UCL Students Threaten Rent Strike at Hawkridge House: Press Release

UCLU have put out a press release about the situation at Hawkridge House. Here is the full text and pictures from the site.

Solidarity with students at Hawkridge in their struggle for respect and dignity from UCL!

Full text here:

UCL STUDENTS THREATEN RENT STRIKE IN FACE OF ACCOMMODATION CHAOS AND COLLEGE DISREGARD

PHONE: 07459035236

As exams approach, over 230 students at UCL’s Hawkridge House in Chalk Farm are determined to force their College to end disruptive constructions works and pay compensation by withholding rent. More than half of all residents have already written to UCL demanding a refund and the students’ union is pushing management to fully comply with students’ requirements as patience runs low.

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Since February, residents at Hawkridge, predominately overseas postgraduate students, have seen their homes transformed into a construction site as UCL – who charge £132.20 per week for a single room – erected scaffolding on all sides of their 14-story tower block . Early morning drilling, dusty rooms and a lack of sunlight and privacy have since been the norm, causing stress and health issues and leaving students unable to revise in their rooms.

When rooms were advertised last summer there was no mention of scaffolding or construction and when residents moved in in September where were told that works would be over by January. In their last communication to students, UCL have stated that works could continue until 26 April.

The only notice given of planned works before students moved in. A promise broken three months ago.
The only notice given of planned works before students moved in. A promise broken three months ago.

It was only after formal meeting between UCL managers and UCL Union representatives on 27 March that any mitigating measures were taken by the College. However, the management concession to place more desks in the silent study are on site was deemed inadequate by residents and the Union, who are maintaining their demands for an immediate halt to construction works and full compensation for the College’s breech of their contract.

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Belen Desmaison, a postgraduate student from Peru is asthmatic and has suffered because of dust from constructions and was struck by migraines as a result of not being able to open her window. She said that, “the fact that I have to close my curtains so that construction workers don’t see me sleeping or changing my clothes does not only mean that my view is ruined but that I now live without natural light from Monday to Friday.” She also described drilling noises as “unbearable”.

David Dahlborn, the elected Halls Accommodation Representative at UCL Union said: “Students at Hawkridge have been completely neglected by general management. It makes me furious that once again UCL have put their profit interests above the needs of students, potentially ruining the degrees of many people who have come here to study by falsely marketing rooms which are not fit for habitation. It’s time residents here were taken seriously rather than exploited and side-lined.”

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UCL Union is now advising residents to withhold rent payments until there are reliable assurances from UCL that compensation will be paid and that construction will end until the end of exams.

For the past five years, UCL has increased the rent in their accommodation by up to 5% per year. A room at Hawkridge House cost £127 in 2013/14, when there was no construction work. Recently, there have been protests by UCL students against planned rent increases, including a flash occupation of the Provost’s balcony.

The Union has handed out information about students' rights in English and Mandarin Chinese.
The Union has handed out information about students’ rights in English and Mandarin Chinese.
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Special Report: UCL Students and Workers Are Defending Victimised Zero-Hours Staff

Words and photos by Jake Céileachair

The demonstration I went to last Friday outside of the Euston Friends’ Meeting House was buzzing. By the time I left, the crowd had swelled to more than 60 people, ranging from sympathetic passersby, curious onlookers, drummers and campaigners from all across London. They were protesting against what they saw as the unfair dismissal of three employees by Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM), the charity that operates the Friends’ House. In BYM’s published statement on the matter what stuck out most was the opening paragraph:

“BYM is a Living Wage Employer, and is recognised by the Equality Trust for the strict 1:4 ratio between lowest and highest paid staff.  Our lowest wage band starts at 19% above the London Living Wage.  All staff receive generous benefits, including 8% employer pension contribution, subsidised meals, permanent health insurance, childcare vouchers, a cycle-to-work scheme and access to a free confidential employee assistance programme.”

But the radical trade union the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) isn’t buying it. While they have publicly stated that paying above the Living Wage (which in London is meant to be £9.15) is to be applauded, the IWW says it’s moot in circumstances in which employees are not guaranteed the necessary hours to provide for themselves.

IWW members leafleting on Euston Road outside Friends House, just around the corner from UCL.
IWW members leafleting on Euston Road outside Friends House, just around the corner from UCL.

One of these employees, Martin Nickolay-Blake said: “Because we pushed [to] phase out zero hours contracts, the building management decided to agree to just that – by firing us. We didn’t expect this, as the workforce and management had an informal agreement promising that no jobs would be axed, but from the way we were sacked it’s clear that this was politically motivated.”

Whether the sackings were really politically motivated or not, many activists and trade unionists have seen this as an affront to the livelihoods of three people. In fact, after speaking to several demonstrators on Friday, I was came to realise this protest is just one chapter of a much larger saga.

