As IU continues to raise tuition, subject workers to hazardous conditions and slash funding for ethnic studies departments, student leaders haven’t had the tools to properly push back. It’s time to change that.
If we ever want to promote real change on campus, we must finally reimagine the essence of student leadership. To do this, we must employ the tactics and structures of student unions abroad.
Student unionizing is baked into the history of IU. The Indiana Memorial Union’s name originates from the Indiana Union, which was “a student organization that would encourage unity and collegiality among students” in light of student unrest in 1909, according to the IMU website.
Student unions are able to tackle many of the problems facing higher education across the world, including at IU. For example, student unions in Quebec successfully preempted tuition raises, student unions in the United Kingdom mobilized national rent strikes to combat atrocious e-learning policies and student unions in Chile were the mainstay in combating authoritarian control of higher education.
Guest writer Nathan Ryder experienced the power of a student union at London’s University of Westminster, where he previously studied.
A department head walked back on a promise to allocate internships for all students in a course. A crucial aspect of the program — and the reason they attended the school — completely dissipated.
At an American university, the administration’s decision would have been a deadend. However, Ryder was a member of the Westminster Students’ Union.
Unsatisfied with the administration’s decision, he filed a complaint through their union and asked them to step in. After taking a week to hear his case, the union told the department they were ready to take legal action if they did not follow through on their original promise.
This threat was not empty. The union had full time legal representation, and that threat was all the administration needed. They conceded. The department’s tone changed, and they worked with the students to find internship placements.
Ryder now remembers this as a powerful example of a student union fulfilling its role through leverage, negotiation, checks and balances.
That’s not what IU students have. We have student governments instead.
Organizations such as the IU Student Government or the Graduate/Professional Student Government should take a “student union” approach by seeking empowered independence, an activist member base and combative tactics to ensure student rights.
Student unions markedly differ from how we view our student governments or student councils. Rather than merely representing students in a democratic style, student unions recognize students as future employees — the next generation of global labor.
“What is a student?” one French student unionist told Workers’ Voice in a 2012 interview. “It is a student and a worker, it has two identities but you don't see them, because the educational system does not want you to see them and is constantly separating them.”
Today — in an ever corporatized vision of higher education where tuition skyrockets along with enrollment — student unions create the necessary tools to combat a university increasingly treating its students like raw materials, an analogy originally employed in 1964 by student activist Mario Savio, a leader of the Berkeley free speech movement.
In an effort to combat this corporatization, student unions in many countries act in a labor union style by collecting dues, entering negotiations with the university and protecting their members through legal or direct action. Amazingly, some student unions are financially independent from their institution through legitimate sources of revenue such as dues, grants, parties, union-owned bars, union-owned student shops and sporting events.
Another key lesson from abroad is the impressive ability of student unions to negotiate with school administrations and other decision-making bodies. This is achieved mainly through a militant stance, in that it is ready to mobilize through protests and powerful school-wide strikes.
Student unions become stronger negotiators with the prospect of campus disruption in their back pocket. The institutionalization of the union continually trains the next generation of student leadership to take up the mantle.
If IU is going to operate like a corporation, then let’s treat it like one. The university limits the authority of our student governments by design. They allow us to govern, with no governing power. So let’s not govern, let’s organize.
Brian Hancock (he/him) is a senior studying law and public policy and international political economy. He represents the School of Public and Environmental Affairs in the IU Student Government Congress and chairs the Oversight and Reform Committee.
Guest writer Nathan Ryder (he/him) is a senior studying international studies, conflict and security and was previously a student at the University of Westminster. He represents the College of Arts & Sciences in the IU Student Government Congress and chairs the Title IX committee.