A crucial function of a union, and social movements more widely, is their capacity to display solidarity with struggles they may not themselves face but which are acutely felt by others. In doing so, by banding together with others, a union adds its own voice to the collective power that is exerted when large numbers unite behind a common cause.
The social progressivism this union claims to stand for cannot be neatly separated from larger political questions in the manner that some appear to believe it can be. There is no tidy line that can be drawn between students’ rights and workers’ rights, between local issues and national issues, between national issues and international issues. To try to separate them is a fallacy; they are interwoven at a complex web of junctures.
Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) Council voted last week not to put forward a referendum on taking a long-term stance against the use of Shannon Airport by United States military aircraft. There was significant discussion on the issue, but the broad consensus among those opposed to the motion was that international problems like this are beyond the scope of a students’ union.
This is demonstrably untrue, and betrays a deep ignorance of the history of the student union movement. Students played a crucial role in opposition to the Vietnam War, both domestically in the US and internationally. Student protests single-handedly brought down the French government in 1968, causing Charles De Gaulle to literally flee the Elysée Palace. The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 were started, led and carried on the backs of students. Far from being politically unimportant, university students as a group have long represented one of the most powerful political forces in the world, one which leaders ignore at their peril. There is nothing students are incapable of changing when they’re united, foreign policy included.
But nonetheless, TCDSU’s current officers and class reps reached a consensus last week that the union does not have this power. Surely, the union that has no power is the union that balks before it even tries. Even sabbatical officers discouraged voting for the motion. Far from wanting to lead, having a sense of vision and possibility, or wanting to drive the union forward, the organisation’s executive prefers to shy away from issues that are “too big”. There’s no sense of urgency, no fire in the belly of TCDSU’s leadership.
Candidates for President of the union did express theoretical support for an activist union at Media Hustings last Thursday, accepting the basic importance of both local and national level issues. Luke MacQuillan acknowledged that “when the students all come together as a collective, we have caused change,” while Ben Cummins said that “in this college, we have a proud history of standing up for social issues. We have a voice and a responsibility to make people hear it.” Leah Keogh, who is strongly favoured in this newspaper’s polling to lead TCDSU into the next academic year, was slightly more lukewarm, saying the union “need[s] to work with the national union and in tandem with the USI” on wider issues.
It remains to be seen, however, whether or not this is mostly lip service. In the context of the Council vote and the discussion surrounding it, it’s hard to see it as anything else. The political culture within the union is a fundamentally passive one, always setting a low ceiling on what the organisation should strive to achieve. On national issues, like those of Direct Provision or opposition to the CETA trade deal, the SU is willing only to take a symbolic stance, declaring its position but engaging in little to no agitation or direct action. On bigger issues, like that of Shannon Airport, even a symbolic declaration is apparently too much to ask.
Those who stand to take the reins of the union at the end of this year would do well to remember a number of things. First, they are the inheritors of a proud, centuries-long tradition of student organisation and political leadership. If the university students of the past could remake the world, calling individual policy issues “too difficult” is just a sign of a lack of imagination.
Second, the whole purpose and strength of a union is contained within its name. Yes, individual sabbatical officers are likely unable to talk politicians around on major issues of foreign policy or diplomacy. But tens of thousands of students marching together in the streets represent huge, raw people power that can upend the political status quo of a country in a single day. But movements need organisers, there need to be people who can provide the spark. Someone occasionally needs to stand up at a meeting and be the voice that says “no, I think this actually is within our power to change. Here’s how.” That should be our sabbatical officers. If you want to be the leader of a union, you have to be willing to occasionally lead the union. Not wanting to rock the boat, not wanting to take a side on an issue until it’s already decided – this doesn’t represent leadership.
Finally, symbolism and solidarity do matter. It won’t always be possible to commit 100% of TCDSU’s energy and organising power to an issue. But where that can’t be done, there is absolutely no excuse for not at least making an expression of support. If our representatives believe, as they were quick to insist that they do, that the presence of the US military in Shannon represents a stain on Ireland’s conscience and passive support for violence and conflict around the world, then how is it justifiable not to at least declare as much? It costs nothing, and it does matter. Expressed properly, even the passive support of a body like TCDSU carries some political heft. And if we’re not honest about what we think is right and wrong, what do any of our stances or sentiments mean?
A symbolic stand, however, must just be the bare minimum. For TCDSU to have power, to restore its sense of direction, purpose, and drive, it is imperative that it takes action. Those who were in college for the Take Back Trinity movement will remember the palpable, electrifying sense of possibility on campus at the time. We know that students united can change the world. Isn’t it time the students’ union did too?