Martin (left) holding an IWW flag, alongside an IWGB member.
Martin (left) holding an IWW flag, alongside an IWGB member.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the protest was the presence of the International Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), a “worker-run union organising the unorganised, the abandoned and the betrayed”. The branch of the IWGB specific to University of London recently exploded in size due to their 3 Cosas Campaign demanding full employee rights (ie. sick pay, pensions and holidays) for the university’s predominantly migrant cleaning staff.

I spoke to Jason, the President of IWGB, and he explained: “The reason why we’re here is because although our focuses are slightly different, we’re still campaigning on the same issue, which is the precarious situation workers face in this country. Zero hours contracts are just one example of that”.

Hannah Webb, a UCL student and former UCL Union Sabbatical Officer, who also joined the picket told me: “Having solidarity with workers is an extremely important act. It helps us to combat precarious and low paid work that so many of us are in. Students need to remember that they themselves will likely be in this same situation either when they graduate or when they find work to support their education.”

Hannah, former UCLU Sabbatical Officer showing her solidarity with the victimised workers.
Hannah Webb, former UCLU Sabbatical Officer taking a stand against zero-hours contracts and trade union victimisation.

Zero hours contracts and other issues related to low wage work are so problematic in the UK, in part, because we have so little information on their impacts on households. Despite UCL’s promise that, within six months of graduation, approximately 90% of undergraduates enter the workforce or pursue additional studies, there’s very little data on what sort of hours people work. We know that unemployment technically fell to 1.91 million in 2015, but someone with a zero hours contract is lumped in to the same statistics as those that “enjoy” full-time hours.

David Dahlborn fulfilling his dream of playing with the SOAS samba band on a picket line.
David Dahlborn fulfilling his dream of playing with the SOAS samba band on a picket line.

After the protest I talked to David Dahlborn, UCLU Halls & Accommodation Representative, who was as enthusiastic as ever, telling me:

“Looking at the IWW, what I think is inspiring is the solidarity and mutual support – people standing up for one another. There were cleaners there, and students and office workers united against an injustice, determined to right a wrong. To me this principle is what a union – a trade union or a students union – is about: mutual support and assistance for justice and equality. And the impressive thing is that this works throughout society – the same principle of solidarity and support can be applied in the UCLU rent campaign. If you unite to improve something you believe in and don’t back down when the bosses say it’s impossible, that’s when you can change the world – be it by cutting the rent, winning a better standard of living in student accommodation or abolishing tuition fees!”

In the end, the question prescient at this specific protest – whether or not the fired employees of the Friends’ Meeting House will keep their jobs – remains unanswered. Martin seems confident they will.

Why UCLU Needs More Liberation Sabbs, Not Fewer – A Reply to Gabriel Gavin

By David Dahlborn, UCL Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies

After shutting down debate at the last UCLU General Assembly when his side failed to win a political argument, Gabriel Gavin wrote an article for Pi to justify himself, in which he covers up his lack of arguments by throwing playground insults at me and others. Ahead of the next session of the General Assembly I’d like to take the opportunity to respond, and present my case for why UCLU should remain a campaigning organisation that stands up for students’ needs.

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David outside the UCL Student Residences Office.

Very soon, UCL management will once again increase the rent in their halls of residence by at least five percent. This rent hike will place yet another heavy burden upon students already hard-pressed to make ends meet. As a socialist who wants justice, equality and cooperation to replace exploitation, division and coercion, I find this disgusting and I will fight against it.

Why do I, as an unpaid activist and union representative, devote my evenings, lunch breaks and weekends to organising assemblies, build protests and write to UCL managers? Because, unlike the Gabriel Gavins and the Samuel Inkersoles of the world, I’ve decided to do the work actually required to concretely improve standards and conditions for students here at UCL.

Increasing rent is a political decision made by UCL bosses, who dictate how hard halls residents should be squeezed for cash. This decision will also force working class students to take on more debt and stress while in halls, if they’re lucky enough to afford university in London at all. For the past five years, UCL has consistently increased the rent far beyond the rate of inflation. The consequences of this will be felt in the pockets of students, in our mental health and among those excluded from UCL altogether simply because they weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

Affordable Accommodation, Accessible Education - A banner from the UCL Camden RENTS Campaign.
“Affordable Accommodation, Accessible Education” – A banner from the UCL Camden RENTS Campaign.

Fortunately, we have the means to help us change this – a political, representative and campaigning students’ union. Through collective action we can challenge UCL management, and UCLU is the best tool we students possess to channel our demands and focus our collective bargaining power on bring down the rent. I would be the first person to admit that UCLU has its flaws (don’t we all?), but I also stress that it’s activists like me who’re the ones taking actual steps to make it better and more representative.

