– Sarah McCarthy writes about her experiences of engaging with her students’ union and the Union of Students of Ireland (USI).
We’ve had two articles here on the ISLO concerning UCD’s Disaffiliation from the USI. While I have a number of more theoretical and comparative points I’d like to contribute to this debate, the last article makes me think it would be useful to explore what engaging with our SU’s and the USI actually looks like. I’ve had a relatively high level of engagement with the NUIG students’ union during the near three years I’ve been at University. I’ve been in Free Education for Everyone (FEE) since I began, was a class rep for two years, and ran for the position of Welfare Officer last year. This article essentially outlines the highlights of the experiences I’ve had during that time, in order to illustrate that we lefties don’t moan about our SU’s and the USI for no good reason.
I’ll start with the classic avenue students are encouraged to take to engage with their SU; passing motions and contributing to debates at Class Reps’ Council. Last semester, I had the pleasure of trying to get two motions through SU Council; both times Officers within the SU flagrantly tried to prevent me from presenting them at all. I’ll describe what happened with one.
The first was a motion to mandate our SU to take part in two pre-budget protests; a local march organised by a number of community groups and trade unions, and the Dublin Council of Trade Unions march which was supported by a number of anti-austerity groups. The motion had six parts, one of which made reference to organising a student block with GMIT. When I stood up to speak on the motion, the Chairperson announced that due to the inclusion of GMIT in the motion, it would have to be amended, and if we were to do that the spirit of the motion would be changed and therefore it would fall. i.e. – we could not discuss or vote on my motion. Outraged I asked him why he didn’t inform me of this beforehand, or why we couldn’t simply remove the one acronym ‘GMIT’. With a smug smile he informed me that he had rung me once and I had not answered. Now, I think he was lying as my phone had no record of the call. Either way, he could have emailed me back when I sent in the motion, he could have rang me more than once, and he easily could have found me before the meeting (I was sitting right in front of him for a good 20 minutes before it started). Luckily, after a lot of tittering from those present, an attempted motion of no confidence and a number of outbursts from yours truly, the Education Officer suggested that we discuss the motion in AOB, with ‘GMIT’ removed. We did and it passed with quite a comfortable majority. ‘Great’ you’re thinking, ‘democracy in action, the hacks can be defeated!’ Alas no, the passing of this motion resulted in sweet nothing.
We constructed the motion in a very deliberate way, ensuring that it made specific reference to concrete actions that our Union would have to take. These included:”to build for the march on NUIG campus, organising buses and actively encouraging students to attend.” Yet despite the democratic will of the students clearly supporting this, our Officer Board did absolutely nothing. No posters were made, no buses were organised, and the Officers themselves didn’t even show up at either of the marches. I don’t think there was even a cursory post on the website. So naturally, at the next Class Reps’ Council I grilled the Officers on this; I outlined everything they had not done and demanded to know why they had not respected the democratic mandate of the students they supposedly represent. I was met with a variety of smirks, shrugs, floor-staring, and generally lame excuses. That was it; there was nothing else I could do. I had no mechanism to hold them accountable for their inaction, and the students present didn’t seem too concerned by it.
Last year, FEE Galway had a similar experience with our SU and organising marches. That time, we met with the SU President, who agreed to co-organise a march with us. He said that the SU Office would ring local secondary schools and other contacts, would print off posters, and would generally help to build for the march. The next day, the SU lawyers were saying that schools couldn’t be contacted for insurance reasons, no posters had been printed, and the President was threatening to pull their support entirely because our press release had neglected to mention the Union (that was an honest mistake). The only support we got from them was an email and permission to put the SU logo on our posters. We in FEE put a huge amount of effort into building for that march, which turned out to be quite a success. A success which the SU Officers proceeded to claim absolute credit for, with such effectiveness that I still hear people making reference to it as a great example what our SU has done to fight fees.
Not only did they manage to erase our role in the march out of history, they proceeded to condemn our subsequent occupation of AIB that day. They had been happy to lead students to a TD’s office and back, carrying wreaths and making empty speeches, but once we stepped over the line of respectable protest, they vowed never to “work with us” again. What was the point in soliciting SU support for that march? Sure, more people probably turned out that would have if the posters had just mentioned FEE, but what did students learn in the process? A to B marches are okay but taking direct action and aiming anger at the banks is detrimental to our reputation and must be avoided? I don’t mention that our role in the march was erased because I’m bitter about doing work for no glory; it’s relevant because they managed to completely alter the political message of the march, and in doing so they succeeded in diverting students’ frustrated energy down an utterly useless path. They obliterated with our effort our point; and as a result that march didn’t radicalise students and stoke their anger for future action. Like every USI march of its kind, it told them that they had done their bit now, time to go home.
