Stand up? Fed up.

Mark O’ Meara

The Union of Students in Ireland, argues Mark O’Meara, is still failing to defend those who need strong union representation; and the rot is spreading.

Along with a new USI officer board, we now have new arrests and scandals. Who would have thought? I am sure at this stage many people think I just get a kick out of complaining about the USI. I don’t. I would be far happier to not have to write this article about the latest series of screw-ups that the organisation has engaged in.

After the USI disaffiliation referendum I said I was hopeful, but not expectant, of significant reform taking place in the organisation. Although I signed up to the USI working group which will look at reforms that could be implemented, I expected the USI to continue screwing up; but I was not exactly expecting the screw-ups to be this spectacular.

The few students who still pay attention to the actions of their student representatives will associate Wednesday 14th November with being the day that John Logue, the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) president, got arrested for his protest in Dáil Éireann. That event itself was anger-inducing for anyone who hoped that this year’s campaign would be different from last year’s; yet, before I had even heard about it, I was already angry with the USI for the gross incompetence it had shown at an event just one hour earlier.

That evening, the USI hosted a town hall meeting at the Alexander hotel which can only be described as a farce. The meeting started with speeches from the presidents of the students’ unions of Trinity, the Dublin Institute of Technology and the National College of Ireland, followed by a speech from the USI president, John Logue. It was then opened up to the floor for questions, with 60 seconds being allowed for each speaker.

“After the USI referendum I said I was hopeful of significant reform…”

At the back of the room, a man in a suit put up his hand and was given the microphone. It turned out that this guy was Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, a Labour party TD. He asked if he could speak for more than 60 seconds since he was an invited guest. No one said anything in response; so he talked anyway, and explained his background of working with disadvantaged and special-needs children, stating that, unfortunately for us, protecting them from cuts is higher up his list of priorities than protecting us from cuts.

Once he finished speaking, Logue took the microphone from him and proceeded into what can only be described as a five-minute verbal attack on the only TD who had even bothered to show up at the meeting. Ó Ríordáin was labelled a liar in as many ways as Logue could articulate and was incorrectly described as someone who condones huge salaries for university presidents. Logue then made the claim that the government does not have to choose between different areas to cut, implying that all savings can come from the general term “waste”, which apparently exists somewhere in the government but on which no one can ever put their finger, except for a handful of large salaries.

Once he finished, just one question was taken from the floor before it was declared that we were all going to the Dáil viewing gallery to “scare the shit out of the TDs”. As the small crowd proceeded to jump up with excitement, a councillor asked if he could speak briefly, since he had also been asked to come to the meeting. He spoke while half the room ignored him.

So, after just one comment had been taken from the floor, the meeting was over and the crowd were led to the Dáil to “scare the shit” out of politicians. It was on the train home from this meeting that I learned Logue had been arrested.

“I expected the USI to screw up; but I did not expect the screw-ups to be this spectacular.”

The problem with the campaign is that it is being dictated by anger. Do not get me wrong: students who are struggling financially are perfectly right to be angry. It cannot be easy to be barely getting by, knowing that it is going to be even harder next year. But while giving politicians “what they deserve”, whether that be blockading their cars, singling the vulnerable ones out or mounting a media campaign against them, may well feel good, the goal of the USI and Trinity’s union should be to help struggling students, and not anything else. Seeking some sort of revenge may well be counter-productive in any attempt to influence the upcoming government budget. Ignoring this reality has led to critical mistakes in this year’s campaign, and those who are struggling the most should be the angriest about it.

First of all, a harsh reality should be acknowledged. The reality is that the government is committed to making a certain amount of cuts, no matter what happens. Those who would consider themselves part of the anti-austerity movement may not want to accept this, but as we have seen in Greece you can smash up half the city and cuts are still going to happen. It is just a matter of where the cuts and tax increases happen, not if.

Secondly, and most importantly, the USI need to stop making the mistakes that all other unions seem to be making, and this mistake is glaringly obvious to many people. Simply put, the students barely able to financially survive should not just be the union’s “primary” concern: they should be the union’s only concern. Time after time, we see unions oppose cuts for every single one of their members. While public-sector unions are rightly motivated by their need to protect the lowest paid, their strategy is always to oppose pay cuts for all their members, including those who are on disproportionately high wages and would not suffer seriously from a slight pay cut. This seriously damages their credibility.

Likewise with the USI; while any increase in the financial burden experienced by any student is opposed, regardless of means to pay, then the union simply cannot be taken seriously. The strategy it needs to pursue is an acknowledgement that, while cuts are guaranteed to take place, they need to ensure that these cuts are directed as much as possible to those who are in the best position to absorb them.

“After seeing the actions of the USI over recent weeks I am in even greater despair…”

The ultimate goal should be to ensure that higher education is accessible to all students, regardless of ability to pay. A method of paying fees after graduation, once an acceptable income threshold is reached, would get us far closer to that goal than the current system. On top of that, a long-term plan to fight graduate unemployment should be to lobby the government to create incentives for students to take up technology courses in third level, where there will be plenty of jobs awaiting upon graduation.

But after seeing the actions of the USI over the last few weeks, I am in an even greater state of despair about the future of the organisation than I was when I first got involved in the campaign for disaffiliation. Not only have they carried out a poor campaign, they have also been quick to dismiss any criticisms that may be directed at them. The idea that political affiliation is a good enough reason to ignore criticism is laughable, considering Logue, his predecessor as USI president and his opponent in the 2012 USI presidential election have all had political affiliations.

The low point was when I saw people, including our own Students’ Union’s education officer, using the hashtag #freelogue on Twitter, creating a comparison between being an idiot in the Dáil gallery and people who have actually engaged in serious protests and been persecuted politically in other countries. Another low was when I saw our Students’ Union’s president making ridiculous comments to TDs on Twitter, including the comment: “I think Intel, Google … etc are not concerned about reading and writing”.

If last year was the year we fell out of love with the USI, then it seems this will be the year we fall out of love with the Students’ Union.