Protecting our student unions
Photo by Catherine Goce
By: Alex Bryant
Many students at McMaster University are furious over the recent changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program. Our student unions, which are some of the best tools we have to collectively resist changes like these, are also under attack.
The Ontario government will soon deem some ancillary fees “unnecessary.” Given the extreme cost of education at Ontario colleges and universities, students are likely to feel strong-armed into opting out of these fees.
While student-run groups and services funded through direct ancillary fees play an important role in students’ lives, we should expect the government to use this framework to attack student unions by making union dues optional.
Legislation in Quebec and British Columbia protects some student unions from attacks of this kind, but no such legislation exists in Ontario. Students must collectively resist this attack on student unions but also recognize that defending the existence of these organizations does not require defending the actions of current or past student leaders.
This government has its sights set on student unions because our organizations have for decades played a key role in fights for change at the governmental, institutional and community level. This is not because our unions are over-run with political reactionaries, but because the work of student unions naturally cultivates political community between students of differing backgrounds.
When we join union-based clubs or benefit from related services, we also have the opportunity to critically engage with our peers over shared struggles and recognize our ability to overcome these struggles together. When we allocate union resources to student-led projects, we choose to build a community where everyone can have enough food to eat, openly love who they want to love, safely walk alone at night and relax by having a great party.
This critical recognition of our shared experience is also the basis of student unions’ advocacy for students’ diverse interests, and as central locations for organized opposition to the origins of our shared struggles — tuition fees, for example — alongside others outside of our campus community.
Unfortunately, conservative politicians tend to defend the grounds for the struggles we face by protecting the interests of those who benefit most from the status quo. Hence why conservative politicians and campus conservatives have long attacked student unions and related groups.
Long after students choose to found their unions, the processes of direct democracy of the general assemblies and referenda used to set union due rates, and members’ participation in the allocation of this funding through votes on budgets and representative bodies, reflect that student unions are fundamentally for students and our interests.
We may wish voter turnout were required to be higher, disagree with some of the campaigns and policies adopted by the organizations our union funds, or something similar. We should hold fast to these legitimate criticisms, engage with our peers about them and demand change where those leading our unions have genuinely failed us.
If our demands are ignored, we may rightfully escalate our actions until they are implemented just as we will do with the provincial government. However, criticizing the work of our unions and related organizations is importantly different from attempting to eliminate these organizations, which is what the provincial government seeks.
Hoping finally to accomplish their thinly-veiled goal of destroying student organizing, the provincial government has even abused our critical examination of our peers’ work in order to support an existential threat to our unions.
I've heard from so many students who are tired of paying excessive fees, only to see them wasted and abused.
That's why we're giving students the power to choose to pay for the campus services they actually use.https://t.co/XYC8G4jaZ0
— Doug Ford (@fordnation) January 26, 2019
We must forcefully resist this rhetoric and this attack. We must protect our student organizations as a whole by keeping in the foreground their foundational importance to our ability to organize, and by doubling-down on our commitment to support the collection of union dues.
Especially under the current government, students across Ontario must work together to become educated about the struggles facing our peers, build skills, organize, resist and stand in solidarity with others doing the same — student unions continue to be one of our best tools for doing so.