Student members of SWARM attended NUS Conference in Glasgow during March 27th-29th, as delegates elected to represent their students, and to debate in favour of motion W107 - to renew NUS policy to support the decriminalisation of sex work. This motion was brought by a group of our student sex workers involved in the NUS LGBT+ Campaign and the University of Plymouth Students’ Union. The existence of this policy over the past three years has encouraged student sex workers and allies across the country to campaign in their own SUs to support student sex workers in fighting against harassment and disciplinary action/expulsion from education institutions, and to launch campaigns in support of decriminalisation.
There were various attempts to stop the motion being brought to national conference, including individuals on the National Executive Committee (NEC) voting against a request for them to co-propose the motion, and numerous delegates reporting that the motion had been left off the priority ballot in which delegates decide what orders the motions in each zone are to be debated in.
The motion was placed in the Welfare Zone which was chaired by one of the NEC members who had voted against co-proposing it. He appeared at numerous points to be deliberately stalling debate, allowing for unnecessary additional speeches and chairing slowly. This was effective - in the entire zone's allocated 45 minutes only one out of fifteen motions was debated and voted on. Procedural motions put in place in advance to avoid this were ignored. Furthermore, the chair made an error when taking a count to extend the guillotine, eventually announcing incorrectly, and with no warning, that the guillotine for the welfare zone had fallen. This meant that our motion, and the remaining motions in the zone, wouldn’t even be heard. Upon this announcement the mood of the room changed, and we went to the Democratic Procedures Committee desk to ask how this could have been allowed to happen. There was no clear explanation provided, other than being told that nothing could be done.
And so NUS LGBT+ Officers and co-proposers of the motion, Noorulann Shahid and Beth Douglas, took to the stage hand in hand to kick off what became the occupation of NUS conference stage. Within seconds, groups of delegates joined the stage, including the remaining co-proposers of W107, and proposers of motions that were collateral damage in the chair’s attack on it. This included a time-sensitive motion on the decriminalisation of abortion in the south of Ireland submitted by membership from NUS-USI in the North (W106). Our motions were side by side on the agenda, but also overlap in reality, as heavily gendered issues most strongly affecting the poorest, and as issues concerning bodily autonomy and agency denied. Both issues are of course hugely pertinent to the north of Ireland especially, in the run up to the referendum in the south to repeal the 8th amendment and following the introduction of the sex buyers law in 2014.
In total, an estimated 150 students occupied the stage in protest to stand in solidarity with sex workers and people in need of abortions in Northern Ireland. This occupation made it clear that NUS' internal bureaucracy often hinders marginalised groups of students who need NUS to stand up for them.
The occupation took place in the afternoon, halfway through that day’s scheduled events. The conference livestream was promptly switched off, other delegates were stopped from entering the venue, and the projector switched to a display that showed ‘Conference is now closed’.
In order to end the occupation and allow for conference to continue, NUS Vice President Union Development Ali Milani and Vice President Higher Education Amatey Doku agreed to the following demands we set out: That motion W106 and W107 concerning the decriminalisation of abortion and of sex work be put to the NEC for a vote in an emergency online ballot to be sent out within three weeks of the day of the occupation; that NEC members make themselves available to take remaining welfare motions to the next NEC meeting on the proposers’ behalves; for there to be no ramifications against those that occupied the stage; for NUS to issue an apology for the events of that day, including the confusion surrounding procedural motions that prevented proper democratic procedure.
Following the occupation, some student media and the right wing press framed the occupation as anti-democratic and reactionary. We want to make it clear that the occupation itself was protesting the obstruction of democracy. Every effort was made to prevent a debate on motion W107, because the likelihood of that motion passing was high. We would also like to note that there were motions timetabled before 107 that were in no way opposed, and in some cases endorsed, by the chair and his associates, including 106. We acknowledge that the chair himself wished to extend the guillotine - but only by enough to allow some of these motions time. The intention was to never get to W107. This was clear, this was planned, this was deliberate, and this was an attack on student sex workers. That fact must not be forgotten.
The occupation was not a matter of the left-wing against the right. Many of the students in occupation were students that shared the chair’s political leanings. Those students still stood up for sex workers’ rights. Motion W107 was not a motion proposed by any one political faction - it had cross-factional support right from the beginning. This is why we believe it would have passed.
And we hope that it still can. Ballots have been released this week, and we urge NEC members to review the materials put out by the students4decrim campaign, and on the SWARM website. We would like to remind NEC that this campaign was fought by a group of student sex workers, current and former, including trans people, migrants and people of colour. Having this policy over the last three years has produced tangible effects and changes in culture in Students’ Unions around the country, improving conditions for student sex workers, and welcoming many of them to the student movement. We urge you to vote to defend that.
We are delighted to see sex workers’ actions so well supported, and hope that this will strengthen the connection between the student movement and sex workers’ rights. Thank you to the delegates that joined, and to those that supported. Solidarity forever.