Student unions don’t often distinguish themselves. Not because they are populated with incompetent fools, though some most certainly are, but because the business of student governance, like all governance in stable societies, is mundane. The true measure of leaders at any level can often be not how they handle day to day operations, but how they handle crisis.
The St Thomas University Students’ Union (STUSU) distinguished itself this past year with how they responded to a bitter faculty strike that delayed the start of the winter term until February 5. When faculty returned to work, the dispute was left unsettled and in the hands of an arbitrator, whose report was released earlier this month.
The strike was back in the news last week when it was announced that the university, following recommendations made during arbitration, will be providing financial compensation for students.
This is certainly an appropriate response. And, if compensation wasn’t forthcoming STUSU would have sued not just the university but the faculty association as well. This is notable in and of itself, but more interesting is the fact that STUSU publicly denounced the faculty, amounting to a de-facto endorsement of the administration.
Such a position on the part of a student union is almost unheard of. Nearly every time university professors have taken to the streets since 2000 (and likely further back than that), student executives have opted for biting their neutral tongues.
When asked to comment publicly student representatives often offer little more than derivative platitudes — that they are “meeting with both sides” to ensure the “interest of students” are “taken into consideration,” and that they are hoping for a “quick” and “fair” resolution.
Such neutrality should be puzzling. After all, there are few events that are as potentially devastating to university students than a faculty strike. It would appear to be precisely the time for student government to scream.
Many student unions see faculty associations as their natural allies. Not for what should be obvious reasons, that universities are a place of teaching and learning, but because of the notion of “solidarity” that all unions (apparently) have with one another.
However, for a student union to declare its support for striking faculty could be read (and justifiably so) as support not just for some abstract principle, but for the cancellation of classes. It is a potential public relations disaster, especially if the consequences for students are severe. Similarly, supporting the administration can be seen, particularly by campus activists who are most likely to vote in student elections, as an affront to the antagonistic role many see the student union as serving.
Neutrality, therefore, is a safe position to take.
And, when the St. Thomas faculty first walked off the job, STUSU initially took the typical neutral position. It wasn’t until the unreasonableness of the faculty association’s demands were painfully evident to everyone, that the student executive denounced the work stoppage.
Prior to the Christmas break, the administration offered the union a reduced teaching load and straight salary increases of around 20 per cent over three years for many pay scales. When the union rejected the offer, the administration responded by locking them out after the break, which then led to the union going on strike.
The union wanted salary increases closer to 30 per cent for the same pay scales over the same period, and demanded a mediator be appointed to settle the issue. However, the mediator, Milton Veniot sided with the university, and recommended that the faculty association take the deal offered prior to the Christmas break. Veniot found that the administration’s offer would ensure that St. Thomas professors would be among the highest paid in the region. He could not “embrace either the [faculty association] model or its consequences.”
The administration then asked the provincial labour board to order the union to hold a vote on the pre-strike offer.
The union, despite having requested the mediator’s report, promptly advised its members to vote no, and a majority did.
It was in the lead up to the labour board vote that STUSU added its voice to the choir of the faculty’s critics. They released a statement declaring:
“We cannot support the faculty association’s continued solidarity in the impediment of classes. In the eyes of the St. Thomas University Students’ Union, a vote against the offer this Monday and Tuesday will be considered a vote against students.”
The position was seen by some on campus observers as “extreme,” but when STUSU’s position was taken, any pre-tense to neutrality would have been absurd, and alignment with the faculty (solidarity for solidarity’s sake) would have been not just politically impossible, but given Veniot`s report, ridiculous. That STUSU was prepared to sue the faculty along with the administration proves that they were doing more than simple, and angry, foot stomping.
As an aside, binding arbitration resulted in a deal that more or less resembled the administration’s offer that the faculty association had initially rejected. A rejection that precipitated what was surely a productive way for the union to display its relevance!
The student role in ending the strike should not be overstated, as there is very little that a student government can directly do. What is important, however, is that students were represented in difficult circumstances to the best of STUSU`s ability.
When this past year’s St Thomas student executive looks back on the way they responded to the strike, they won’t have to settle for appreciating the prudence of neutrality, or glowingly remembering some vague notion of principled solidarity. No, they can look back with true pride at the fact that they did their job.