Power in the Union? Against Student Union Elections

(Note – The views in this article aren’t shared by everyone involved in the Syndicalist Students blog)

Meaningful action, for revolutionaries, is whatever increases the confidence, the autonomy, the initiative, the participation, the solidarity, the egalitarian tendencies and the self -activity of the masses and whatever assists in their demystification. Sterile and harmful action is whatever reinforces the passivity of the masses, their apathy, their cynicism, their differentiation through hierarchy, their alienation, their reliance on others to do things for them and the degree to which they can therefore be manipulated by others – even by those allegedly acting on their behalf.” – from “As we see it” by Solidarity, a UK libertarian socialist group (http://libcom.org/library/as-we-see-it-dont-see-it-solidarity-group)

I believe that, by running election campaigns in student unions, the left is damaging itself. There are five reasons I’m going to give for this below, but each of them relies on three basic assumptions: (I am happy to discuss these elsewhere – but I think many of the people reading this will already agree)

  1.   The only way we will ever build a mass movement is through organising ourselves, around the issues that directly affect us and are present in our everyday lives (ie “grassroots” organising).
  2.   The only way we can make real changes to the things that affect us – such as tuition fees, huge rents, etc – is mass “direct action” (“direct action” just means using our action to force things to change, rather than asking politicians, bosses, or Vice Chancellors to change things for us. This can be done either by making it impossible for the university to work unless our demands are met – for example, through an education strike against tuition fees – or, by changing things right now – for example, by all getting together and refusing to pay the huge rents that are demanded of us)
  3.   The best way to make political changes for other people, is through building our own mass movement. We will then have the capacity to support others in their struggle, through mutual aid and solidarity.

But anyway, enough waffling…

Reason #1: Time

 To an outsider, elections don’t look that complicated – you just write a manifesto, stand on a street corner chatting to people for a few lunch hours, then let people vote for you, right? Actually the reality is that not just you, but a whole campaign team, must devote hours and hours to creating publicity, canvassing for votes, flyering, debating, etc. Ever noticed how political campaigns and groups get a lot quieter around election time? This is why. Running for election has a huge cost – both in time and stress. If there is time left over for study, then there is definitely none left for grassroots organising or action. This even affects people who aren’t directly involved in the election – when someone leaves a campaign group to try and get elected, everyone who’s left has to pick up the slack. Continue reading

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Statement: Sheffield Building Federation of Assemblies

From September 2013, the students of Sheffield University will be creating a network of departmental assemblies as a space for democratic participation and political action. Implementation is still in its early stages, but the assemblies will exist in every department and will be federated together on a directly democratic basis. They will have full decision making power over themselves and will give students the chance to experience and advance a radically new form of student organisation in the UK. It is a form that is uniquely suited to combating the torrent of attacks on students in recent years, a form that is a loud and serious response to the alienation, isolation and oppression of the neoliberal system which we all find ourselves in.

We have had enough of the betrayals of our ‘leaders’ as they leap at opportunities to advance their own political careers. We have had enough of the futile demonstrations they call to appease us, always stage managing them with the police to ensure demonstrations remain utterly ineffective and always quick to denounce any student action that goes beyond our assigned role as sheep. Most of all, we have had enough of an educational system in which we play the role of turkey’s being fattened for the tables of private businesses. It is an economy in which we labour for scraps of what we produce without any control over our work or our lives.

Against alienation, assemblies offer empowerment, against isolation, community. Against oppression they offer a platform for creating independent alternatives by students for students and the communities which we are a part of. The fight is not in Kennington Park, it is not on the NUS’s answer machine or in the smiles and nods of politicians. It is in the actions which we decide and take on our campuses, in our departments and in our communities.

In Sheffield we are ready to create something new. For those as disillusioned with the present situation and as desperate for alternatives as ourselves, lets work together.