We in FEE Galway have plenty of other similar examples of time wasted engaging with the NUIG SU. I’ve had a motion to support legislation for the X Case blocked with a legal technicality (a week after Savita Halappanavar’s death), I’ve heard our President argue against our motion that the IMF’s presence is bad for students, and I watched the Union do absolutely nothing when the Labour Party held its 100th anniversary conference on our campus. But this article is getting a bit long so I’ll move on to discuss my (less extensive) involvement with the USI.
I suppose the first time I was exposed to the horror show that is the USI was when I found myself sitting in the USI hustings for NUIG, listening to the two candidates for President argue over who left Fianna Fáil first. Yes I gave them a nice verbal lashing for having the audacity to think they could be head of a national union (one of them had only left in 2011!), but that was pretty pointless. What I found incredible about the whole thing was that I had not heard up until this point that USI elections were happening. My SU had never informed me that I had the opportunity to run in this election, I was never invited to contribute to the motions proposed by my Union, and these hustings had not been advertised. In fact so few people showed up to that meeting that quorum wasn’t reached, leaving NUIG delegates to USI Conference to “free-vote” on all motions and officer elections. My comrade Alan stated that the USI has sufficiently democratic structures; I’m really going to have to respectfully, and earnestly disagree. In order to even run for a position on the USI Officer Board, one has to have the formal backing of two member Unions. This is not a superficial piece of bureaucracy; a FEE member in NUIG was prevented from running a few years ago because our President refused to back him. Then, once one does manage to secure a nomination, who votes for these positions? The “delegates” to USI conference, who are predominately the officers of individual unions. There is no formal requirement for delegates to be mandated from their student body. In our case there was no participation from students whatsoever, and I suspect that this is the norm. This leaves a tiny minority to draft policy and elect representatives for thousands of students. You can argue that what I describe is an example of right-wing students abusing our Union structures, but without any formal methods of recourse or recall, any democratic structures serve as mere guidance to officers which can be easily ignored.
I managed to become an NUIG delegate for last year’s USI Conference (once all the Officers who wanted to go took a place). On the first night the “preferendum” was held, to revisit USI’s position on how higher education should be funded. At this I saw Union Officers, who had been elected on promises of free education, arguing for a Graduate Tax (a method invented by the neo-liberal ideologue Milton Freidman) some going so far as to argue for a student loan system (are we trying to do the Government’s work for them?) and the then USI President and Vice-President literally running around trying to manipulate the procedural motions to get the Graduate Tax option passed. In the end the vote was deferred to a future Special Congress. Every single SU in USI has a policy of fighting for free education. So we have to ask, why were a substantial number of these so-called delegates arguing and ready to vote for another model, a model that if adopted would unarguably harm their students? Again the lack of any form of democratic accountability or mandate is abundantly clear.
I missed a lot of the sessions of that conference because I had an essay to finish – that was because USI chose to hold its National Conference, its supposed highest decision-making body, during study week. Every year they hold it when most actual students are up to their eyeballs studying for exams and can’t possibly afford to take the four days off to attend, or even pay close attention to what happens there. This timing represents USI’s relationship to the vast majority of students; they have no interest in engaging them, for then they might actually be held accountable for doing as little work as possibly while receiving their nice salaries. At that conference I watched USI Officers argue that Croke Park needs to be revisited because lecturers get paid too much, the then President Gary Redmond (a member of Fianna Fáil) break his own mandate by arguing for a Graduate Tax, and then Vice-President Colm Murphy (a member of Fine Gael) attempt to pass an emergency motion for USI to endorse the Fiscal Treaty. The level to which they are out of touch with students is hard to articulate.
I think the previous article recognised that these deep problems exist within the SU’s and USI. Yet it argued that we (left-wing students) should still seek to agitate within our unions, take positions on our Officer Boards, and ultimately take back the USI. I’ve run in a student union election – it takes a huge amount of effort. It takes time, resources, and energy that we simply don’t have. The resources that we do have should not be spent on union elections, for even if we managed to win, we would still find ourselves trying to steer a widely depoliticised student body. Clearly our biggest problem is the lack of students who care or even realise that their SU and the USI are being operated in this way. We need to focus our energy on attempts to politicise our campuses. We need sustained propaganda campaigns, lots of public meetings and events, and innovative and dynamic direct actions which invigorate our members, cause some form of nuisance to those in charge, and send a clear radical message through the media and on-campus attention we get. If we can succeed in that, as Aidan Rowe argued, USI will have become irrelevant.