(Featured image: University House under occupation by LUSU during the 1974-5 Lancaster University rent strike.)
The first round of negotiations between organisers of the Lancaster University rent strike and University management took place this morning. The University has yet to formally make any concessions beyond its "insulting" £400 offer to some students, but has committed to a second meeting with rent strikers within the next week.
Lancaster's rent strike is one of the biggest in a wave of over 50 ongoing students rent strikes across the UK, as students withhold rent for accommodation many cannot access due to the lockdown. Now in its third week, the strike has received public backing from the NUS President, LUSU sabbatical officers and all eight of Lancaster's college JCRs, despite University management censors demanding that one JCR delete all social media posts mentioning the strike.
Representing the University in the negotiations was the Deputy VC, Professor Steve Bradley (perhaps the VC was worried he'd be challenged about his own rental arrangements with the University if he chose to attend?). Representing the rent strike were student activists Luke Dixon-Murrow, Jude Rowley and Katie Whearty. Cllr Whearty also represents the University ward on Lancaster City Council as part of the Eco-Socialist Independent group, and is taking part in the strike herself.
Speaking to Spineless after the meeting, Rowley said: "We welcome the commencement of a dialogue with University management but we won't be satisfied until we have concrete and meaningful proposals. The Deputy VC accepted that this was just the beginning of that dialogue, and has made commitments to engage with us further. We are cautiously optimistic going forward, but will not rest on our laurels and will keep up the pressure on management until they can prove to us that they have serious proposals to meet student demands on rent, mental health, and support services."
Also present was Oliver Robinson, a Labour councillor for the ward who became LUSU President following a disputed by-election last summer, and LUSU Vice-Presidents Atree Ghosh and Amy Merchant, whose attendance was only decided at the last minute this morning. President Robinson had thrown planning for today's negotiations briefly into disarray last night after requesting that Cllr Whearty did not attend the meeting. This demand was dismissed by rent strike organisers, who insisted that Cllr Whearty, at that time due to be the only woman at the meeting, be allowed to attend as originally planned. LUSU's obstructive behaviour reminds Spineless of the April 2020 rent strike, during which some sabbs publicly expressed their reluctance to support striking students, despite the policy obligation to do so.
The LUSU President's desire to shut out his council colleague from the negotiations follows Cllr Whearty's resignation from the Labour Party last November. Speaking to Spineless, she said she was "disappointed" at President Robinson's request for her exclusion, which she says is demonstrative of the many barriers faced by working class women in politics. She went on to say: “I hope that the University stick to their commitment to addressing our concerns and I look forward to meeting next week to ensure concrete and meaningful plans are made."
It remains to be seen how far the University is willing to give way to the strike's demands of a full rent waiver for students not in their accommodation, and a 50% cut for those stuck on campus. But the mere fact that the University has begun to negotiate with strike reps, in what is effectively a collective bargaining process, indicates that concessions are likely to follow.