Lessons from the SHAC occupation
Students who had been occupying four terrace houses owned by Melbourne University have ended their occupation. After five months the University finally got permission from the courts to recover the property. The police moved in on the morning of January 14 and kicked the students out onto the street.
The group who were organised in the Student Housing Action Collective (SHAC) were using the occupation to highlight the lack of affordable student housing. Over the course of the last few months the University had tried on several occasions to remove the students without success. It took a team of police, sheriffs and security guards to do the job.
SHAC was formed in response to the current housing crisis which has seen a decline in affordable housing, especially for students. In fact a recent study showed that more than 400 Melbourne University students were effectively homeless. This is a university that claims to be one of the most prestigious in the world!
Rental vacancy rates are at a 33-year low which has led to landlords setting rent prices out of reach for many students. In many areas of Melbourne and Sydney the rental vacancy rate is less than 1 per cent.
Compounding the problem is the fact that Centrelink payments for those who study are far too low. This forces many students to work long hours, often in low paid industries, just to make ends meet. This makes university a living hell for many students who are unable to be supported by their parents.
So far both the University and the Government have refused to address this problem. If this continues then higher education will become a privilege inaccessible to all but the wealthy.
After occupying the property in August, SHAC had wanted to use the terraces to create a student run housing co-operative. The property had been left vacant by the University since 2005 and many students were in desperate need of accommodation. SHAC drew up a proposal based on a similar project in Sydney and took it to the University Administration.
During the course of the occupation the University was forced to negotiate with SHAC and even make some concessions. Getting the University administration to the table was a small victory in itself. This happened because of the militant approach taken by the students who said they would not leave until they were able to agree on a reasonable resolution. The main leverage that the students used throughout the dispute was the fact that they were occupying a multi-million dollar property and refused to leave.
If the university was to move in aggressively and throw the students out it would have been a public relations disaster for the administration. Not only does the university like to portray itself as a prestigious institution, it is also a very profitable business and needs to protect its trading reputation when attracting prospective students.
So in this respect the public profile and media attention for the campaign was very important. The students for the most part did very well in the capitalist press and were able to build a decent amount of support through the many interviews they conducted.
However, a media strategy alone was never going to win the campaign. While we can use the capitalist press to our advantage, we can not rely on them to report on our struggles accurately all the time. All of the main newspapers, TV and radio stations are owned by big business and at the end of the day they will represent their own views, not ours. This is why it was important that struggles like occupations use everything at their disposal, including the capitalist courts.
While we understand that the courts do not work in favour of ordinary people, we also do not shy away from using the courts as an auxiliary to the main struggle. The courts can offer a platform for political campaigns and can compliment the media strategy.
One contradiction that exists for the ruling class is that while they need the courts to maintain their class rule, they also need the system to be seen as ‘fair’ in order to maintain its legitimacy. By playing on this contradiction, while also maintaining other campaign strategies, many activists in the past have been able to win victories in the courts. That is why it was correct for SHAC to challenge any eviction in the courts while maintaining their occupation.
SHAC had said that they wanted to invoke Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights to prevent the university from removing them. They were to claim that it is the basic human right of all people to have a roof over their head. While they may not have won the case with this argument, the students could have used the case to make the political points in support of affordable housing and to maintain their profile in the media.
Unfortunately towards the end of the occupation the students withdrew from the legal process saying that they were not confident of winning. They were worried that court costs of up to $20,000 would be awarded against them. This perhaps should have been reconsidered, as any legal challenge could have bought them more time and prolonged the occupation. It was also unlikely that the University would have been able to ever recover the costs. For example in another case recently the courts gave up on trying to recover costs from the Blue Wedges community group who obviously had no money.
Trade union support
The most important aspect to SHAC’s campaign was actually their attempts to reach out to the labour movement for support. Groups like Union Solidarity helped the campaign and such was the sympathy with their cause that even the Secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, Brian Boyd, came out in support of SHAC.
After being lobbied by the students Boyd sent a letter to the University’s Vice-Chancellor stating: “In line with our support for SHAC (Student Housing Action Co-operative), we wish to inform the University that, in the event of the eviction of the Student Housing Action Collective from the premises and the absence of the University providing a substantial amount of student run affordable co-operative housing (as outlined in the SHAC proposal), members of unions affiliated with Trades Hall will call an urgent meeting to give consideration to further union action.”
As good as these words are it has been some time since trade unions in Victoria have been willing to actually take industrial action in support of a community campaign. Industrial action may or may not have ever eventuated but the process of reaching out to the working class is an important aspect to any successful campaign.
Expanding this struggle to the workers on campus would have been the last thing the University wanted. It has been reported that the University were so worried about this prospect that the Vice Chancellor called Boyd within minutes of receiving his letter in support of SHAC.
Workers have immense social weight and are potentially a very powerful force if they act collectively. If workers stop work en mass society can grind to a halt. On the other hand, if students stop going to school or university it has much less of an impact on the ruling class.
This does not mean that students can not play an important role in struggle. It means that student and community campaigns should have an orientation towards workers because of their social weight. Everything possible should be done to both appeal to workers and to pressure the trade union leaders to follow through with action.
Assessing the balance of forces
While important as it is to gain the support of trade unions, workers will not give their full support unless they are convinced that the campaign has strong foundations and the participants are confident. This is why it is important to continually assess the balance of forces within any campaign. If for some reason the campaign can not gather the required support or the participants are losing morale, this needs to be faced up to and action taken.
Every struggle needs to be seen as a living thing, not as fixed or static. Struggles like occupations have their own internal movement and are really only fully understood by those involved. Like other struggles an occupation will move in ebbs and flows. The occupation will either be flowing, drawing more people in and building wider support or it will be ebbing, with the numbers dwindling and morale falling. There is really no in between.
If a stalemate occurs or a campaign is ebbing, especially while negotiations are taking place, it is sometimes better to explain the situation openly and to perhaps accept concessions that have been offered. While maybe a full victory can not be won on this occasion, it is sometimes best to retreat not victorious but undefeated.
The aim of every struggle is to finish with something that you didn’t have before. At least then the struggle can be kept going with morale and message in tact, and other campaigns can be launched another day from a strong footing. While this is not ideal, if handled correctly retreat need not mean defeat.
The first point to make when assessing the SHAC occupation is that it was by far the most prominent action taking place in the country in support of the basic right of affordable housing. This small group of students did more to highlight the issues in a few short months than others have done in years.
It should be noted that in general this is an issue that is largely ignored by all of the main political parties and the trade unions. There is no mass campaign in support of affordable housing so SHAC have been forced to step in and try to fill this huge vacuum.
Perhaps the best way to describe the outcome of this struggle is as a glorious defeat. While not successful this time, the SHAC occupation showed how militant action can yield much better results than passive activities like lobbying and pleading with governments and university administrations.
SHAC also showed that absolutely nothing has changed since the election of a Labor Government over a year ago – in fact the housing situation has gotten worse. And as the world economic crisis worsens, so too will the housing situation for ordinary people.
We are lucky that we will be able to lean on the experiences of SHAC and build on the foundations that they have helped lay. Hopefully the lessons of this struggle can be learnt not only by the participants but by the many others who will in the future move into action and look to occupations as a tactic. The students involved should be proud of the work that they have done. If the ‘leaders’ of the labour movement showed even had half as much determination as these students we would be much better placed to win these struggles.