Sheffield Students

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Departmental Organising

Students are spreading a model of departmental organising in universities across the UK loosely based on Quebec student union structures. The following is a Q&A between Matthew Brett and an organiser from a university in the North of the UK. The interviewer is working with others to build a directly democratic alternative to the National Union of Students. Matthew is actively encouraging departmental organising in the UK and the development of an alternative to the NUS. He was an organiser at Concordia University in Québec leading up to the 2012 general student strike. The Q&A was conducted online on 8 May, 2013.

 

Q. You have had assemblies in the Politics and the Development department at SOAS, with more departments likely to adopt the model next academic year. Who is responsible for organising the assemblies? (The practical side of making them happen.)

 

Matt: The core of departmental organising happens with a departmental mob squad or mobilization squad. My hat goes off to the mob squads at SOAS. They’re really just a core group of students in their department who do all of the planning and organising. This is the vital, nitty-gritty stuff: room bookings, making class visits, printing and distributing flyers, drafting an agenda, getting speakers, snacks a facilitator and so on. To me, the key is that everyone in the departments is well-aware that an assembly is happening. If you’re going to make a serious decision on behalf of a student-body in a department, everybody had better at least received the invite.

 

Q. What is there relationship with the SAOS union?

 

Matt: There is currently no relationship between the departmental assemblies and the central student union. Co-presidents in the student union have been supportive of the process, but they are not playing an active role. I prefer it that way. Assemblies should evolve organically from within the departments rather than top-down from the union executive. That said, the union can play a vital role by providing financing for departments, sharing its communications resources and so on. But the autonomy of departmental associations should be respected. This was critical in Québec during the strike. Departments were the highest sovereign body during the strike, even over the student union.

 

Q. How are the different assemblies co-ordinated?

 

Matt: There is currently no coordination across departments at SOAS. During the student strike in Québec, departments coordinated fairly closely. For example, several departments may put forward a motion about holding a day of action or coordinating a picket line. We also had inter-departmental meetings at the height of the strike. This was a great space where representatives from active departments came together to coordinate actions. It gave us a good sense of what other departments were dealing with. Most departments had active facebook pages and mailing lists where people talked about issues online. Some still maintain excellent blogs.


Q. How well are the assemblies doing so far?

 

Matt: I would say the Development assemblies at SOAS are going very well. They’ve had two general assemblies so far. The Politics department also held a successful assembly and plan on holding more. The organisers have been amazing. I imagine more departments will begin to adopt the assembly model next academic year.

 

Q. What is the vibe regarding the announced ULU closure? Are assemblies a possible way of filling the gap?

 

Matt: The vibe is mixed regarding ULU closure. People are obviously pissed off that it’s closing, particularly the abrupt way management went about it. There will be active opposition from students at SOAS, no question. That said, many also recognise some of the weaknesses of ULU, weaknesses which ULU executives themselves have been addressing with internal reforms, including more localised general assemblies. It’s clear that people see the potential implosion of ULU as a very serious loss. But it’s also clear that people see it as an opportunity to build something new.

 

The upcoming 8 June NCAFC extraordinary conference is going to be really important in this respect. No question people have their valid reservations about NCAFC, but there is no question that this is going to be a vital conference. Register and go. I only hope they decide to make the development of an alternative to the NUS an open process. This should include far more players than NCAFC themselves.

 

I really hope students start building an alternative to the NUS. The NUS is a joke. I don’t even need to go into the details. Students need a real alternative that will take free education seriously. You need real struggle to have any victories. I think departmental organising is critical when it comes to an alternative. Departments are more directly democratic, smaller and reflective of specific problems and goals. Most importantly for me, departments are the best level to implement a student strike. You can really shut your university for a sustained period of time with a strike. And if you can coordinate across universities, you can put huge pressure capital and the state. They have to listen, because you’re in control. I say this from first-hand experience. Just look to Québec. They really disrupted the system.

