Building local student unions

Submitted by Joseph Kay on July 11, 2013

When building a student union, there are important decisions to make about its structure that will determine the dynamics of the union. First of all, you need to decide which students are going to be members. Will the union include all the students of the university? Only students of a single “school”? Only students of a single department? Students of several selected departments? Or students of a single program?

In order to decide that, the most important factors to consider are based on the efficiency of the newly created union to enforce a strike. In general, a union should not comprise much more than 10,000 students. Over that number, it becomes difficult to hold general assemblies and strikes are difficult to enforce. If the campus is bigger than that, then you may prefer building the union on smaller units. This can cause problems if your union is created in such ways that in a lot of classes you have members and non-members mixed together, because non-members will get angry for not being able to vote on strike GA’s that affect their classes. For example, if the sociology and history department are closely tied together and have classes in common, then it might be a good idea to create a union that at least includes both departments.

Another factor to take into consideration is the proximity of the student union with its members. A large union can seem out of reach and out of control to students. Again, it’s a good idea to keep the student union size under a few thousands. The last factor to consider is the stability of the student union over time. A small union can be very democratic and can easily go on strike, but it might lack stability over long periods of time. During downtimes, the number of activists willing to run the union shrinks. As the number of activists in a single union is somewhat proportional to its total number of members, a small union can become completely inactive and disappear during such periods. Gathering a few hundred students (maybe at least 500) is a good idea to keep a critical mass that will guarantee some stability.

In some higher education systems, students do not need to choose a major before their third year – this might be challenging on the issue of dividing clearly student unions inside a campus. To build a student union base on the departmental level, in might be necessary to define the membership as “all students with at least one class of the X department” instead of “all students who are X majors”. But even if that is possible, it will be hard to define how to divide courses of the general education.

In Quebec, we have strict rules imposed by universities on the structures that student unions can have. But if you plan to create student unions outside of official laws, then you don’t have that problem and you can freely configure the best department mixes for your union.

Also, we must go through an accreditation process that includes a referendum to create a union. Basically, a majority of the body of students that are going to be represented by the new union needs to vote in favor of the accreditation. If no law requires such process, then you are free to create the union in any other way. However, it might be a very good idea to self-impose that kind of process in order to build the legitimacy of the union. The union’s chances of success are much stronger if a high percentage of students made the informed decision to support its creation. This can be done through a referendum, a general assembly or some kind of petition.

As long as you control the process of student union accreditation, you will be able to reconfigure the union’s membership over time if needed. For example, if a department of linguistics was not included in a union at first and wants to join a larger union of social sciences, then a referendum can be organized in that specific department.

If you are planning to create multiple student unions on a campus, then a vast array of possibilities exist in the way those unions can work together. Here are three different models we have in Quebec:

In the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), there is a union for each department and a union for each school. As schools have between 2000 to 5500 students, the unions based on that administrative level are pretty efficient. Unions at the departmental level are much smaller (from 50 to 1600 students). Their activism is unstable, but they are still capable of playing an important role. There is no big union for the whole university, so the coordination between the seven school-based unions is informal.

In the Université de Montréal (UdM), there are only unions at the program level or departmental level. That creates very small unions (with as little as 50 members). The biggest ones (from 600 to 1600 students) can manage to be stable over time, and even the smaller ones are able to make good strikes when important struggles are happening. But on down time, this type of student union can become inefficient. In this university, those departmental unions are federated in a campus-wide student federation. This can be efficient to have a single and strong voice before the university’s administration. However, because of the instability of student unions at the departmental level, the logic of the federation is not one of direct democracy. The federation meetings are a place where the head of the campus federation can manipulate less mobilized departemental unions in order to maintain control. Left-wing student unions in return tend to coordinate their actions through informal meetings outside the federation.

In University Laval (UL), the union structure is an hybrid between these two structures. There are unions at the departmental level, at the school level and all of these are federated by a campus-wide student federation. The campus federation tends to present the same problems as at University of Montreal. A difference, though, is that unions of graduate students are separated form unions of undergraduate students. In our experience, separating grads from undergrads is usually a bad idea. When unions comprise of both, they benefit from the stability of having activists for a longer period of time.

Other ways of dividing and organizing student unions are possible. For example, if you have a small campus (under 7000), you can have a union for the whole campus with a general assembly and smaller unions at the departmental level.