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Campus muscle Vs. union sinew

Light Refractions by Lucien Rajakarunanayake For a long time they were unassailable. There was nothing that university students could not achieve by carrying out a sit-in or boycotting lectures. The university administrators were usually brought to their knees and governments caved in, as they dared not touch the students. It's not that the students were always right. But they had the muscle or the threat of it.

The students on campus also had a major ally - the working class, or some sections of workers organised in trade unions controlled and manipulated by left wing political parties. Suddenly the alliance seems to have cracked. It's now a confrontation between campus muscle and union sinew.

The CEB trade unions, well known for their belligerence and not to be ignored threats of trade union action, have warned of such action if the students of Sabaragamuwa University are to be appeased in their demand that circuit bungalows of the CEB be taken over to provide hostel facilities for them. We all know what trade union action by CEB unions mean. In this instance it is the crippling of Sabaragamuwa and plunging the province into darkness.

The agitators of the campus crowd must be surprised by this new twist of events. The oft misguided lefties among them must be shocked at this turn of events, with their traditional allies of the left not just deserting them but even warning of open confrontation with them.

Sishya Balavega, a leader of the students now forcibly occupying the CEB's circuit bungalows, expressed his shock at this new development at a hastily summoned meeting of the Student Action Front. "This is not fair. We have never opposed any of their trade unions actions. They should look at this from a class point of view. We are the natural allies of the workers.

Surely the CEB workers must understand we have a genuine need for hostel facilities, and that it is also important to demonstrate our strength."

Sisubala Vikrama, another leading member of the SAF said they must continue with their agitation and occupation of the circuit bungalows. We must not view this as a clash between CEB workers and us.

Let them go on strike. We must continue with our action. We can get the support of all our comrades in the other campuses. We must carry on the struggle. This is the best time to demonstrate our strength to the Government. We must not retreat."

Some other members also spoke in the same vein, but the responses to them from the membership were not as enthusiastic as the leaders expected. There appeared to be signs of discontent or muted disagreement with continuing the confrontation. When the issue was opened for wider discussion, a few students gathered enough courage to recommend caution.

Sarasavi Shishyadevi, who usually gave leadership to the women students, began saying she hoped there would be no victimisation for expressing her opinion. "I don't think we can afford a confrontation with the trade unions. Even if our comrades in all the other campuses go on strike or carry out sit-ins, how can we match the power of the CEB unions?

If they go on strike, as they threaten, the people will turn against us. This might be the beginning of a break in the link we have with the people. So far the people have put up with our various agitations and direct action, but that can change if the CEB workers carry out their threat. There are many here who think we should make a quick and careful retreat."

While the students were debating the issue there was a debate going on at the CEB union too. Balashakthi Aragalaya, a key union leader known for his hard line policies in trade union affairs was speaking. "It is important to show that we mean business. The students made a mistake in occupying our circuit bungalows. This is a direct confrontation with us and our rights. How can we give in to such immature demands, even by university students?

They must think of the consequences of their actions. Now that we've made the threat of strike, we must not retreat. All this time we have been able to bring governments to their knees with threats of strike action, why should we be afraid of some misguided students?"

"But what about the reaction of the people" asked Jagath Vidulibala."Do you think the people will be with us or with the students in this struggle?"

"Who cares what the people think. I'm sure that once they begin to realise what our direct action will lead to, they will be with us. Those immature activists in the campuses will learn a lesson from the people.

I think it is time that someone taught them a lesson on the limits of their power. Don't forget the real power is with us, "said Balashakthi Aragalaya.

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