Let’s get right to it – the Students’ Union at the University of Calgary is in trouble and has been for awhile. An overall lack of student mobilization over the proposed market modifier tuition increases in 2014 and the recent Mac Hall ownership dispute are all symptoms of an SU that has lost its ability to connect with students on issues that matter.
I write this as a former SU Elected Official (Arts Rep) myself, and as a student who has interacted with the SU in various capacities over the past six years. This article is based on my personal experiences, observations and conversations with other students.
The leadership model at the University of Calgary is a highly individualistic and competitive, focused on promoting individual careers than capacity building for student organizing. This is most evident in the SU election process, which is centred around effective marketing and branding, where candidates in various eye-catching onesies strive to set themselves apart as cures for student body ailments.
But, in the face of an increasingly precarious job market – where employers across industries find ways to exploit workers by suppressing wages and benefits – students can do more by learning to band together rather than striving to set themselves apart. There’s no better training ground for this than the campus environment, and the SU is doing students a disservice by not recognizing this. The SU needs to provide students with the full spectrum of tools they need to organize themselves – including direct action in the form of strikes and protests.
Instead, most of an Elected Official’s capacity is directed towards learning and navigating the SU bureaucracy. The bureaucracy is not a problem in an of itself. The SU provides a lot of student services such as the Campus Food Bank and the Q Centre and it’s important for students to play a role in the delivery and implementation of these services. It’s also helpful for students to gain experience working in such an environment, as the world is sadly made up of many large slow, moving bureaucracies.
But a key problem is that the SU centralizes outreach and communication to such a degree that it limits the capacity of individual EOs to connect with students and create a sense of solidarity. Candidates who run on platforms that emphasize community building or organizing can easily get frustrated with the lack of institutional support for such initiatives. When students never see or hear from candidates once elected, it’s because they’ve been absorbed into a bureaucratic machine.
Take for example the concept of “office hours,” which is not actually included in an EOs job description, and thus no formal structure exists to facilitate or promote them. EOs have to essentially improvise. Without an established structure to maximize their effectiveness, “office hours” can feel like an exhausting and demoralizing waste of time and are quite often abandoned.
Compare this to SU organized activities centred around Orientation Week, Bermuda Shorts Day, Sex Week, Stress Less Week, Dinos games etc. These kinds of events all have SU bureaucratic support in the form of organizing committees, staff positions, volunteer coordination, and financial resources to facilitate effective planning, promotion and execution.
These events are all well and good for providing a fun, recreational campus experience, but they do not serve to build a sense of solidarity among students as Union members (and all students are Union members!). Students come to these events, enjoy themselves (hopefully), pick up some SU sunglasses or whatever the swag-item-of-the-year happens to be, and leave without knowing why the SU matters, why unions matter in general, or why student solidarity is important.
Particularly telling that this year’s SU presidential candidates all stated that they would use SU resources to break a strike on campus. It’s easy to see SU as filled with self-centred careerists with this kind of talk from its aspiring leaders. Grassroots and labour organizing is simply not a cultural value at the U of C.
Occasionally, activist-oriented candidates will come into their roles hoping to shake things up and mobilize students. But effective protests and campaigns don’t just materialize out of nowhere, or because particularly charismatic students can rally people around them. There has to be a general understanding about why direct action has value, and the SU has failed to communicate this effectively.
Take the market modifier protests in 2014, which I participated in – the Students’ Union couldn’t even fill a single bus to send up to the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton. Those who did attend were students either already in the SU or students gunning for SU positions in the upcoming election. It was a very insular crowd.
Or the Mental Health Funding campaign, which showcased the SU’s super lackluster black curtain + tiny whiteboard photo campaign strategy. The SU could totally afford a better setup, but no one thought to invest in these kind of campaign-oriented resources. As a result, these campaigns usually look very thrown-together and not all that inspiring.
And, finally, the loss of student ownership over Mac Hall. The overall absence of mobilization around what should have been a massive student concern is evidence of the general lack of student identification with the SU and sense of student ownership of the building.