 

There are some dangers too. There is clearly a desire to resist the possibility of a London-based NUS regional union. I’m sure NUS are hovering around ULU like vultures. They will corrupt the last bastion of militancy if they get their careerist hands on ULU, no question. More promising though is the possibility that a more militant alternative to the NUS will emerge. It’s an exciting prospect – a necessary one if you look at the state of things. It’s clear to me: if a fighting alternative to the NUS isn’t created, the NUS will step in and fill the void.

 

This article was first published on Syndicalist Students (https://syndicaliststudents.wordpress.com/). Visit Organise2013 for useful resources on departmental organizing (http://organise2013.wordpress.com/).

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Some Thoughts on Federalism

I’ve been in a number of big organisations. In the ones large enough that they are made up of a number of smaller groups, there seems to be three basic ways the organisation can be structured: “centrally”, as a “federation”, or as a “network”. I will start by briefly explaining what I mean by “central” and “network” structures to give this some context. The main point of this article though is to talk about “federalism”. I will look at what it means (as I understand it), how it relates to direct democracy, how it is more than just a decision-making system, and what it’s advantages and disadvantages are.

If an organisation is “centralist”, all groups that make it up are co-ordinated by a “centre”. Normally this is called the “central committee”, the “national committee”, or something similar. Even if members of this committee are elected and their policies voted on, they will be able to make some decisions independently. The key point here is that the central committee has real decision-making power, even if it is limited by a constitution. So, in a “centralist” structure, the role of small groups is to carry out the will of the organisation – they are the platform that the centre uses to communicate with its members, and to co-ordinate their action. The opposite of this is a “network”. In a “network” the function of the organisation is solely to put groups in contact with each other, and to facilitate the sharing of resources between them. In a network there is no central decision making structure at all. So each group in a network stays completely autonomous (i.e. independent, and free from outside control), beyond what they agree to independently and between themselves. This means that in a “network” structure (if it is formal at all), the purpose of the organisation is to be a “communications platform” for the groups that are in it, and nothing more.

What about “federalism”? Federal organising is what happens when groups voluntarily get together to take coordinated action: working around what they have in common, based on an agreement between them (the word “federal” originally meant “pertaining to a treaty”). Each group that is federated remains completely independent. However, a federation will have a decision-making structure (such as regular meetings between representatives from each small group), that has been agreed upon by all groups that are part of the federation. Through this, collective action can be organised, efforts coordinated, and national structures formed (for example, an organisational newsletter). You could say that this is a middle ground between “network” and “centralist” structures: the groups in a federation keep their autonomy and individuality, yet clear and co-ordinated decisions are also made by the organisation as a whole.

It is worth pointing out that in practice, most “federal” organisations also tend to act partly as “networks” – groups that meet in a federation will talk informally and work together independently of the structure. So, these two kinds of organisation can work and exist together. Similarly, most groups in a centralist organisation will have a small degree of autonomy. Therefore, federalism is not absolute – there are degrees of federalism and centralism in most organisations.

Federalism is sometimes treated as being basically another word for “direct democracy” (democracy where decisions are made by everyone in the organisation, rather than their representatives). I think this is a mistake. As I understand the word, just because an organisation is “federal” does not mean it is even a democracy, let alone a direct democracy. So in theory, it would be possible to have a federation of dictators! However, direct democracy and federalism are very complementary. When they are combined, it tends to work like so: all decisions of the small group are made by direct democracy. If the decision relates to the entire organisation (for example, a call for a day of action), they make a proposal to the next “general meeting” (a meeting made up of delegates from each group in the federation). This proposal would be circulated to all groups, who would make a decision about whether to support it or not. These decisions would then form the “mandates” which each delegate takes to the general meeting. Delegates would not be allowed to make decisions for themselves on compromises, etc during the general meeting. Instead, their group would have to mandate them with clear decisions on what compromises they are willing to make, etc. So, we have: each proposal is debated and decided upon by small groups independently, and the general meeting of the organisation is made up only of “fully mandated” and recallable delegates that reach a decision based on this. Whether decisions at this level should be made by consensus, one delegate one vote, or with each delegate getting votes in proportion to the number they represent, is an open question. In some federations, a group that disagrees with a proposal is not expected to implement it (but they may well choose to anyway). In any case – each member of each group gets a say on all the decisions of the organisation, and never surrenders decision-making power to any individual or committee.

