In the space of just three weeks, groups of students in Trinity, Dublin City University (DCU) and University College Dublin (UCD) have launched campaigns with almost identical ambitions: to see membership of their respective students’ unions become an optional affair.
Though at this point the campaigns themselves are only in their infancy, that the issue has cropped up on more than one campus in a matter of weeks suggests that this kind of inclination is gaining momentum. Although these campaigns – referred to as “disassociation” movements – crop up every couple of years, it is of course no coincidence that we’ve seen a quick succession of them in pro-choice unions ahead of next year’s referendum to repeal the eighth amendment.
While the notion of compulsory membership of a union seems somewhat draconian on the face of it, thinking about students’ unions in this way is actually wide of the mark. Yes, Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) acts as a representative body in ways similar to national workers’ unions. But no student is forced to engage with TCDSU, and almost every single student benefits from the work of the union. In comparison, members of unions like the Teachers’ Union of Ireland are quite often forced to strike, even if they disagree with the rationale in a given instance or simply want to continue working.
But nominally being a member of TCDSU does not impede your existence if you don’t want it to. Don’t want to vote in the union’s elections? You don’t have to. Don’t want to attend meetings of the union’s council? That’s OK. Disagree with a mandate, like its one to campaign in favour of abortion access? You are free to do so – and you can make as much noise about that disagreement as you want.
Of course, sometimes the motivation to leave is purely symbolic – and that is fair enough. But given the way Trinity funds its capitated bodies, students wouldn’t so much as get back the few euro of theirs that makes its way into the TCDSU budget. As such, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this desire to feel high and mighty is more than a little undercooked.