'Union democracy' is an oxymoron. Discuss.
Writing about web page http://www.sunion.warwick.ac.uk/portal/Default.asp?url=ARTICLE&article_id=539
My motivations for seconding the recent (and might I say, controversial) motion to ban smoking from the Students' Union were several and complex.
At the trivial level, we have the fact that I'm not too keen on smoke, smokers or smoking. Even ignoring the health risks both to the smoker and to other people, it has to be one of the most unpleasant and anti-social activities around, and I know many people would agree with me.
Still, a ban on smoking in the Union might seem a little extreme. Is preventing people from smoking when and where they want perhaps an attack on individual liberty? What's next to be banned? Alcohol? "The Union's nannying us, help!" And that debate will go on, on the blogs and elsewhere. It's not terribly interesting yet, in my opinion, while people are still free to do what they want in their own homes. Let us assume for the moment that smoking presents such a public health issue that I'm comfortable with it being banned in public places. Binge drinking is also a 'bad' thing, but alcohol in moderation doesn't seem to pose a health risk.
What are these referenda motions for? What is Union democracy about? What is the Union about, for that matter? The Union's own answer would be to quote the Mission Statement from its Constitution:
This Union is directed by its members and aims to enhance the experience of students whilst at the University of Warwick.
It's fairly vague, really. "Enhance the experience of students." Okay. "Directed by its members" is the only other interesting bit. Oh wait, there's more:
This Union aims to:
(a) promote the interests of our members as effectively as possible at institutional, local and national levels
(b) ensure effective communication between our members, the University of Warwick and other bodies
(c) provide for the educational, cultural, recreational, sporting, social and welfare needs of our members to the best of our ability
(d) operate an effective equal opportunities policy while guaranteeing freedom of expression and minimising any adverse environmental impact, therefore providing a safe and enjoyable environment for all
Hmm, so that's what it does. And it tells us all how it's going to do it in its Strategic Plan. I would hazard a guess that very few students are aware of this document, and even if they did know about it, they would have no idea where to find it. One bit I find amusing is that in the SWOT analysis, one of the weaknesses is the "Unpredictable nature of student democracy". While the Union is (supposedly) directed by its members, this critically important document is hidden away, and reviewed once a year by the Executive Committee.
So that's all very interesting.
Simon Lucas wrote an interesting article for the Boar's special 40th Anniversary edition, titled 'Putting the brickbats away'. And I quote:
Back in the day nobody would have expected the President to know the bar and catering gross profit margins. Budgets, files, strategic plans, e-mails, memos, and accounts weren't things we needed to be concerned with. Nowadays the sheer size of our operation makes all of this absolutely imperative.
In the quest to serve its members effectively, the Union has become a giant money-making machine. I can hear the Exec screaming in protest at this right now… of course, all the profits from Students' Union Services Warwick Ltd. are donated to the Union charity. But still, there is a tension between the Union serving its members, and turning them into customers.
And then we come to the Staff-student protocol. In itself, this is not a particularly sinister document – it lays down some rules about how complaints about staff and students are to be handled, and how the Company is going to relate to the Charity, and so on. After all, it is right that we "protect the individual employee from breaches of confidentiality in respect of personal affairs and to ensure that contractual matters are dealt with only by the employing committee." On the other hand, this is what is written:
Elected officers of the Students’ Union share a collective and individual responsibility to ensure that under no circumstances shall discussion take place of matters relating to the responsibilities; conditions of employment; performance or conduct of members of staff other than at a meeting of the Board of Directors.
This paragraph has the potential to be interpreted more widely than I believe it was originally intended. So, for instance, in the recent "Big Debate" in the Union, it was mentioned that the current rules regarding smoking areas were not being effectively enforced. The Chair then had to step in and ask that people not talk about the performance of staff members.
The Boar is widely seen as being biased towards the Union, and criticising the University too much. One of the reasons for this is the Staff-student protocol; the Union has censored the Boar in the past for reporting on the behaviour of staff members. In fact, almost anything you can think of that might be critical of the Union can usually be traced back to the performance of some staff member, and that makes it difficult for the Boar to publish anything bad about the Union. (In my opinion; you will have to ask the Boar yourself about what it thinks.)
This document was used last year to justify bringing disciplinary procedures against John Cross, the then Returning Officer of the Union, when he asked some questions about the Union's accounts. It's creating an atmosphere where you can be sued for libel if you try to get seriously involved in Union democracy. (I might note that John was later found not to have broken the Staff-student protocol, or any other rules. He was still found guilty, of course.)
A motion was passed at Union Council the other week, requiring the Boar to submit its entire paper days in advance of Referenda periods, so that Elections Group can check them for accuracy and possible bias. On the one hand, it seems so sensible; a Boar article could sway the opinion of a sizable number of students. On the other, it's stepping up the censorship yet further; seeking to maintain control over something you cannot. Except, possibly, at an awful price. Is this democracy?
The smoking motion that gained 80 signatures was not the one voted upon at the referendum. There were a number of amendments added to it, relating to the financial implications of the motion. We, the proposers, didn't fight them terribly hard; if the motion had gone through unaltered, the Executive Committee would simply have vetoed the motion as being financially unviable.
However, we accompanied the motion with a financial plan, and these amendments were made. It should be noted that we allowed them to extend the deadline for full implementation from 2nd January 2006 to 19th April 2006. Now that the motion (with amendments) has passed, we are told that the Exec will not be doing what they said they would. They aim to have it fully implemented by mid-2007.
3002 people voted on that referendum motion – the highest turnout in a long time. Another of my reasons for supporting it was that it is the sort of motion that should be being voted upon; things that affect students' everyday lives. It is not going to affect the average student if the Union has a stance on international affairs. A lot of what is decided at Union Council doesn't really matter (shock, horror). But issues such as this one are more likely to get people out to vote.
But then, if the Union doesn't follow through on what it says it will do, it runs the risk of worsening the feelings of apathy and powerlessness that people feel towards the Union. As Kat Stark said, in relation to the University:
[T]he University has sent out a dangerous message about Union democracy; that message being that when students engage constructively with the University, nothing happens.
Boar letters, 12 Oct 2005. But there's an even worse possibility; the Union could send out the message that when you engage constructively with the Union, nothing happens. Should we hold sit-ins in Union North until we get what we want?
Students are increasingly failing to distinguish between the Union and the University; it can now fairly be said that both are after our money. The one thing that makes a difference is that the Union is meant to be directed by its members; if they lose sight of that, we might as well set up a second Union, to unionise the Union.
Massive democratic involvement is the only way to save the Union from itself – if the students asked, we could stop the censorship, decide on the policies the Union should be having, and make the Exec actually follow through on the policies we decide. One of the unintended consequences of bringing this motion forward was our raising awareness of the simple fact that people can bring policies to referenda – they don't come out of some weird Union black box.
I therefore have to apologise for appearing to risk the Union's short-term financial well-being. Despite making Andy Dyer and Co. very worried, I think that the long-term damage of flouting Union democratic processes will exceed that of banning smoking in the Union. Is 'Union democracy' an oxymoron? We'll see.