But if a federal organisation isn’t simply “direct democracy” on a mass scale, what is it? It is not just a different way of making decisions – though it may need one. More than that, I think federalism is about “decentralisation”. It is about, as much as possible, avoiding central positions of power and committees. If roles must exist, they can be given to groups rather than individuals, or at least regularly rotated (for example, in the anarchist federation, the national gatherings are organised by a different local group each year, rather than by an individual or a central committee). Federal organisation is also about supporting the diversity of all groups in the federation – so not having a common ‘position’ or set of beliefs unless it is absolutely necessary. Finally, it is about building a culture of “self-sufficiency” and “inter-dependency“ between groups in the federation – not relying on people in positions of power to give them guidance or training. If assistance needs to come from outside, it should be done on a basis of “mutual aid”, rather than ‘from the top’ (another example from when I was in the anarchist federation: we helped people to set up other local groups nearby to us – organising protests with them, giving workshops, etc – rather than this being done by some ‘national committee’ or ‘official organisers’)

As I see it, the main reasons for having a structure like this are:

  1.   individual groups keep their autonomy, so there is more freedom, more diversity, and hopefully less likelihood of splinter-groups forming around issues that aren’t “fundamental”. There is also less likelihood of anyone dominating the organisation or exploiting it for their private benefit. (compared with centralism)
  2.   it is possible to make clear, collective decisions that involve all groups and are democratic. Having a process for making decisions also makes it easier for people to take initiative rather than waiting for others to do things for them. So it is easier to make collective decisions, and harder for “informal hierarchies” to develop (compared with a network structure).
  3.   no (formal) positions of power are needed. Why I think this is an advantage probably needs an article on it’s own. I can’t really go into it in a way that appreciates all of the problems and complexities – so five brief reasons will have to do. Why ending formal positions of power is not enough and why we need to tackle informal positions of power too could also be an article on its own. Those issues aside, the first reason that having no formal positions of power is good, is that the organisation will avoid the problems that come from people abusing power (for example, using it for personal gain, to cover up messed-up behavior like rape, or to advance their careers). An issue similar to this, is that organised minorities tend to have a far bigger influence than they should in centralist organisations – often meeting secretly to plan how to get ‘their people’ elected to any positions of power that are available [1]. This would hopefully not happen in a federal organisation, as there are no positions of power to try and get people into. Thirdly, apathy is discouraged, because everybody can get involved in the decision making process and have a say, not just the elected few. The competition that comes along with positions of power is also avoided. This means that federal organisations can focus all of their resources and time on practical work, rather than on dealing with power-struggles and costly election campaigns. Finally, positions of power tend to be taken up disproportionately by straight, white, cis (ie, not transgendered or transsexual), men. Even in a committee with an equal split between genders, men still often dominate discussions. One of the reasons for this is that our society gives certain people-groups the tools to lead, and socialises them to be domineering and manipulative, while at the same time socialising other people-groups to be submissive to them. Having no formal positions of power at all sidesteps this problem, and means that the organisation is less likely to disproportionately represent the interests of straight, white, cis, men (there are more traits that could be added to this list!).

As for disadvantages, I think the major one is the slow speed of decision making. Since each decision needs to be first passed by each local group, and then discussed nationally; decision-making can be a slow process. One other objection that could be raised is that federalism is harder work than other structures, because of cultural difficulties. Most of us are only used to working within large, highly centralised groups, with clear hierarchies. It does takes a lot of work to get used to different structures and to the freedoms and responsibilities that come with them. However, I do not think this really counts as an objection – spending time learning how to stop thinking in hierarchies is time well spent. Not only will it make the group itself more inclusive, but creating spaces where things like hierarchies are challenged is also a critical part of changing society, which in itself is a good thing.

