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Scott Strasser

Union membership should be optional

By Keean Bexte, December 1, 2015 —

Freedom of association isn’t about politics. It’s about the freedom to choose which organizations, activities and points of view you join and support.

Right now, however, students in Alberta are legally required to be a member of numerous organizations that claim to represent them — the University of Calgary Students’ Union itself, plus several ‘unions of unions’ like the provincial Council of Alberta University Students and the federal Canadian Alliance of Students Association.

As it stands, there isn’t any way to go to a university in Alberta and not be a part of these associations. Students’ union executives like it this way. They’re scared that, given the choice, you wouldn’t voluntarily join them. What does this say about their own confidence in the services they provide? If these unions provide a valuable service, students will join. And if students don’t join, the services couldn’t have been that valuable.

Freedom of association isn’t about destroying students’ unions — it’s about improving them. When members are free to leave if they’re unhappy, businesses, non-profits, political parties and sports clubs all have to work harder to provide something that people value and want to be a part of.

The most common argument against voluntary students’ unions is that these organizations are like municipalities. Like paying your taxes, students shouldn’t be able to opt out of them.

But while similarities can be drawn between student politicians and regular politicians, students’ unions are an incorporated society, not a government. Comparing unions to governments only outlines a willful misunderstanding of student associations’ position — one designed to mislead students.

The U of C SU is not responsible for a $2.5-billion budget. They have dreadful voter turnout figures, even compared to municipal voting rates. They’re not subject to the checks and balances of the 500-page Municipal Governance Act, and I doubt they’d want to be held to that onerous standard of reporting.

A better comparison would be a local sports club. They undeniably provide a valuable service to a community. But few would suggest forcing everyone in a five-kilometre radius of a new outdoor skating rink to join a hockey team. Sure, a lot of people like to play hockey. Sure, the club provides valuable services to a community. Sure, the majority of members would benefit. But not everyone can skate. Not everyone would use it. And just because something is good does not mean it should be compulsory.

Supporters of compulsory students’ unions claim that without forcing everyone to join, students that aren’t union members would take advantage of union services without paying the membership fee. These people have apparently never heard of a membership card. Millions of organizations around the world use them, and implementing such a system shouldn’t be outside the capabilities of a university organization.

Voluntary students’ unions would ensure everyone in Alberta, not just at the University of Calgary, has access to a students’ union that cares about their members, responds to their needs and provides value for its membership cost. If the law surrounding students’ union membership is changed, it wouldn’t make student services worse — it would make them better.

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