Student unions are such a common part of our university careers that we tend to take them for granted. Student government often exists at all levels of the institution, ranging from the department, to the college or school, all the way to the collective student union. The student union levies fees on students and provides certain services in return. The representatives of the union are often directly elected by students (with usually abysmal voter turnout).
Unfortunately, student unions commonly engage in overtly political activity. Students should actively monitor their unions and speak out when they are engaging in questionable activity. For example, Ontario’s radical student federation, the Canadian Federation of Students (Ontario) (CFS-O), was actively involved in planning the Quebec-Ontario Student Solidarity Tour. The phone number provided for the event linked directly to a CFS-O executive. The event was endorsed by a number of student unions, including those at Guelph, Queen’s, Windsor, and Ottawa. But it certainly was not by the people! At Guelph, students received no word of this decision until after the fact, and no attempt was made to consult the student body at large. The event involved student protest leaders with questionable politics. Guelph student union executives made a plea for students to join the strike movement, and even to donate money to student leaders fighting a legal challenge in Quebec.
Political activism on the part of the individual is commendable and to be encouraged. But to have a collective union which is composed of a broad range of viewpoints and ideologies purport to speak with a “unified” voice “on behalf of the people” is mere rhetoric. Students should ask themselves exactly what they expect their student union to be doing. Is it fair for an organization to levy fees on students and then use this money for questionable purposes?
In 2010, the York Federation of Students endorsed the teacher’s strike, which would have left students struggling to make up for lost class time. This union, like many others including the CFS, backs the controversial Israeli Apartheid Week. Ottawa’s student union, along with others, used student money to send protesters to the G20 protests. York’s and Toronto’s unions hosted an event which taught protest tactics to demonstrators. Two years later, nothing has changed. Student unions continue to support protests merely for the sake of it. Nothing says this better than the tagline for the Toronto event: “What are we protesting, again?”
A student strike training camp was held last month at the University of Toronto.According to Socialist Worker, workshop facilitators talked about the need to find issues, regardless of what they may be, to mobilize students and slowly radicalize them. To do this, strikers would identify radical departments, implement a strike, and then pressure other departments to follow suit. And of course, the strike must be enforced with coercion. If more students were aware of what their fees were being used for, there would be increasing backlash against these tactics of student unions.
Do we really need collective student unions? Students are not oppressed workers that need to be protected from employers. The collective bargaining aspect of the labour union is not necessary for students in higher education. Popular services, like the universal bus pass and medical coverage, can be debated in small, specialized committees elected by students for a temporary purpose until the service is in place. A student referendum can vote on whether or not to accept the proposed changes. Student government would still exist, but at a more direct level, such as at the department or school level. The central union would then act like the civil service and provide services that students essentially need. Student unions don’t have the power to make governance decisions at universities; these are done by the Senates and Boards of Governors. The central body could act as a purely merit-based hiring commission, freeing students who are tired of seeing the polarization and politicization inherent in the student union.