In conclusion, each of the structures I have written about can be thought of in two ways: both as ways of organising collective action, and also as perspectives on what big organisations are for in the first place. In my opinion, it is the second of these that is the most important. The practical consequence of the centralist way of thinking, is that organisations based on it tend to place a lot of power into the hands of a small group of people. Therefore, they can very easily become dominated by individuals seeking to exert power over others for their own ends. Since this must be avoided at all costs I believe that, when co-ordination between groups is needed at all, we should work only in organisations that are decentralised: federations where practical, and networks where necessary.

[1] In case this sounds too much like a conspiracy theory: an anarchist group I’m in was once approached by TWO different organisations, each trying to get help in taking over the organising committee of a local anti-cuts group. The reason they gave for this was that we needed to work together to stop the other group taking control!

Although this article was based mainly on reflection from personal experience, to an extent it also draws on:

The principle of federation” – P.-J. Proudhon (http://www.ditext.com/proudhon/federation/federation.html)
The anarchist sociology of federalism” – Colin Ward (http://libcom.org/library/anarchist-sociology-federalism)
Notes on Democratic Centralism” – Tony Cliff (http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1968/06/democent.htm)
Untying the knot: The Tyranny of Structurelessnes and the Tyranny of Tyranny” – Intro by AFed, first article by Jo Freeman, second article by Cathy Levine (http://www.afed.org.uk/publications/short-texts/20-untying-the-knot.html)

Examples of federalism in action:

  •    The Anarchist Federation (aka AFed) has a federal structure. Descision-making is a combination of consensus and voting, and all decisions can be resolved by a ballot of members when demanded: http://www.afed.org.uk/online/afed_constitution_2008.html . (also, appears to have active an LGBT group, and a “women’s caucus” active within the organisation – could be interesting for people looking at how to combine liberation campaigns and federal structures)
  •   The Solidarity Federation (anarcho-syndicalist, revolutionary union, aka SolFed) is an example of formal networks being used within a federation: http://www.solfed.org.uk/solfed-constitution (note – appears to approach liberation campaigns in a different way to AFed, in that SolFedf has an official “women’s officer”)
  •   The Seeds for Change guide to consensus decision making includes a section on large groups, and the system they propose is basically federal: http://seedsforchange.org.uk/consensus#largecdm
  •   Both the anarchist federation and the solidarity federation are part of international groups, which are essentially ‘federations of federations’. There is the International of Anarchist Federations: http://i-f-a.org/ – and the International Workers Association: http://www.iwa-ait.org/
  •   The Via Campesina may not necessarily describe themselves as federalist, but they put into action many of the elements described here, especially decentralisation: http://viacampesina.org/en/index.php/organisation-mainmenu-44

Final note: Please feel free to copy/re-print/plagiarize this article however you like. If my name isn’t mentioned, so much the better :-).

 

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A reaction – the importance of pro-choice activism.

Trigger warning: abortion, rape, sexual and domestic abuse.

 

Worldwide, one in eight pregnancy related deaths each year are a result of unsafe abortion. According to the World Health Organisation, just under half of all unsafe abortions are due to the illegality of abortion, and this kills 68,000 women a year, and leaves at least a further two million with severe damage or disease. This is what we, as pro-choice activists, are up against.

Yesterday (18/02/2013), sixty anti-choice campaigners, the ‘LIFE’ society as they like to call themselves, turned up to Edinburgh University Student Association welfare council to oppose a motion calling for affiliation to Abortion Rights Edinburgh. This is the latest example of organised anti-choice campaigners around the UK.

