The occupation we witnessed at the Vrije Universiteit (VU University) in Amsterdam this past week was no ordinary university occupation. But that’s what you get when you combine the energy behind the longest-running sector-wide strike in Dutch history since 1933 with the channeled frustration of employees and students about the destructive neoliberal reforms underway at their university. The result is a new breed of radical action that works.
Over a period of two days, the central hall of the university’s main building was taken over by a few thousand striking cleaners and their fellow occupiers. Upon arrival, the main lecture hall was stormed and held, while striking cleaners and co-occupiers — like my university colleagues and I — visited students in their classrooms, explaining the purpose and goals of the occupation. The central reclaimed spaces would soon become both the base for the cleaners’ collective decision-making assembly, as well as the location of a slew of speeches and activities in solidarity with the cleaners’ struggle.
These included a lecture on the history of the Dutch strike movement, films on workers/cleaners occupations in the UK and US, and even a live statement of solidarity from the Greek cleaners’ union representative via Skype from Athens. We heard statements on behalf of the public transport workers who had come to return the support they’d received from the cleaners during their own strike the previous year, and not least, we heard from a school teacher. He was one of the 50,000 whose strike (the largest strike in Dutch education to date) against the 300 million euro cuts to education coincided with the second day of our university occupation. To say it was an historic moment would be no exaggeration.
But it was also unique in another way. The strength of the VU occupation hinged on the close cooperation between the activist Left, the trade union organizers of the strike campaign, the unionized employees of the university, and some organized radical students. It was an organically formed coalition treating the university as a site where their struggles intersected. All parties were united around the common goal of exposing the university board’s enthusiastic cooperation with rolling out plans for budget cuts disguised as reform.
For employees, this means cuts to administrative services of 35%, translating to approximately 400 lost jobs. For researchers and lecturers it means ever greater emphasis on rigidly quantifiable output criteria and increased workloads. For students it means cuts to the government grants and increased tuition. These measures cement the VU’s active involvement on the national level in plans for cutting higher education budgets with the National Association of Dutch Universities (VSNU).
These were the very issues raised at the meeting-cum-rally for university employees organized by the local union in conjunction with the occupation. Speakers drew the connections with the broader framework of the Dutch cabinet’s ruthless austerity policies, and addressed the audience of over 200 personnel with a clear call to action. The presence of the occupation seemed to put extra weight behind this call.
Evidently, it also commanded the attention of the university’s top brass, because in just two short days the VU agreed to the occupiers’ demands of distancing itself from the cleaning companies’ staunch refusal to negotiate on even the most basic of demands (such as paid sick leave and a 50c/hour pay raise). The VU was also pressured to give jobs back to the 5 cleaners working at the university whose contracts had been terminated while they were on strike. It was clear we won this ground through action, and the echoes of this victory are bound to reach other problematic workplaces.
But paradoxically, perhaps the most heartening thing about the action came down to the one demand that was not fully won. The final demand on the list was that the outsourced VU catering personnel receive a guarantee of employment in the face of privatization of catering at the university. Despite the fact that they worked for a different company, were members of a different union, and had only become embroiled in the occupation in the course of the action itself, the university was nevertheless pushed to start negotiations on their demand for the first time.
Even the partial involvement of these employees was a testament to the importance of creating spaces for mutual resistance and broadening the potential of a sector strike in innovative ways. By including the catering employees’ concrete demand among their own, the striking cleaners had taken a step beyond symbolic support to show us what solidarity looks like in practice.
For a brief and bright moment against the backdrop of the evening’s festivities at the occupied VU, the boundaries of union bureaucracy and the rule of management seemed faded and inconsequential against the cross-cutting unity that had been built here. I heard participating activists from Amsterdam’s Occupy Beursplein realize the value of the union’s resources and organization for the first time; I saw the combative spirit of sector organizers rub off on the local union representatives; and I saw the cross-fertilization of working people’s struggle between sectors.
Suddenly, the occupation was less about wage agreements than a realization of how potent shared struggle is. It was just a moment, but it was enough to illuminate the possibilities.
In a way, that’s precisely what made it harder for hopeful observers like me to accept the union leadership’s decision to embrace the victory and end the occupation. A sense of loss lies in the knowledge that the university still outsources cleaning services to the lowest bidder, and so maintains their right to hire temp workers from another company to openly break the cleaners’ strike. Moreover, the allegations by VU cleaners about experiencing intimidation over striking are left unaddressed, and despite these and broader enduring problems, the university shamelessly maintains its credible, forward-thinking image as a social institution and a decent employer.
While the occupation is over, the discussions and ideas have been bubbling at the university in the days since. The brave action of an often invisible segment of society — cleaning personnel — has clearly left its lasting effects behind here. I can only hope that parallel discussions are taking place among all those who made this moment possible, that is, not only within the unions and activist organizations involved, but also between elements of both these groups. This way we can hope to build on that moment when we all caught a glimpse of the power and potential of imaginative, new ways to fight for better working conditions, better education, and a better society.