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What Is a Union For?

by Luke Dukinfield

There’s a lot to unravel in the current surge of blog posts and media attention around the recent National Union of Students (NUS) national conference. But there is one salient – and fundamental – question no one is really asking: What are unions for? That is, what is their purpose?

In workplaces, unions have historically assumed the form of trade unions, and although there isn’t a simple continuity between the subjectivity of worker and student, I’d like to argue that both trade and student unions share a common political project, that their traditional function is entirely relevant to how unions should operate today, and that the neoliberal recuperation of this function is common across both trade and student unions.

This is an important point because the necessarily political function of unions is positioned by conservative students – currently agitating for disaffiliation from the NUS – as being in tension with its representative function. In fact, they often disregard that the political function should exist at all, erase the fact it has existed historically, and attempt to locate themselves as an unbiased, non-partisan and neutral tendency – the valiant defenders of the ‘ordinary student’. This means when a left-wing officer is elected by the democratic mechanisms of the NUS, they latch onto that victory and weaponise it to denounce the NUS as ‘too political’, ‘driven by ideological cliques’ and ‘undemocratic’. They support the union’s democratic structure until it does not serve their own ideological vision, until someone they disagree with politically is elected. But there is something bigger than just the hypocrisy of an ideological clique of conservatives agitating for disaffiliation on the basis of challenging ideological cliques.

It’s not even that I disagree entirely with their argument that the democratic mechanisms of the NUS are exclusive and do not optimally facilitate broad representation. Rather, it is the content of their conceptualisation of ‘representation’ – a framing that even some left-wing delegates and officers have replicated in their analysis of the national conference. The idea is that unions should exist to represent a broad range of political viewpoints, providing ‘opportunities’ for individual entrepreneurial advancement, optimising our choice as consumers, and acting – to some degree – as service providers. The implication is that the ‘ordinary student’ has been constructed as a consumer by the neoliberal experiment in education, and therefore unions should exist to customise that construction, rather than reject and contest the very basis of its logic. The dominant appeals to the ‘ordinary student’ are predicated upon the notion that we must represent students-as-customers.

At its very worst, capitulation to this logic even exists alongside an ostensible recognition of the urgency to challenge the threats of the impending higher education reforms, whilst seeming to acknowledge no contradiction between the two. This accommodationism must be firmly challenged, whether it veils itself in the opportunistic appropriation of the language of liberation and professes its support for those campaigns or not. It proposes a compromise between different political viewpoints and approaches – balance, moderation, until it disintegrates in the vacuum of possessing no political intent, direction or character at all, and until the voices of the marginalised and oppressed are drowned out by appeals to the ‘ordinary’ (implicitly non-minority) students.

Unions don’t exist to represent a range of political viewpoints as such, but rather to specifically represent our collective material interests – which are always in contradiction with the interests of marketisation, which cuts staff pay, cuts departments and courses, squeezes our student services, attacks our bursaries, and privatises and escalates the rents of our halls. The balance of political views is the means of a union’s activities, not the object – which is working class struggle, and challenging the power of bosses over services and production processes.

Indeed, we might ask how a union can both represent the radical left and conservatives whilst also acknowledging the complete, irreconcilable polarity in the political projects we agitate towards. The liberal conception of ‘representation’ thus attempts to erase the fact there are political interests at play, and assert that with sufficient reasoned debate on the conference floor we might reach ends that benefit all of us. This is not true. Naturally, we must accommodate a diverse range of political opinions, but we do ourselves no favours by pretending everyone can win out. It’s a ludicrous scenario when a speaker is clapped at conference for proudly proclaiming themselves a Tory – a supporter of a government responsible for inflicting severe structural violence on the marginalised; cutting benefits that the sick, disabled and vulnerable rely upon; a government that jubilantly cheered airstrikes in Syria and then voted against providing sanctuary to 3000 lone child refugees; that deports and detains thousands of migrants and leaves others to drown in the Mediterranean.

Historically, unions have existed to represent their members against, not within, the logic imposed on them by managers and the powers-that-be. One classical example from the history of more radical trade unionism would be the call for a reduced working week. Such unionism has recognised wage labour as a site of exploitation, and that its unnecessary control over every aspect of our lives should be mitigated and dispersed without our material wellbeing suffering. This is rooted in a clear understanding of the political and economic forces that regulate our work, our housing, our relationship to goods and services, and the world at large: a fundamental tension between the rich and powerful who own and control the distribution of these resources, and the working class who produce all the wealth and goods and are dispossessed of full access to them.

This theoretical conception is entirely relevant to our universities and colleges. Those who perform the intellectual labour of teaching, those who clean its halls and buildings, the students who comprise the vast majority of any university community, are all disenfranchised from real control over the content and democratic structures of universities and colleges in favour of the dictates of vice-chancellors and an elite layer of bureaucrats and corporate managers, on combined salaries of tens of millions of pounds, presiding over the continued marketisation and privatisation of our education. This rift has been deepened by austerity, shoring up the prosperity of the wealthy at the expense of our public services, benefits, wages and living standards.

This bureaucratisation, corporatisation and professionalisation has too seeped into union structures themselves, such that they routinely – and passively – appeal solely for a slight adjustment in the terms and conditions of the basic social contract rather than challenging the contract itself. Both student unions and trade unions have been de-fanged, themselves constrained by bureaucracy, regulated by unelected executives and trustees, and endorsing closed-door negotiations with vice-chancellors and government – the hallowed ‘seat at the table’ – as the primary and predominant form of political agency. Those who reject this kind of negotiation as completely ineffective in the absence of grassroots pressure are considered ‘naïve’ and ‘idealists’, and yet the idea that negotiation could stop such a ruthless government, or that we can persuade managers – against their vested interests and overwhelming institutional and market pressures – to overturn the neoliberalisation process, is considered ‘pragmatism’. There is a logical disconnect here.