Abort 67, Forty Days for Life, Society for the Protection of Unborn Children have all rallied and protested over the past year; they have made women and people with female reproductive systems unsafe in a whole host of places, from their university campuses to outside abortion clinics. These organisations have been co-ordinated and supported nationally by the umbrella group Alliance of Pro-life Students. They have been legitimised by reactionary politicians both at home and in The States by Tory MPs like Nadine Dorries and presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Anti-choice discourse is rapidly increasing; becoming more misogynistic and violent with every ounce of support it gets.

The anti-choice movement is about lies, manipulation and abuse. They show images of late abortions to vulnerable women outside clinics, despite the fact late abortions account for only 1% of abortions in the UK. They tell us that women have ‘ways of shutting down’ pregnancy after rape, furthering a misogynistic, victim-blaming discourse that already ruins the lives of many women. They tell us abortion makes us murderers, when unsafe abortions kill tens of thousands of women every year.

Removing access to abortion will trap many women in life-threatening, abusive, poverty-stricken environments. Those lucky enough to access abortion will be pushed into black-market abortion practices where conditions are unhygienic, practitioners under-qualified and fees exorbitant. Here they are at a significant risk of severe health complications, or even death. Should they not have access to them, or should they choose not to take the risk- they will be left with a child in their lives that they do not want and may not be able to support. The financial burden may ruin their lives. They may have to give up careers they worked hard for and cared about. They may be trapped with an abusive partner, and have to raise a child in an abusive, dangerous household. They may develop post-natal depression. The consequences are indescribably numerous and severe.

Anti-choice campaigners will tell us that we should go through with unwanted pregnancies and give the child up for adoption; whilst this will be the best option for some, it may result in emotional and psychological suffering for both parent and child. It also forces 9 months of pain on a person who will be pushed out of the workforce, stigmatised and left to suffer the physical symptoms of pregnancy. This is absolutely no choice. Anti-choice campaigners may tell us to use contraception- but what about where contraception is not accessible? What about accidents? What about the fact that absolutely no contraceptive is 100% effective? Anti-choice campaigners may most disgustingly of all tell us to be abstinent. Our sexuality is ours to express and define and is not the property of any other person. And where does this leave victims of rape? It is absolutely not acceptable or in anyway morally permissible to place any amount of blame on a victim of rape.

As syndicalists we must be feminists. Women’s liberation is necessary to the liberation of the working-classes and the establishment of a truly egalitarian society. We stand for the destruction of hierarchies, and this means those that disadvantage women. We are pro-choice.

We cannot let the work of our sisters and allies in the 60s be in vain. They fought for our right to choose, and we must defend it. Not only should we defend it but we should extend it. There are so many reasons why abortion should be free, safe, legal and on demand, but none is more important than a person’s ownership over their own body. Bodily autonomy is a human right, and nobody should be able to take away our right to choose.

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SOAS Anti-Cuts: For a Directly Democratic Alternative to the NUS

SOAS Anti-Cuts are publishing this statement indicating our full support for the creation of, and our desire to join, a union of federated local assemblies. We call on other anti-cuts groups and departmental general assemblies to have similar conversations and, if possible, make a similar commitment. It is time to begin discussing an alternative that truly struggles for free education.

We see this as a necessary and more effective alternative to the National Union of Students, which we believe is expensive, bureaucratic, undemocratic and unrepresentative. It has consistently failed to defend students from attacks by the government over the past 15 years, facilitating the introduction of tuition fees, ongoing fee hikes and course cuts, the cutting of EMA and the recent tripling of tuition fees. Focusing on getting people elected in the NUS or government is unproductive. We nevertheless believe unions remain an important instrument of power with which we can win concessions.

We believe that the membership of this new initiative should not be restricted to student unions, but should also open itself to affiliation from local anti-cuts groups, lecturers and radical educational workers’ organisations, departmental general assemblies and liberation groups. We will also show solidarity with other initiatives in the struggle for social justice.

