Union House, Melbourne University’s student union building, currently looks like a tenth rate shopping mall or food court. And that’s the way the powers that be would like it to stay.

But in September 1971, Union House took on a dramatically different appearance. Hundreds of students were camped behind well-constructed barricades of tables and chairs that blocked all the stairways.

The doors were chained, lookouts watched from the rooftop, and students on bikes patrolled the campus perimeter. An alarm system comprising flares and a portable ship’s foghorn warned of impending police raids.

Mass meetings of students all around the country had voted to turn their campuses into sanctuaries for draft resisters opposed to the Vietnam War. Four of them – Tony Dalton, Michael Hamel-Green, Michael Matteson and John Scott – were subsequently ensconced in the Melbourne Uni student union complete with a pirate radio station, Radio Resistance 3DR, defying the police to come and get them.

At 5am on 30 September, more than 100 police armed with crowbars, sledgehammers, bolt cutters and batons smashed their way into the building. But they failed to catch the four draft resisters, who had been tipped off about the raid. Dalton and Scott made their escape while Hamel-Green and Matteson, hidden in a secret alcove, sat out the raid.

Frustrated and with egg on their face, the cops went ballistic, inflicting roughly $60,000 worth of damage (in today’s dollars) to the building.

Matteson went on to lead the police in a merry dance. On 24 April 1972, two cops tailing him managed to jump into the car in which Matteson was travelling and handcuff him.

Unfortunately for the cops, the driver ignored their instructions and drove into the grounds of nearby Sydney Uni. The car was quickly surrounded by hundreds of students. Large bolt cutters magically appeared and Matteson was spirited away.

This was the same campus where the cops had previously received another embarrassing comeuppance. In July 1968 Special Branch (the police spy outfit) Sergeant Longbottom was recording a student front lawn meeting from a police Mini Minor parked in the university driveway. Students surrounded the Mini, let down the tyres, carried police car and occupant out onto Parramatta Road and dumped them.

Flamboyant, defiant actions like these captured the imagination of tens of thousands of students and workers and gave them confidence to build a mass movement against the Vietnam War, which shook the whole of society.

Mass occupations

The bread and butter tactic of the student movement throughout its history has been the occupation. What the strike is for workers fighting for their rights, the occupation is for students.

When workers exert their power by going on strike and shutting down production or stopping services, they directly hit their boss’s profits. Students don’t have the same power to bring industry to a halt and hurt profits. So they have had to find other ways to up the ante and put pressure on university administrations or governments.

Ever since the 1964 University of California Berkeley free speech fight, mass occupations of admin buildings, faculty offices, libraries, mail rooms, eating areas, vice chancellors’ mansions – you name it – have been the hallmark of student protest.

Students have occupied to defend their own rights, whether about fees, class sizes or library facilities. They have also occupied over an incredibly broad range of political issues and the rights of others – against imperialist wars, to demand women’s rights, in defence of freedom of speech and against apartheid in South Africa and Palestine.

Sydney Uni’s first occupation in April 1967 was over increased library fines. La Trobe’s first occupation, in June 1970, was in support of seven students disciplined after a demonstration had forced army recruiters off campus. In June 1969 students at the University of Queensland, then one of the most radical campuses, occupied the Senate Room demanding staff-student control.

At Macquarie Uni in July 1974 students used a service tunnel to gain access to the guarded Council building in protest at the partitioning of the union bar to separate students from staff, the refusal of the vice-chancellor to fund student union office bearers and administration-imposed changes to the union’s constitution. In a sign of worker-student solidarity, the militant Builders Labourers Federation banned construction of the partition in the bar!

The UNSW Chancellery was occupied in 1971-72 in protest at the control of Warrane College by the right wing Opus Dei organisation, which had banned women from college rooms and was closely linked with the fascist Franco regime in Spain. Sydney Uni renewed struggle in 1975, for the establishment of the Political Economy Department, which led to an occupation of the vice-chancellor’s office. That in turn inspired the first one day strike of academic staff.

Democratic decisions

It wasn’t just the physical act of occupying that radicalised a generation of students and won significant reforms. It was the mass general assemblies of students, which debated the issues and democratically decided on a way forward, that welded thousands of atomised students into a fighting mass and raised political consciousness.

Monash Clayton became famous for its enormous student meetings on the sprawling lawns between the union (now the Campus Centre) and the Ming Wing. In May 1968 more than 2,000 students gathered to vote for their first occupation of admin in opposition to a new discipline statute to punish students for off-campus political activities.

In May the following year, 6,000 out of a total student enrolment of only 9,500 assembled to oppose the disciplinary statute. At the high point of the struggle, students voted to abolish the Student Representative Council and to make all key decisions at their regular general meetings.

The Assessment Action Group, initiated by the Revolutionary Communist Club (“Revcoms”, a forerunner of Socialist Alternative), led Monash’s longest ever occupation in September 1974. The eight day occupation had extremely radical demands, including the abolition of competitive assessment, student-staff control of course content and open admissions to allow the entry of more working class students.

I had the privilege of participating in that inspiring occupation as part of a delegation of La Trobe students who travelled out to Monash and then returned to organise a solidarity sit-in of the La Trobe Council Room.

The admin office was turned into an organising centre for building the assessment campaign. To counter the administration’s lies, thousands of leaflets were produced and distributed each day, explaining the demands of the occupation and urging other students to join the struggle. Many workshops were held, developing further the students’ ideas and demands for educational reform.

Tess Lee Ack, the central leader of the occupation and a Socialist Alternative member to this day, wrote at the time:

“The occupation … developed an atmosphere of creative struggle … The occupation discussed every question of tactics and principle in detail, and the Revcoms had to fight for each position … As a result, we experienced a much more united, much less alienated atmosphere, one in which valuable political discussion and democratic decision making could take place.”

And unlike an occupation led by Maoists at Flinders Uni earlier in that year, where, in Tess’ words, “many women left the occupation in disgust after being treated like servants and sex objects”, at Monash the Revcoms fought to ensure that women played a central role in the leadership of the campaign and “both sexes shared the apolitical tasks”.

For the first time at Monash, the administration called the cops to break an occupation after students forced entry into the council chambers. In the early hours of the morning of 26 September 1974, the cops raided the building, dragging out the occupiers and arresting 77 of them on the charge of “besetting a building”.

As Hard Lines, the broadsheet of the Revolutionary Communist Club, summed up the next day: “If they can’t fail us, then they’ll jail us.”

Radicals commonly bemoan the fact that today’s students seem so “apathetic” and “conservative” compared to the ’60s generation. But the nature of student existence makes them a highly volatile social group that can explode into struggle seemingly out of nowhere. In the last few years, incredibly militant student struggles have broken out in numerous places – Chile, Québec, Spain and Britain have been some of the most notable.

Moreover, the radicalisation of the ’60s came after an extremely conservative period on campuses in the 1950s. As late as 1967, most students supported the Liberals. In September 1966 a poll in Sydney Uni’s paper, Honi Soit, showed that 68 percent supported sending troops to Vietnam. A 1968 survey at Flinders Uni, later a hotbed of radicalism, found that only 8 percent opposed the war, 45 percent were church goers and 46 percent opposed premarital sex.

All of which goes to show that conservatism and apathy among students can very quickly turn into their opposite. When that happens, having revolutionary socialist clubs already in existence can help to ensure that the lessons of past struggles can be applied in new circumstances.