And it wasn’t for lack of trying on behalf of the executive and elected officials of that year., who were generally fed up and ready to take the fight to the streets. That year’s council was simply late to the game in recognizing that direct action might have been a useful strategy in the Mac Hall struggle.
Educating the student body around this issue should have happened years before. You simply cannot get a large amount of students effectively educated and organized over such a complex issue in the span of a couple months. It’s easy to blame student apathy, as many of us did initially, rather than recognize the lack of groundwork the SU laid to make effective direct action a real possibility.
Now, the Mac Hall dispute was largely a legal battle, and understandably, most of the effort was concentrated into legal channels. Similarly, the SU invests a lot of time into lobbying government officials on behalf of students against things like market modifiers or for increased mental health funding. These are obviously important channels to work through that most students don’t see.
But these methods centralize power into the hands of a select few students & SU bureaucracy. It’s a “Don’t worry, we got this” approach. While these “respectable” tactics are important tools for student advocacy, they have been prioritized at the expense of empowering and engaging the broader student body. What happens when you send a select number of suited students into meetings with government officials and university administration and come back with nothing?
As it stands, the SU is structurally deficient in facilitating any truly effective direct action, and that’s a problem.
So, what’s the solution?
Well, directing some SU infrastructure and resources towards grassroots and labour organizing would be a start, ideally in the form of an organizing committee. (Edit: Or perhaps a Public Interest Research Group*.) This committee’s mandate would have to be, in order of importance, something like this: a) build solidarity among students through community building initiatives b) educate students about grassroots, student, and labour organizing history and tactics, and c) determine how and when direct action should be employed by the SU and d) organize direct action when deemed appropriate.
It would also have to support students organizing independently of the SU, much like their Lobby Training Program does by trying to make lobbying tactics more accessible to students outside the SU. This would shift the notion that “leaders” are ones who can market themselves successfully in elections, to students who can foster those around them to recognize their own power.
But let’s face it, this is absolutely not the SU’s style and would take a miracle to actually happen.
The alternative to the SU failing to take on such an initiative would be the formation of an independent student organization that would operate under a similar solidarity-building mandate. This might even be preferable, as this group could, in theory, circumvent the SU personality-centred leadership model, be decidedly more political, and less weighed down by a bureaucracy. This is not to say that the group wouldn’t work alongside the SU in many cases – I think it would be advantageous to do so, while simultaneously retaining independence to critique the SU when needed.
The way such a group is formed and functions internally would matter just as much as the actions it carries out. It would have to be inclusive of all genders, sexual orientations, cultural and religious backgrounds. It would have to be accessible to students in poverty and students with disabilities. It would have to prioritize the wellbeing of students involved, rather than sacrificing their minds and bodies to a greater cause. It would affirm that students are people first and not working machines.
Students would have to do their homework, researching other grassroots organizational models, trying to learn from others’ mistakes and finding what works best for the unique campus environment that is the U of C – they should probably try to bring in student organizers from across Canada in for some workshops. There are a lot of ways an endeavour like this could go wrong, but getting it right would be game changing for student advocacy in Alberta.
Again, I’m not going to pretend that any of this would be easy, or that it wouldn’t be a huge headache in many ways.
But you know what’s also a huge headache? An administration that just screwed students out of their own building. Precarious work, wage suppression, and exploitative working conditions. Entitled politicians who forget or disregard the needs of their communities once elected. Students feeling anxious, depressed and powerless because they are overwhelmed by academic and career pressures. Students feeling isolated and lonely because they feel their peers are their competition, not their community.
Students deserve access full spectrum of tools needed to advocate for themselves – including knowledge about organizing effective strikes and protests.
Who at the U of C will step up?
*Update (3/24/17): A friend of mine has since referred me to the existence of Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs). I had never heard of them, but apparently they can facilitate the kind of grassroots organizing mandate I suggested in the piece, among other things.
There is an Alberta Public Interest Research Group based out of Edmonton. It looks quite active and like it’s doing some really neat stuff. It’s been in existence since 2001! Wow!
And apparently one did exist at the U of C like over 10 years ago. This looks like a really promising first step for the U of C to take, getting something like this started up again. Check it out.