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In defence of mandatory membership

By Andrew Kemle, October 30 2014 —

Debates about mandatory membership in the Students’ Union are more about how we ideologically feel about unions than the SU’s value at the University of Calgary.

SU membership is automatic. Every semester, $35 from your student fees goes to the union. This pays for part of the SU’s staff salaries and services, though the bulk of their revenue comes from their control of MacHall.

You’d be hard pressed to find a student that doesn’t use at least one of the SU’s services. And even if you don’t, other students shouldn’t be deprived of them. Still, some think that union membership should be an individual choice.

That might sound nice, but mandatory membership is what makes unions work. The SU can provide important services and do effective political advocacy because students are organized into a group under one banner. Mandatory membership keeps the SU from becoming another vaguely ineffectual advocacy group. If we want a group to advocate on our behalf, we need to buy into it.

The SU represents us to powerful organizations. An individual student is easier to ignore than a cohesive group united on certain political issues. Our demands have weight when more people are talking about them. The SU gives ordinary students a way to push back against the authority of out-of-touch university administrators and government representatives.

The SU bargains on our behalf with a provincial government that doesn’t put student concerns first, as well as with a university administration that’s more concerned with expensive staircases than keeping tuition affordable. If administration or the provincial government does something at odds with students, the SU is one of the loudest voices in opposition.

We have to consider what we get for our annual $70. The services the SU provides are valuable and unavailable elsewhere on campus. This includes political representation, financial aid, extracurricular activities, lockers, mental health care, services for the LGBTQA+ community and a second hand bookstore, to scratch the surface. It’s wrong to claim that the SU doesn’t give you anything when you’re given access to a large number of services for a small amount of money.

The argument that some unions are corrupt or politically divisive isn’t a good enough reason to remove part of their political base and budget. Our SU is non-partisan, financially stable and only takes up political causes when they have a mandate from students.

Sure, our SU might not hold the same opinion as you on some important issue. But even if you do disagree with the SU, they’re easier to argue with than administration or the provincial government because they’re democratically elected. If the SU is advocating a position that you disagree with, you have every right to question their decisions, both before and after they’re elected. In case you really have a problem with them, you can flag down an SU executive in MacHall while they’re buying a chicken satay sub. Once a week, SU executives also sit in MacHall for an hour just to hear student complaints. There’s nothing stopping you from bringing your concerns to our union.

It’s tempting to see mandatory union membership as an affront to our freedom of choice. But we don’t live in a libertarian utopia. If you’re a citizen of a country, you pay taxes. You want to go to school at the U of C? You belong to a union.

Refusing to belong to a union isn’t about freedom of choice. It’s about accepting the benefits other people work for without contributing to the costs.

Debate about corrupt unions, politically divisive topics, inaccessible student leaders and financial mismanagement is an interesting rhetorical exercise. But arguing about a potential disagreement with the SU on a currently non-existent political issue is a waste of time when the reality is starkly different. At the U of C, our SU just doesn’t look like that.

Saving $35 a semester isn’t worth the cost of losing our union. Students want a campus with services and effective political representation — unions makes sure that we put our money where our mouths are.

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