Syndicalist organising is important because it ensures that national co-ordination is directly democratic. At open national meetings and conferences, disproportionate influence is gained by the group with the highest number of attendees; whereas in order to gain influence in a syndicalist organisation, it is necessary to grow support for ideas within your local group, raising engagement and participation from the grassroots.

Our aim with a syndicalist structure should be to bring together all students engaged in struggle. Some of this takes place within students unions, but more takes place in anti-cuts groups, the major grassroots organisations in the British student movement. We therefore believe in the following principles for a syndicated union:

• Ultimatum: the aim of this union should be clear –Free Education for All, adequate living grants for all students, abolition of student debt and the reinstatement of EMA.

• Liberation: NUS Women’s, Black Students, LGBT and the Disabled Students campaigns have fought hard over the years against oppression and discrimination. An alternative union must continue this legacy and place liberation at the centre of our fight back. Committees representing all liberation groups must be empowered in the decision-making process, and as the union grows, regional and local liberation groups must also be empowered.

• Direct Democracy: groups affiliating to the federation should be democratic and all power should be in the hands of all participants in local assemblies rather than elected delegates. We recognise that struggle goes on in both student unions and anti-cuts groups and that both should be allowed to affiliate.

• Solidarity: the group should organise on the principle of national co-ordination and national support for local organising. Each assembly can put forward motions which can be discussed and voted on, on a regular basis by all other assemblies.

• Strategy: we will not stop fighting until all our goals are achieved. In order for the government to concede to our demands we intend to build a mass movement and engage in tactics including street protests, occupations, direct actions, civil disobedience and economic disruption. If our aims are not achieved through these methods we will consider engaging in an unlimited student strike until our demands are met.

We support the efforts of UCL Defend Education, Birmingham Defend Education and the Renegade Union and encourage further discussion within the student movement. We will actively work with others to build on this momentum. We want this to be a priority item at the upcoming NCAFC national conference.

Groups such as NCAFC, EAN, anarchist and socialist organisations and liberation campaigns have a network of students, lecturers and education workers across the UK committed to free education. It should be considered essential to work with these groups and individuals to organise local and then regional meetings, building towards a national convergence for the creation of this union. We reject the argument that we are not yet ready for this sort of union. To fight for our demands effectively on a national level, we need a new union now.

 

Glossary

SOAS    –  School of Oriental and African Studies

EMA       – Educational Maintenance Allowance

NCAFC   –  National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts

EAN        –  Education Activist Network

UCL        –  University College London

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Defend Education Birmingham: for federal organisation

Defend Education Birmingham are publishing this statement indicating that we want to join a federation of similar organisations. We call on other anti-cuts groups to have similar conversations and, if possible, make a similar commitment.

Following the success of students in Quebec, people in the UK are increasingly looking at federal methods of national organisation. For example the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts voted at its recent conference to hold another conference in the next six months specifically to organise some kind of federal structure of students’ unions.  We believe that this structure should not be restricted to students’ unions, but should also open itself to affiliation from anti-cuts groups.

Federal organising is important because it ensures that national co-ordination is in touch with the grassroots movement. At open national meetings influence is gained by the group who can bus in the highest number of attendees; however in order to gain influence in a federal organisation it is necessary to grow your local group and to convince them of a set of ideas.  This creates a structure that is far less open to disempowering sectarianism.

We believe that a federation of only students’ unions is both undesirable and unfeasible because of a number of structural failings. Students unions are dominated by bureaucracies that have to be constantly fought in order to orient them towards struggle. Even large grassroots organisations cannot fully transform their unions and the gains they make can be taken back alarmingly quickly. A national fighting students union such as Assé in Quebec can never be built out of these structures.

