. Also, while the Slade occupation was not ‘militant’ – it was described to me as more like an extended sleepover; no regular activity was disrupted and it ended when a court order was issued – students did become politicised precisely through their communal experience, issuing declarations of solidarity with public sector workers and demanding a London living wage for UCL service staff, who might otherwise have remained a fairly invisible entity. It was, as one Slade student put it, an ‘awakening from apathy’.

Like all substantial communities, the college occupations, teach-ins and other events were formed in clear and meaningful opposition to something – in this case the education cuts and the coalition government. One can imagine a privately run experimental art school operating loosely along the lines of collective production and debate, free of grinding state-imposed assessments, with porous borders between departments, year groups etc. And yet without the political dimension of opposition and resistance, which seeks in the singular instance a universal application (such as the welfare state allows), would not such a school be a parody of the radical and experimental, and, in all likelihood, boil down to a Summerhill-style bastion of eccentric privilege, or else a bargain basement ‘alternative’ attempting to out-price competitors in the new education market (lack of resources masquerading as a radical new DIY programme)? Those like Mike Watson (Polemic AM342), who see the education and arts cuts as an opportunity for both art colleges and artists to escape the bureaucratic marketisation of art in the form of funding and accreditation criteria, are simply playing to the government’s ‘big society’ agenda, turning New Labour tragedy – the artificial marketisation of education through the state (auditing, monitoring, personal development plans, satisfaction league tables etc) – into Tory catastrophe: the total privatisation of education through the withdrawal of the state.

The truth is that for all the moaning about business-model bureaucracies on art courses, the ‘professional development’ skills of personal branding and self-promotion fit extremely well with an ultra-competitive art world beholden to the market. What, I wonder, would independent art colleges alter in this respect except perhaps to eliminate clunky assessment criteria from personal career plans, the better to make a fine art out of the informal commodification of personal relations that comes with the prestige, value-by-association economy that operates in the art world, while exacerbating the entitlement to success of those who already possess money and connections? An effective change in art education requires not just the removal of the business-model assessment culture, but a change in the culture of art. Take the recent Save the Arts campaign. Compared with the grass roots, radical approach of the education protests, the campaign against cuts to arts funding was not only limp (‘cut us don’t kill us’) but distinctly top down and conservative, adopting a two-pronged strategy of art star endorsement and claims for the economic benefit to the nation; in other words, a strategy which, despite its promotion of ‘art for everyone’, fits smoothly with the neo-liberal agenda of status-driven individualism and economic profit as the measure of value.

The historical moment of the student protests of winter 2010 is bookended in the public imagination by the breakaway storming of Millbank Tower and the ‘prodding’ of the Duchess of Cornwall – both in their own ways an irruption of the real into a media-generated spectacle of normality at a time of the most brutal, ideologically driven attack on the population. The stakes could not be higher. What John Beagles has called the ‘incomprehensiveness of art education’, that is the increasingly homogeneous social class make-up of fine art students, will almost certainly be exacerbated under a system where fees are justified according to the market rationale of returns on your investment, ie a higher earning capacity. Will a fine art education become a luxury only the rich can afford? And isn’t the spirit of art education already poisoned when the college is essentially a business, with customers (students) being administered to by service-providers (lecturers)? The substantial challenge the anti-fees movement represents is not simply to education cuts but to a whole neo-liberal agenda whose rot set in a long time ago.

In terms of art the task should not be to defend what already exists – a socially divided, economically driven and hierarchical art system – but to affirm what art might be, a universal, potent and seductive alternative to the status quo. The social case for art and its public funding should be far more bold and challenging. For example, its democratic function in contributing towards a public sphere, drawing on a provocative, critical and imaginative avant-garde lineage to fight the crushing corporate agenda of self-interest propagated by the media. Great art finds common value with collective action in its ability to take us beyond ourselves. Rather than sitting on the periphery figuring out ways to survive, art should be at the heart of the fightback against the total privatisation of existence. This is not a time for ‘opting out’, but for collectively reclaiming what is ours, and for making everything new.

Dean Kenning is an artist and visiting lecturer at Central St Martins.

First published in Art Monthly 343: February 2011.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online