Students need student unions

What do you do when you’re a recently-elected government leader looking to create a future generation of subservient, unorganized workers? You sow the seeds of anti-union sentiment in the youth.

Earlier this month, the Ontario Progressive Conservative (PC) government and its leader Doug Ford introduced a wave of post-secondary education reforms.

While there is not enough space here to completely break down just how flawed the entirety of the changes are — under the guise of a 10 per cent cut to tuition, low-income students were stripped of financial aid services and a six-month grace period for beginning repayment of student loans — let us home in on the “Student Choice Initiative,” which will allow students to opt out of any ancillary student fees they find non-essential.

Under the new system, students will be able to drop out of any non-essential campus fees, meaning student union fees, they think they don’t use.

The yearly fee students are required to pay in union dues ranges depending on the university — here at the U of M, UMSU fees are just over $100 per term, or $225.16 per year.

Here are just a few of the services those fees provide to you and your fellow students: scholarships and bursaries, sustainability services, membership in student advocacy group the Canadian Federation of Students, student group support, the UMFM radio station, childcare and — yes — the Manitoban.

Ford’s initiative is a repackaged version of American-style “right-to-work” laws, which dictate that workers, regardless of whether or not they benefit from the contracts negotiated by unions, can opt out of the associated fees.

Ford — who dropped out of university after two months — may not be an expert on post-secondary academia, but he seems to have an understanding of the average person using them. The $225 UMSU fee, surely a drop in the bucket for Ford, can be the difference between making rent or paying for groceries for a university student. When Ford’s government announced the changes in front of a podium that read “For the Students,” it was perhaps easy for some to accept — any dollar-and-cent savings are good savings, right?

This logic crumbles under even a superficial second glance — remember that these changes hurt low-income students and students repaying loans first — so one must investigate further: why does Ford want to take the storied Conservative tradition of union busting to Ontario campuses?

For many university students, some of whom enter university as teenagers, their campus student union is also their first foray into the world of political organizing.

Consider the mindset of Ford, who himself has expressed anti-union and anti-worker sentiments steadily throughout his career — one of the most recent examples was his rollback of recently hard fought labour reform laws with a bill that included freezing the minimum wage for two years and removing worker supports.

Of course, it is in his best interest to target a vulnerable group — students, many of whom do not have a lot of expendable income — and present them, under the guise of providing them autonomy, the ability to rescind their power to hold government accountable when they may need the dollars and cents more than ever.

Ford’s underlying motivation is to do whatever he can to instil a self-serving attitude in students that, if he is lucky, will follow and guide them for the rest of their working lives.

Ford benefits from teaching the future workforce of Canada that if you do not personally use childcare for parents pursuing an education or a student group that supports LGBTTQ* students, you have no reason to support it. Ford would rather cut out the middle man and have the worker do the union busting themselves.

Student unions and the services they provide are powerful and Ford knows it.

Just days ago, he tweeted a CBC news article covering the alleged misuse of funding by Ryerson University’s student union, waxing poetic about how this story proved why the Student Choice Initiative would benefit students in the long run.

What he ironically (or even worse, purposely) was ignorant of was that the story was broken by Ryerson University student newspaper the Eyeopener, a service provided to students because of student fees. A service that not only keeps its union accountable, but the wider provincial government as well.

This editorial specifically references a story of alleged misuse of union funding because the point here is not that the student union, or any union, is a perfect bastion of advocacy.

But they are crucial structures. If they weren’t, Ford wouldn’t be so frightened of them. As students, it is in our best interest to hold student unions accountable in the same way they, when they are working properly, hold our government accountable.

Demand more from your student union. If saving $200 is the difference between making rent or buying groceries, the answer isn’t to kill the advocacy group, it’s to demand the advocacy group does more to serve you, be it through demanding economic support through grants or tax breaks, more accessible scholarship and bursary programs or the pursuit of free tuition for all students.

If — or, more likely, when — our own premier, Brian Pallister, comes a-knocking with similar tactics to turn students against your student union, don’t let a millionaire and his think tank of millionaires convince you that giving you the choice to opt out of union fees is anything other than another case of the wealthy taking advantage of the vulnerable by putting a price on your power.