Aug 2, 2012

Students are Biggest Losers from Compulsory Union Membership




Eamonn Bell

Staff Writer

Hot on the tails of a motion on the topic tabled by Young Fine Gael (YFG) members from UCD at the Garret FitzGerald Summer School, we ought to address a pressing need to provide legal provisions to ensure that membership of a Students’ Union is not compulsory.

When Students’ Unions are seen to be attacked in such a manner, it is almost certain that union stalwarts will come to the fore to defend their institution. USI president John Logue has done so already, we will learn.

The status quo of the Universities Act 1997 on preliminary inspection reveals no such explicit imposition of SU membership and so we must ask of those that will comment against and excoriate the proposers of a motion to abolish a provision that never really existed – would they rather see this provision exist? Would they advocate a change to the law firmly and unequivocally which would mandate that all students at Irish third-level institutions owe dues to their local Union? This is unlikely, much as it is unlikely that this policy proposal from the summer will graduate unscathed from YFG mandate to party policy to Bill to law.

The principle, regardless of the inferences of the 1997 Act, is certainly worthy of discussion.

Whether the right to associate comes parceled with an equally valid and irrevocable right to not associate is a point of labour relations of much interest to trade unionists. It seems, with brief consideration of principles of equity, that an employer ought not to be allowed to make employment conditional on joining a particular union. This is for the plain reason that the employer would be likely to force membership of the least active and least vocal union – saving themselves the bother of trade disputes and the like. Does the same principle apply in the world of the Students’ Union? Does the trade union paradigm really apply in this edge case? Ought it to? We are workers soon, after all…

Consider the problems which obtain while sustaining either mandatory membership or, at best, arcane and unexposed mechanisms for withdrawing one’s membership.

Firstly, no matter what any officer, class rep or sabbatical officer may say, the Students’ Union will not always be in and of the right. An argument premised on the assertion that those who opt out are necessarily making the wrong choice is unsound. We ought now know that the lie has been truly given to institutions that hold themselves to be operating pro bono publico in perpetuity.

To claim, as USI President John Logue did, that ‘most students will never know the true worth of their Students’ Union until they need it the most’ is patronising in the extreme. Are we truly to believe that the Union knows best and that to opt otherwise is the height of collegiate folly? It is unsettling to think that the national leader of a movement that should reek of vitality and youthful free-thinking is inclined to sternly and paternally chide the errant student, who having strayed from the One True Way must be welcomed back into to the fold to avail of middling attempts at social action and the cheaplist on a Wednesday night.

No matter what any officer, class rep or sabbatical officer may say, the Students’ Union will not always be in and of the right.

An appropriate response? How about ‘We regret that any student would feel the need to opt out from our Union, and we strive to provide an honourable service to our members and to our society which inspires active participation and membership in all our member unions.’?

It must be understood that I do not for a hot minute doubt the benefits of solidarity. I will continue to advocate that we work together to lobby for the most reasonable state policy, for local reforms in outdated universities and for a quality service to the most vulnerable students. However, I question whether the current model, wherein union costs are recouped through the capitation fee automatically, best serves the student body as a whole.

Not only do I think that we should be permitted a clear and unambiguous opt-out but that indeed, we should move towards opt-in membership, to be renewed much as in the trade unions on a periodic basis. A seachange in the way the Union carries out its business will accrue.

Opting-in shifts the burden of providing a real service on to the Union itself; no longer can the Union depend on a constant revenue stream. Moving to a model whereby each student is permitted to determine for themselves if their experience is best served by membership denies the Union the exact kind of reliable revenue that permits institutions to stagnate.The lenses of the Union are focused unmistakably inwards, squarely within the confines of our Trinity.

There is a powerful economic force possessed by a motile market of 12,000 or so dues-payers. This force has the potential to disrupt the manner in which our Union carries itself today, from the management of national campaigns to the elections of non-sabbatical officers at Council.

In the former case, the Union will risk a real subversion by those who will refuse to renew, if it is seen to be buffeted towards irrelevant policy by a handful of national mavens whose apparent force of character is merely a function of the intellectual vacuum in which they operate. In the latter, it will become of prime importance to any potential candidate for any one of the myriad executive positions to ask herself what she will do, not for herself (or her CV), not for her closed circle of SU hacks (hold fast dissenter – some self-identify this way), not for her class but in the name of the entire student body.

At last, we will have to hear what vision this frequently self-nominated crew has for us, what they will do to convince us to part with our dues and invest them within. I caution that some may not be able to answer this question coherently.

Without the certainty of a guaranteed stream of naive incoming students, the Union will be forced to turn itself truly outwards, not in a PR exercise of ersatz inclusiveness, but in a genuine perennial bid to secure a loyal and committed membership. Seasoned SU devotees will agree and despair at the lack of engagement that the Union can experience on certain matters. The most ardent of those truly, and rightly, believe that we are better off with a more vocal and active student body. Perhaps surprisingly, we are aligned that greater participation is to be encouraged.

It is now past time for the Union to deliver a compelling and meaningful service and to constructively answer the question ‘Why should I subscribe?,’ every year, for every student. Today, the question is moot because we are docked dues at the source and there are few advertised channels to revoke one’s SU membership, at least in this College.

Regrettably, too many students are disengaged from the politics of the student union movement because of the complacency of the active union members who act blithely as if they represent the whole of their membership. There is a silent horde who are either repelled or bored stiff of the glacial pace of the quietism that has our Union in its thrall.

The lenses of the Union are focused unmistakably inwards, squarely within the confines of our Trinity.

The vacuous nature of some of the campaign planks of sabbatical officers of recent memory, a fearful lack of initiative on the behalf of Council to decry the hateful Nick Griffin’s Phil-initiated visit to College, not a single word of support uttered by the Union on the topic of our Québécois allies nor on myriad global student injustices; all these sample offences paint not the picture of a defunct union (for that is not the purpose nor the truth).

Rather, they sketch one that is regrettably out of touch with the world in which we live – that world, we are reliably told by those much more jaded than us, which lies without the walls of College, without the walls of House 6, without the walls of the GMB or The Academy on those filthy Wednesday nights (at least at Trinity you may choose your poison).

Instead, the lenses of the Union are focused unmistakably inwards, squarely within the confines of our Trinity.

Today, we have little means by which to do so but to gripe noisily at a machine that trundles on, and risk labeling as an ill-wisher who only cares to derail those ‘having a good time’ or those that opted, lamely, in the absence of searching opposition to take to the Union. Tomorrow, we threaten to opt out. Tomorrow, we threaten to shake the foundations of that union which we may silently resent, but of which we long for genuine radicalisation.

I will not use my right to opt out to disengage, but to create the conditions for a stronger Union. Let us move towards a true and conscious Union, arrived at by empowering each and every student to truly contemplate the personal costs and the broad societal benefits of unionisation for his or herself.

The alternative is having that choice made for us by either a patronising élite in the leadership of the unions at present, or worse, by legislation concocted by a perpetually aging power structure that holds the youth as a contemptible nuisance banging on about such tiresome pursuits as equality, liberty and the republican ideal of freedom of association.

Let us make the necessary changes such that this freedom is finally put to good use. Mandating opt-in, periodically-renewing membership of Students’ Unions nationally, I conclude, is one such change.








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