Uses for Unionism

30 November 2013

The University of Melbourne Union was set up in 1884, recognising a need to promote the interests of students on campus and to promote social activities between members. The fact that we are still standing almost 130 years later (albeit having undergone several reincarnations) perhaps indicates that they were onto something in the 1880s.

Student unions exist to ensure that students have a say in how they receive their education; they are crucial as a monitor of quality and as advocates for change. They provide key services such as free advocacy and legal advice to ensure that you can access all the assistance you may need to address issues affecting your studies, or any outside actors such as employment, financial, family and so on. These services are important because they support the notion that finances should never be a barrier to study. Many students rely on free services provided by student unions to get by—free welfare breakfasts, clothes swaps, safe spaces and groups run by the wom*n’s, queer and indigenous departments. Unions are important because we cannot always rely on university administrations to act in our best interests, particularly when funding is increasingly sparse and the need to stay atop of international research rankings is paramount.

I get told all the time that people should only pay for the services that they use. This was the central premise of voluntary student unionism. The legislation, implemented in 2006, saw many student organisations fold as their universities withdrew finding support; this was particularly felt at rural and regional campuses where sporting associations collapsed along with student representative structures, childcare, medical services, clubs, events and basic amenities such as lounges. Voluntary student unionism is like getting rid of income tax and assuming all schools, hospitals, legal aid, research and the arts will survive because people will pay to use them if they are as important as we think. And they don’t. This is partly because of economies of scale—more members/students/money means that more services, events and clubs can be provided. Voluntary unionism also increases the costs to those who need them most, often those who can afford them least. Without a certain amount of secure income, those programs cannot be supported, even for those willing to pat for them. It’s also hard to quantify the benefit students receive from student unions. Many students will never quite realise the extent to which they have been aided by behind-the-scenes representation, and therefore many are unwilling to pay.

Unions are, by their nature, political entities. The word ‘politics’ comes from the Greek politika, meaning ‘of, for, or relating to citizens’. Here, by citizens we mean students. Student unions exist to represent students and to fight for a better deal from the university or from government on issues relating to students such as lecture recordings, fairer and easier special consideration procedures or youth allowance.

Politics doesn’t necessarily mean left vs right or Labor vs Liberal. It means a recognition that to get shit done, a bit of lobbying and negotiation is always involved. ‘Political’ does not mean the same as ‘they made a decision that I didn’t like’; to dismiss the political in a student union means to dismiss the idea that a union should ever be fighting for change, or even fighting to retain the status quo. That increase to my club’s funding? I didn’t want that anyway. Speaking out against that $52 million that is going to be cut from my university? Don’t you think that’s a bit… political?

I welcome anyone disagreeing with or criticising decisions made by their student union but you shouldn’t ever argue that there is no room for politics in a union (or for that matter, any organisation that wants to effect change). Your argument may be about ideology represented but it shouldn’t be about the inherent political nature of the organisation. To remove politics from a union is to remove their efficacy and relevancy. In other words, you are left with an impotent body waiting to be swallowed up in the next university restructure.

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