Recently I had the opportunity to attend and speak at this year’s annual western AMICCUS-C conference, hosted in Calgary by the Students’ Association of Mount Royal University. AMICUSS-C stands for the Association of Managers in Canadian College, University and Student Centres. That’s one hell of an acronym, isn’t it? But apart from the difficulty with the name it’s a great organization that people should know more about.
Students’ unions are big business. Okay, “big” may be pushing it, but far bigger than most suspect. Budgets in the seven-figure range are typical. Many unions have responsibility for their own restaurants and bars, buildings, and other services. And in order to run these things properly, unions quite naturally hire full-time managers to do the job. You wouldn’t want to rely entirely on students, after all, with the rapid turnover, annual instability, and general inexperience. Unions typically employ a lot of students also, but the full-time managers are different. They’re there to stay and it’s their job – for many it’s a real career.
How all of this infrastructure runs is frequently a mystery to students. First, many students don’t draw a clear distinction between services that are operated and delivered by their union and services that come from the university or college. For all practical purposes it often doesn’t matter. And second, even where students know what their union is really doing, the full autonomy and power of the union may not be obvious. It’s easy to imagine a relationship similar to student government in high school, where student activities are still directed at the highest level by the administration. But it simply isn’t true. Unions are separately incorporated. They exist outside the administration entirely. The directors of these unions have as much power and responsibility as the directors of any private corporation. And many are still teenagers.
Seen from this perspective, the role of a full-time professional manager in a union environment is very complicated. The manager is certain to be older – maybe much older – and to have far more experience. But the students are still in charge. This isn’t theoretical. Students do the hiring, set the compensation packages, make decisions about promotion, and yes sometimes fire people. When a union is running well students tend to do this with the benefit of a lot of competent advice. When a union is running badly, well, sometimes things go less professionally. But either way these decisions affect people’s careers.
There is also a very complicated dance to perform with the administration of the university or college. As I said, the administration isn’t calling the shots. But they do have deeply entrenched interests. While the union may own a building or control it with a long-term lease, the institution typically owns the land. While a union may run the campus pub, the administration probably holds the liquor license. Contracts for cleaning, maintenance, and utilities in student space may or may not be carried out by the staff of the institution. All of these relationships need to be managed. While the employees of the union and the employees of the school may both “work for” students in some sense, their relationship towards students is very different. And so their relationship towards one another is complicated.
Here is where AMICCUS-C comes in. Like any professional association, it exists to promote the occupation and to support development in it. So once in a while, members get together and talk about how they can be better at what they do. They talk about best practices in accounting and human resources. They talk about how to engage professionally with campus and outside media. They talk about food services. They have workshops and training sessions and all the sorts of things any other organization does. But all of it relates explicitly to the work that a student union does and what it means to work for one on a full-time basis.
Contrary to what many people might expect, most professionals working for students’ unions are not lifelong student activists. Most were not involved at all in student life or student politics when they were in school. They are just folks who work in accounting, or management, or the service industry, and when it came time to find a job for whatever reason they fell into working for a students’ union and then happened to stay. This is one of those many careers you don’t hear about at a job fair, and yet someone always ends up doing it anyway. I think that’s for the best. The elected students will always bring politics to the table. The staff are there to provide knowledge and experience and concrete skills.
I’ve always found AMICCUS-C to be a great organization, from the first moment I was introduced to it by the business manager of my own union. It’s inspiring to see an entire organization devoted simply to running unions better. And the folks I meet in this context are invariably sincere and interesting professionals. I could not do what they do. I’ll freely admit it. The frustrations and uncertainty that comes along with working for a union with annual elections and a new set of “bosses” every year – it would drive me nuts. But I sure respect the people who can do it.
AMICCUS-C affects few people directly, but indirectly it’s a very important organization. And I think it’s worth a little time and effort to understand what they do because it illustrates so many important facts about unions that are easily missed. Unions are serious business. There’s a lot more going on than just politics, elections, and the inevitable controversy. The full-time professionals who run the day-to-day business are the civil servants of the union movement. Most have no political agenda at all, other than seeing that services are delivered to students and that things run smoothly. And that’s extremely refreshing to see.
Questions are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.