Sit-ins, civil disobedience and student radicalism: Lessons from the ‘97 UTS occupation

As the campaign against the cuts at Sydney University gears up for more direct action, Richard Bailey spoke to Solidarity activists about the successful campaign that stopped upfront fees at UTS in 1997.

“After the Howard government’s election in 1996, there were big cuts to education. In response, there was a huge movement of staff and students; massive rallies that coincided with strike action.

The campaign was focused on getting the Senate to block the cuts by influencing the Democrats.

Generally the argument that won was that we shouldn’t target campuses specifically, because for the time being, the Vice Chancellors were “on our side” and “we shouldn’t jeopardise that”. So there was a “united front” between the Vice Chancellors and the movement. So there wasn’t that much targeting of campuses. There had been an occupation at ANU in 1994 though that gave us inspiration.

In 1997, in late February before classes started, we found out UTS was going to be the first campus in the country to introduce the full fee paying places the government had made legal. They were having a University Council meeting on Orientation Day to pass it. We called a demonstration at the last minute, built for it on Orientation Day, and mobilised people from all the campuses in Sydney. We had a rally of 100 or 200 people.

We, the ISO [the International Socialist Organisation, Solidarity’s predecessor] at UTS, called it a “picket”. This caused a bit of controversy, because Left Alliance, the broad Left group on campus on those days said, “there are some Councillors on our side, we don’t want to picket and stop them getting in”. So we agreed we would let people in. But when we got there, after the Councillors got in, they shut the doors. There was a mood in the crowd that we wanted to go in and stop the meeting. We proceeded to pound on the doors until a couple of people got in through the basement and opened them. We burst into the meeting, made some speeches, yelled at them and then let them have the meeting, but sat around the outside to “observe”. They proceeded to defer the decision.

It was this action that was decisive in winning the argument about targeting campuses. There was an agreement across the student left that following the next National Day of Action we would occupy UTS.

That rally finished down the street from UTS where the Department of Education used to be. The then President of the UTS Students Association called for people to occupy. Meanwhile the state National Union of Students’ Education Officer was hiding in the toilets in the basement of the Administration Building. We all bolted up the street and started banging on the doors. They had installed a metal bar behind the doors after the first occupation. We tried to use placards poked through the gaps in the doors to get the bar off. But the Education Officer let a few people in through the basement and they came and took the bar off and we got in, around 500-600 people occupied.

We immediately started a big argument about whether we were going to stay. One of the very first public speeches I made as an activist was to get up on this coffee table we were using as a speaking platform to argue that if they could stay for 9 days at ANU, we could at least stay the night. That was the Wednesday—and the cops and their police dogs chucked us out on Sunday morning.

The great thing was, we could get out onto campus to lecture bash and leaflet and other people could go to other campuses and bring people. There were probably about 50-100 people sleeping there but it would build up through the day to several hundred occupiers. Being the admin building, there were photocopiers, computers, telephones, computers, everything, the perfect set up. It went really well until Sunday morning, when the cops came in with police dogs. We got thrown out. We went to the State NUS offices, and had a Cross Campus Education Activists’ meeting at 4am in the morning.

The second National Day of Action was a month later. After the UTS occupation we copped a barrage of negative media. They accused us of stealing a bunch of blank testamurs. It dented people’s militancy and by the next action there was a big debate about whether we should occupy. We were arguing we should. Left Alliance was arguing that we should do a “Tent City” instead, which carried the day. We set up a Tent City in the main Quad at Sydney Uni. It was May and freezing and windy. That as much as anything meant we clinched the argument the next day that we should re-occupy and go inside. We did, the next afternoon, about 200 of us, for about an hour or two before the cops chucked us out.

At Sydney Uni they introduced fees. But by the time they came back to reintroduce it at UTS, it had become quite clear that it hadn’t gone that well for the campuses that had introduced them. Surprisingly, there weren’t many students stepping up to pay fees of $10,000! That, in combination with the fact that they thought, “if we try this on again, we could well face more student protests”, meant they ended up ditching the whole idea. So fees were effectively defeated at UTS, a pretty impressive result.

I think there are some general lessons. The overwhelming one is that occupation does work. It really did scare the hell of UTS and they would have definitely have introduced fees had we not done anything.

We used to argue for occupations, saying we wanted to stop “business as usual”, and people would say, “it’s not like a strike”, and that’s true. But it’s not about costing the university money, but creating a crisis they don’t like. It tarnishes the image of the university and the management.

It also really ramps up the struggle. People who hadn’t paid that much attention think, “What’s going on here? What’s all this about?” and they look into it, and you end up building support.

It also sparked off a period of militancy on the campuses. There were a series of other occupations around the country that year. Beyond that, it really solidified a layer of student activists that went on to lead other important struggles—Jabiluka, anti-capitalism.

One of the other lessons is that by seizing the initiative you can win an argument and push a movement forward. “


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