There is a tendency among certain careerists, and right-wing demagogues and sabbatical officers to criticise the work that my friends, colleagues and comrades on the left are doing to improve the conditions of students at UCL. These would-be union-wreckers, clearly, either do not understand what a union is for, or are happy to see the counted attempts by the university bosses’ to exploit and oppress us but raising rent or ignoring campus racism and sexism.

The case for why this position is wrong has been made explained eloquently elsewhere. Therefore, I’m not surprised that there is also a tendency among these critics to find themselves incapable of intellectually justify their arguments. Much like a children deprived of attention by an adult, these right-wingers reverted to ignoring rational arguments, shouting loudly and spreading lies and insults. Suffice to say, none of their time has been spent on getting UCL to reduce the rent. To the contrary, efforts made by Gavin and Inkersole to axe the Education and Campaigns Officer, Women’s Officer and BME Students’ Officer would – if successful – have severely decimated the ability of UCLU to stand up for our needs.

"Free Education - Tax the Rich", the slogan at the demonstration for free education 19 November 2014.
“Free Education – Tax the Rich”, the slogan at the demonstration for free education 19 November 2014.

My actions, as a socialist activist, will, in the meantime, have an actual impact on the lives and conditions of current and future UCL students. At the same time as right-wing self-publicists portray themselves as some sort of ‘voice of the masses’, while doing nothing but attack our efforts to organise ourselves as a student body, I and other activists have been organising a focused and assertive campaign to challenge the university bosses’ rent hikes. I’ve pressed UCL to financially compensate students who experienced hot water cut in halls. I’ve forced UCL to acknowledge the important of disability access in student accommodation. And, while right-wingers have happily accepted £9,000 tuitions fees, I’ve helped build a grassroots national campaign for free education. I’ve done this by engaging with students, by talking to literally hundreds of people and by representing their views and opinions. This term, I will step up the campaign against rent exploitation until UCL students have won a genuine improvement. None of these efforts to improve our material conditions would be possible without a UCLU that can be relied upon to take action for its members.

This is precisely why we need a political, campaigning students’ union that puts the material needs of its members ahead of the careers and egos the right-wingers who want to cut it. This is why we need more liberation officers, not fewer. As UCL becomes increasingly like an authoritarian government this necessity becomes ever more pressing. As UCL bulldozes our student theatre, wreaks havoc for sports clubs by timetabling lectures on Wednesday afternoons and charges us rent far above our maintenance loans, the stakes couldn’t be higher. If we don’t take a stand against the bosses they will make UCL exclusive to the children of the wealthy and irreversibly damage student civil society. UCLU and I will continue to fight the rent increases and stand on the side of everybody who wants university to be available for everybody regardless of their background. I hope you will join me in this.

– Now, I’m off to write to UCL Accommodation!

Fighting for Liberation Officers – the UCLU General Assembly 20th January

On January 20 we will be back in Logan Hall debating what Sabbatical Officer roles should represent you next year.

Members of UCL Defend Education have put forward Proposal 5, which proposes four full-time Liberation officers, including a new LGBT+ and Disabled Students’ Officer, whilst maintaining post-graduate, activities and education support. Read the full motion here and the full details for the meeting on our event page here.

This is also an action in opposition to a proposal that would have UCLU reduce its total number of full-time officers to 7, without adding any officers to fight for the rights of liberation groups.

A photo from the last General Assembly, December 2014. Join the January Assembly to help vote for more liberation officers at UCLU!
A photo from the last General Assembly, December 2014. Join the January Assembly to help vote for more liberation officers at UCLU!

All you need to vote is your UCLU ID, so don’t forget it and don’t miss out on having your say! Registration opens earlier at 5.30pm and there are fewer motions, so is expected to be a relatively short assembly.

If it passes, our proposal will add a full-time LGBT+ Officer and a full-time Disabled students’ Officer – a progressive step that will once again put UCLU on the leading edge in terms of representational student unions. It will ensure that UCLU continues to operate as representative, campaigning and inherently political organisations that can improve conditions for students at UCL.

At at time when Disabled Students' Allowance is being cut, it is more important to have a full-time Disable Students' Officer now than ever!
At at time when Disabled Students’ Allowance is being cut, it is more important to have a full-time Disable Students’ Officer now than ever!

Having four Sabbatical Officers that work specifically on liberation issues is the next logical step in the policy of liberation that was initiated at UCLU by the creation of the full-time Women’s officer and BME students officer two years ago. With four liberaion sabbs UCLU can meet the needs of its members students in a more comprehensive way than before, and provide a role model for union around the country

This proposal is backed by UCLU Unicef Society, Fossil Free UCL, UCLU Green Party Society, UCLU Vegetarian Society and UCLU Socialist Society. If you wish to offer your societies support for this motion please let us know.

This General Assembly will also be voting on a resolution to strengthen UCLU’s stance against UCL’s rent hikes – so that’s yet another reason to join the assembly!

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