In UCD yesterday the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) voted to re-affirm its commitment to fighting for “100% Exchequer-Funded Education” (or free fees as it’s more commonly known). While the voting process was of questionable legitimacy (claims that the process was wide open to fraud, and that non-students were able to vote have yet to be adequately dealt with) and seemed to be consciously timed to stifle democratic debate, this was nonetheless an important victory over neoliberal forces within the student movement; or, perhaps more accurately, a political disaster narrowly averted.
However, passing progressive motions is of little value in the absence of a coherent strategy for putting them into action. If the outcome of today’s vote is merely that the USI carries on as before, we will continue to suffer defeats at the hands of the government’s EU/IMF-imposed austerity agenda. What students need is a different kind of student unionism, which is capable of delivering the kind of campaigns we need to defend ourselves against the next round of attacks and to regain the ground we have lost since the introduction of nominally ‘free fees’ in 1995.
Broadly speaking, there are two approaches to unionism: the service-provider model and the organising model. The former, which is the model currently operated by the USI and the majority of trade unions since the introduction of social partnership, sees the union’s role as being to lobby or negotiate with the government or bosses on behalf of their members. This model is capable of delivering limited short-term gains in times of prosperity, but at the long-term cost of the union’s ability to fight. Within the trade union movement, this has lead to unions losing the skills and militancy required for organised struggle, to decline in union density (the proportion of workers who are members of a trade union) and has ultimately delivered precisely what the government and bosses want: industrial peace even in the face of the most concerted attacks on workers in decades.
Within the student movement, this approach to student politics has led to years of dead-end lobbying and one-big-march-a-year tokenism, while backdoor fees climb consistently and grants for students are slashed across the board. It has also lead to sporadic disaffiliations by colleges when students correctly perceive that the USI is failing them, but then wrongly conclude that they’re better off with no national organisation whatsoever.
Continuing with this failed strategy will only lead to worsening conditions for students, prospective students and their families. Political lobbying is a terrain on which establishment politicians are comfortable. The experienced career politicians and civil servants who run the Department of Education are familiar with and prepared for the USI’s lobbying strategy. They are also considerably more experienced negotiators than even the most competent and politically aware of student politicians. To expect even the most sincere and militant of student leaders to negotiate any significant gains in these circumstance is naïve, much less the crop of conservatives and neoliberals that currently lead the USI.
Quebec’s student strike has brought hundreds of thousands of students onto the streets to fight fee increases and cutbacks.
An organising union takes a fundamentally different approach. Rather than relying on representatives to negotiate on behalf of members, the focus instead is on organising and empowering the rank and file to fight on their own behalf. It recognises that the union’s power to effect change lies in its members’ power to disrupt rather than in the persuasive skills of the leadership. It requires the union to be active on a campus level in building an educated, politicised and organised student body that is capable of undertaking a campaign of sustained mass protest and civil disobedience: one that is angry, loud, disruptive, empowering, militant – a proven strategy that has brought down governments and scuppered reactionary policies across the world, and which is currently causing massive disruption in Canada as the Québécois student movement enters its 100th day of student strikes and mass protest.
Such a change in approach will not come from above. The USI in its current form works perfectly well for those with the political acumen to rise to the top of its structures who are then able to use it as a career stepping stone. Students need to organise on a grassroots level to reclaim the student movement and to begin a real fightback against the government’s cuts.
Aidan Rowe is a member of student campaign group Free Education for Everyone (FEE).