We must recognise that we inhabit a distinctly political reality, confronting distinctly political projects such as austerity – how we respond is necessarily political, but it also must be political if we are to be effective. The conservatives’ attempt to frame themselves as the ‘post-ideological’ choice, the neutral alternative and natural antidote to the detached, ‘hysterical’ clique of no-platforming, freedom-despising lefties, is deeply insincere. The endorsement of ‘neutrality’ means a perpetuation of subservience to the programmes of marketisation and privatisation that threaten our education, NHS, and all our public services. We cannot simply negotiate our way out of that conflict, nor gloss over the fact that conflict constitutes our reality – we actively defend ourselves, or we capitulate. None of this is to say the ‘seat at the table’ does not or cannot have a role – simply that it only has power and gravity when reinforced by significant grassroots pressure and mobilisation. Unions have always existed to facilitate and organise such mobilisation against a managerial class which exploits us and whose overriding and primary interests are those of private gain and profit.

There absolutely are issues with the representative functions of the NUS, not least its lack of engagement with the embattled further education (FE) sector (although oddly enough few of those delegates recognising the NUS as unrepresentative of the ‘ordinary student’ voted Sahaya James for union development, whose key pledge was developing FE unions to support the primary demographic in the union’s ‘missing members’.)

The NUS is also deeply undemocratic, and furthermore we should be critical of the liberal identity politics which pervade its liberation practices – not least because its political orientations, often advocating processes of individual purification and insular prefiguration, can be instrumentalised by the right (and even by bosses) because they do not confront or threaten dominant power structures themselves. That is to say, a liberatory project which bases itself solely upon withdrawing into rigorously regulated spaces, bounded by a predefined framework of correct, ‘right-on’, ‘safe’ ideas and principles to which everyone must adhere under threat of exclusion, and where your identity is the only determinant of your political validity, is not constructive (this was perhaps best reflected in the NUS’s decision to pull support for the Free Education demo in 2014 on the grounds of ‘safety concerns’).

There are also problems with anti-Semitism on the left, and in the world at large – and although the right’s cynical attempts to weaponise these concerns for their own political ends (despite their ideology being predicated upon hierarchy and inequality) should be exposed, nor should the problem itself be undermined by approaching it entirely as a fabrication. A genuine left intervention is necessary in all these debates.

However, the conservative worldview proposed by the current disaffiliation campaign simply promotes an entrenchment of the lack of democracy in the NUS, not a break from it – because it projects the NUS as a passive consumer watchdog dominated by managerial bureaucracies and commercial agendas, more concerned with optimising so-called ‘cost-effectiveness’, ‘value for money’ and ‘professionalism’ rather than engaging in campaigning and struggle which directly improves the conditions of students. The conservatives do not share our vision of a genuinely directly democratic and participatory union – one that is actively and collectively controlled by all its members. Democracy, to them, is a technical point, not a moral one – it is instrumental, a means to eviscerate rather than facilitate subversive political functions. Their rhetoric might almost lure us into believing that Tories, and not genuinely structurally oppressed people, are the minority suffering educational and society-wide underrepresentation.

Their appeals to the ‘censorship’ and ‘lack of democracy’ perpetrated by minorities and left-wingers are simply an attempt to conceal and naturalise a reality already subordinated to market interests and power relations, both within and outside the NUS. They would contend representation and politics are always in tension: that if the NUS is truly to represent all its members it cannot assume political positions. We must argue they are fundamentally intertwined: that in order to represent and defend the collective material interests and rights of their members, unions must be actively political in order to grapple with the political realities that marginalise and exploit us.

Conservative attempts to rid representation – and unions – of politics is disingenuous because doing so entails an incorporation into the status quo. Faux-neutrality is a political reality of business unions controlled by unelected trustees and executives, and deferential to government, university and corporate authorities. Representation can never be effective in the absence of politics – representation is an outlet for the expression of grassroots political will, not an end or goal in and of itself. If it seeks only to channel voices as simple by-products of prevailing conditions, and not to empower us to seize our own collective voice to intervene in those conditions, it is useless. The NUS has a proud history of strikes, demonstrations, antifascism and militancy, supporting labour and anti-apartheid struggles, and mobilising against grant cuts and tuition fees – we must celebrate and extend that history, not erase it.

The NUS must represent its members not as consumers and customers, but engage them as agents and autonomous social actors. To construct the enigma of the ‘ordinary student’ as an unenlightened, passive, pacified mass subject capable only of self-interest, concerned only with the content of club nights, leisure options and the discounts provided by their NUS extra card, is deeply condescending, offensive, misguided and fatalistic. A call for the representation of ‘ordinary students’ as consumers is indeed the call for their active disengagement, their disconnection from real political involvement and democratic participation in defence of our common interests. It is an ossification of the very logic that lures people into the belief that we do not need unions in the first place. Unions must be political bodies.

The conservative cliques hoping to force-through disaffiliation motions are simply unable to process the notion that their worldview does not embody the student ‘common sense’ or reflect our best interests, and is in itself deeply ideological and political in its vision of the NUS and student unions as ‘student experience’ departments. Whatever flaws we may identify with the NUS, it is clear we cannot leave on these reactionary terms, and in a context where the battles ahead – with Prevent, the HE white paper, and with a government intent on dismantling our hard-won rights and public services – require our unity.

Photo: NUS/YouTube

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Published 1st May 2016

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