Our aim with a federal structure should be to bring together all students engaged in struggle. Some of this takes place within students unions, but more takes place in anti-cuts groups, which are the major grassroots organisation in the British student movement.  We therefore believe in the following principles for a federated Union:

  • Direct Democracy – Groups affiliating to the federation should be democratic, with mandated and recallable delegates to national decision making.
  • Dual affiliation – Recognising that struggle goes on in both student unions and anti-cuts groups and that both should be allowed to affiliate.
  • Solidarity – The group should organise on the principle of national co-ordination and national support for local organising.

We are publishing this in the hope that other anti-cuts groups have these conversations and hopefully commit to a national federation. We would be interested in meeting with other people from around the country to discuss how we can push federal organising in the student movement.

One of the people from Birmingham submitted this to NCAFC conference, it provides some indication of a possible structure for a student federation, but it is by no means fully worked out or final:

 

The Federation of Fighting Students

NCAFC conference will call for the creation of a Federation of Fighting Students. A federal organisation dedicated to the creation and maintenance of a permanent force pushing against the power of University and College management, The Government, and the Economic Elite.

 

1. The Federation of Fighting Students exists to:

  • Receive affiliation fees from affiliated student unions and anti-cuts groups
  • provide affiliated student unions and anti-cuts groups with
    • Activist training
    • Advice and Guidance on how to build strong campus anti-cuts movements
    • Advice and guidance on radical reforms of their structures
    • On tap advice for students and officers
    • Welfare and support for students and officers
  • Fund other organisations and campaigns.

2. Officers of the FFS:

The FFS conference shall elect 5 voting members of the FFSU Committee to carry out the task of providing support and services. These shall be:

  • Treasurer
  • Activist Welfare Officer
  • Activist Training Officer
  • Union Structures Officer
  • Fundraising Officer

These officers shall be accountable to the FFS Committee and conference.

3. Affiliations from Student Unions

  • Unions affiliate through their own democratic structures
  • The affiliation fees for student unions should be set at the end of the academic year to be ready for affiliations from September. (In the first instance of this Constitution, initial members will set this before the beginning of 2013 to allow affiliations in the new term).
  • Affiliation fees shall be set as a ratio of money to FTE equivalent student numbers, or as a proportion of any union’s affiliation fee to NUS, or as a proportion of reserves, or as a proportion of turnover, or as any combination of any of these.
  • Affiliation fees shall be agreed by the FFS committee

4. Affiliations from Anti-cuts groups

  • Anti-cuts groups affiliate through their own democratic processes
  • Each Anti-cuts group must show they have 50 members who wish to affiliate by providing the FFS committee with their contact details
  • The affiliation fee for an anti-cuts group would be a minimum of £100 per year (£2 per person per year) but should be more if the members can afford it (especially in the case of Sabbs etc.)

5. FFS Committee

The Committee of the Federation of Fighting Student Unions is made up of:

  • §  One delegate from each affiliated union and one from each affiliated anti-cuts group (It is possible for one campus to have two votes)
  • The 5 operational roles elected by the National Committee
  • The combined vote of the officers should be capped at 25% of the full FFS committee. (If the committee was made up of three delegates plus the officers, they would share one vote)

6.  FFS Conference

  • FFS conference is the sovereign body of the FFS and has ultimate decision making power
  • The FFS conference will be made up of delegates from each union and anti-cuts group
  • Delegates to FFS conference must be elected.
  • Each affiliated union will get two delegates, or one if they represent less than 50% of the largest affiliated union
  • Each affiliated anti-cuts group will receive one delegate per 50 members and £100 affiliation fee, to a maximum of four delegates. For example an anti-cuts group with 100 members, paying an affiliation fee of at least £200 would receive two delegates.
  • At least half of each delegation (rounded down) will self-define as women or as a non-binary gender.
  • The constitution of the FFS can only be changed by conference on the basis of a simple majority.

7. Affiliation approval

Student union affiliations must be approved by the FFS committee or conference.  They may also terminate an affiliation by a 2/3 majority if it is deemed necessary for the basic functioning of FFS.

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