Editorial: The SU has lost sight of its purpose as a union

At a time when accommodation is such a critical issue, there simply is no excuse for haggling over details

On Tuesday evening, TCDSU Council voted against supporting Cut the Rent TCD and the group’s planned campaigns against rising accommodation costs. This represents a gross error on the part of the Union.

As the organisation set up to represent Trinity’s student body, the SU has both a mandate and a responsibility to aggressively campaign on the issue of housing, given how it disproportionately and near-universally affects students. This was a fundamental shirking of that responsibility.

It’s important to understand the context of this decision. Students and advocacy groups have tried, for years now, to appeal to the consciences of governments, universities, and landlords through dialogue and protest, and it has fallen on deaf ears. Rents keep rising, exploitation keeps happening, and real lives continue to be destroyed every single day. Under those circumstances, it is simply not enough for the Union to continue to organise marches and hold meetings with the Taoiseach, as important as those things continue to be. The old tactics are not working. It’s time to escalate.

So when a group of students take the lead and begin to organise direct action in a way students haven’t in decades, the SU should throw its full weight behind them. And yet it didn’t.

The discussion at Council was adamant that, while (almost) everyone agreed in essence with the idea of supporting rent strikes and Cut the Rent TCD, there were concerns over the specific wording of the proposal and what it might mandate the SU to do.

The concerns arose from the lines mandating “promoting and actively participating in the campaign, and protecting student activists in the case of disciplinary action” on the part of TCDSU. Some said that this language could potentially convince rent strikers that the SU would shield them legally from the consequences of their activism, while others worried that this might bind the Union and its members to participating in criminal activity.

This is bizarre. It’s based on a skewed idea of what our SU and unions in general are actually meant to be. No one is, in reality, under the impression that TCDSU is qualified to legally represent them, or that it’s capable of forcing its members to do anything, let alone break the law. Unions, be they student or labour, are meant to be forces of organisation first and foremost. The SU’s participation in Cut the Rent’s campaigns would involve things like facilitating training for new activists, handing out leaflets, and promising huge protests as a response to any disciplinary action by College. The Union isn’t meant to be a lawyer or a drill sergeant, it’s meant to be the promise of solidarity, the assurance that your fellow students have your back.

However, the real reason that the agonising over specifics was unnecessary is the very reason representatives at Council were so worried in the first place; the proposal was vague. “Promoting”, “actively participating”, and “protecting” are very nonspecific commands. No officer or member of the SU was mandated to take any distinct actions, and the proposal was arguably intrinsically meaningless. But it had the potential to be hugely powerful because of the symbolism. Not least, it would signal to College and political figures that we, as students, are absolutely prepared to play hardball and to step up our tactics when ignored.

More than that though, it would create an expectation that the Union materially help with direct action. The specifics of that support could be moderated and worked out in practical terms as events unfold, but the one clear thing is that the SU would be required to do something. Without the contentious line, the proposal merely stated that the Union would “adopt a formal stance in support of the Cut the Rent movement” which, quite transparently, means almost nothing. Asking that the SU participate in some way, but not tying it to anything in particular or limiting its scope, leaves us with the most choice.

There’s an even bigger question here though; where were the sabbatical officers on this issue? Why didn’t any of them say anything at all during the discussion? Beston in particular largely conducted her presidential election campaign on the back of her impressive activist credentials. Yet she chose to stay entirely disengaged from perhaps the most important discussion of student activism since Take Back Trinity.

If the idea is that sabbatical officers shouldn’t influence an issue like this, it’s not clear why four out of five of them went on to vote on the proposal after the debate ended. And if that is the idea, it’s not a very good one either. When arguments are being made about what, fundamentally, the Union can or should do when it comes to advocacy, that’s exactly the moment when the organisation’s leaders should lead. Complete silence is bewildering.

Critically, if the issue really was just the wording of the motion – and students are united on the idea of rent strikes in principle – then surely it’s not only acceptable but practically required that the Union’s leadership help negotiate a compromise. As mentioned above, the issues over wording largely miss the mark. But if such technical disagreements are the only barrier to a new era of SU-sponsored direct action, there is simply no excuse for sabbats sitting on the side-lines and letting the proposal fail.

It is no doubt true that the concerns raised at Council were held in good faith by many people, and that the debate, while chaotic, did come from a desire to plot the best course for the Union. Even if it seems that the point was missed, it’s obvious that no one thinks we should be doing nothing about the accommodation crisis.

But as long as the SU continues to squabble and obsess over details at these critical moments, to fret that supporting an activist group might require effort and risk on the part of the organisation, we will effect no change. We can organise all the protest marches we want, but this was the real test, and it was categorically failed.