Take advice from staff, but be aware of your role as an elected officer

This article is part of a series written by an NCAFC activist and student union officer, about some of the issues new student union officers (especially full-time officers) face as they are starting in their roles. The other articles published in the series so far can be found here. These questions are just one part of the wide range of issues in the student movement that will be discussed at NCAFC’s Summer Training & Gathering. This is an annual gathering for campus activists and student union officers alike, consisting of workshops, discussions and debates for the student movement to equip itself for the battles of the coming year. It will be held 29-31 August, Sussex University and will be free to attend – more info here.

Most student unions employ at least some staff. So as a lead union officer, and possibly as a trustee of your union, you’re probably now to at least some degree a boss – which can be quite an awkward position.

You need to take this responsibility seriously. Unions (like anywhere else) should be decent places to work, with good pay and conditions. And you have to be respectful – for instance, expecting a staff member to stay late at work is not the same as asking an activist to give up their evening to work on a campaign.

However, there are some student unions where the agenda is set more by senior staff than students and student officers, and where senior managers have actively worked to clamp down on the agendas of left-wing officers.

More subtly, staff may be resistant to the directions that students want to take their unions. Union officers should take staff seriously, and consider their suggestions when making decisions. But you need to be able to put your foot down and insist that students’ unions are run by students – and elected accountable officers, not staff, should be making the final decisions.

Sabbatical officers are often told that this is “your year”, as if it’s all about us. This sometimes acts as a drive to keep horizons constrained and focus on goals and projects that are achievable in the short-term. The long-term direction of the union is hived off as a separate question, often framed as more “operational” than political, and so there is often a lot less democratic control or accountability. And especially in those unions controlled more by managers (or trustees who may not be students and may not be elected) than by elected officers, officers can be isolated from their predecessors and successors and organisational memory is concentrated in staff.

It’s better to think of yourself as one in a succession of temporary leaders of something that’s much bigger than you. In some ways this cuts you down to size, but in others it’s actually empowering. Embrace the fact that some things worth changing will take longer than a year – and satisfy yourself that if you can begin to make a good dent during your time in office and then hand over to someone who will keep up the work, that could be more valuable than attacking and resolving a simpler problem within a year. In order to ensure your good work has a chance of continuing, you will need to work with student activists outside the union office and to generate political discussion.

If you find yourself inheriting a project or cause you disagree with politically, don’t hesitate to end it – perhaps by pushing for a change in policy through the democratic structures.

This makes it even more important to hand over properly and to build the organisational memory of the union. At the end of your time in office, it’s not enough just to hand over operational details and contact lists – you need to give your successors an honest and full political appraisal of the situation on your campus, including recent issues and events and the progress and prospects of live campaigns and projects.

Genuine democracy is participatory, not passive!

This article is part of a series written by an NCAFC activist and student union officer, about some of the issues new student union officers (especially full-time officers) face as they are starting in their roles. The other articles published in the series so far can be found here. These questions are just one part of the wide range of issues in the student movement that will be discussed at NCAFC’s Summer Training & Gathering. This is an annual gathering for campus activists and student union officers alike, consisting of workshops, discussions and debates for the student movement to equip itself for the battles of the coming year. It will be held 29-31 August, Sussex University and will be free to attend – more info here.

As a union officer, you will find yourself under pressure from those with a right-wing agenda dressed as “apolitical”, pushing for a “services” model of student unionism. In the debate over democracy, they will often sing the praises of “neutral” surveys as the ultimate arbiters of what the union should be doing.

It’s easy to see the appeal, when membership surveys can get high response rates. The logic seems to make sense: Surely anything that can get the input of more members is more democratic? But this kind of passive polling process is democratically deficient in important ways.

Democracy isn’t just a process of surveying the views of each member from the top down. Those views are not static or straightforward, nor do they fit neatly into the questions we ask. Real democracy is a participatory, collective process, in which the members of a community raise questions, discuss them and develop views in the course of interacting with each other. So we need to be concerned with who gets to set the questions and who gets to contribute to debate, not just to who ultimately gets to answer the question.

If they’re set up well, General Meetings and elected, accountable Union Councils have more potential for collective, participatory democracy than surveys or referenda (or even worse, “juries” of unelected, unaccountable students).

Surveys have some limited value as pieces of evidence, but resist arguments that the manifesto pledges and politics you won on, or decisions made after discussion by a Union Council or a General Assembly, are less legitimate than the results of a survey. And if participatory democratic structures don’t exist or are weak in your union, then fight to build them.

Continue to fight for your ideas and organise on campus

This article is part of a series written by an NCAFC activist and student union officer, about some of the issues new student union officers (especially full-time officers) face as they are starting in their roles. The other articles published in the series so far can be found here. These questions are just one part of the wide range of issues in the student movement that will be discussed at NCAFC’s Summer Training & Gathering. This is an annual gathering for campus activists and student union officers alike, consisting of workshops, discussions and debates for the student movement to equip itself for the battles of the coming year. It will be held 29-31 August, Sussex University and will be free to attend – more info here.

Over and over again, in student unions and elsewhere, leftists have made the mistake of thinking that the key is simply to win leadership positions, and then once in post they can simply dictate a leftwing agenda. The reality is that your power is limited and even sabbatical officers on their own are not very important. It is not enough to have a sabbatical officer with the right political positions. It’s the membership of a union taking collective action that can force the hands of those in power. The right leadership helps, but is not enough.

Even when you’re in office, you need to keep putting the left agenda up for discussion in your union’s democratic structures (and then fighting to win those discussions and votes). We need to keep sparking debates and forcing people to think. A union with a left-wing leadership cannot achieve much without a politically conscious and active body of students. Discussion within the union is one essential way to build that.

Some left-wing union officers refrain from putting potentially controversial issues to (for instance) a General Assembly, in case they lose the debate and the vote. This kind of conservatism is bureaucratic and self-defeating.

Within the left, maintaining a strong degree of organisation is vital. Good campus activist groups are not just vehicles for getting left-wingers elected to union posts, though they should try to do that. They are the core body of activists who will make action happen on campus (with or without the union’s official backing), who will maintain a collective political memory and pass it on to the next cohort – and who can keep left-wingers grounded and accountable once they’re in the sabbatical office. Left-wingers who win full-time union positions should maintain and nurture these groups – and organise collectively with them.

Don’t let bureaucracy get in the way of democracy

This article is part of a series written by an NCAFC activist and student union officer, about some of the issues new student union officers (especially full-time officers) face as they are starting in their roles. The other articles published in the series so far can be found here. These questions are just one part of the wide range of issues in the student movement that will be discussed at NCAFC’s Summer Training & Gathering. This is an annual gathering for campus activists and student union officers alike, consisting of workshops, discussions and debates for the student movement to equip itself for the battles of the coming year. It will be held 29-31 August, Sussex University and will be free to attend – more info here.

It helps to think of there actually being two student unions. There’s the political union, which is a platform for students’ collective expression and action; and there’s the bureaucratic entity that’s legally recognised as the union, which may employ staff, hold bank accounts, maintain physical premises and so on. In most cases this is a charity, under the oversight of various laws and the Charities Commission.

The latter can be thought of as a shell for the former. The real union, and the political agenda set more-or-less democratically by its members, is what matters. The bureaucratic entity is a tool we can use to help pursue that agenda, because it allows us to wield important and powerful resources.

The legal structures aren’t suited to democratic, effective student unionism – in fact some of them were imposed to hold back our work. There’s an agenda and a set of values that you’re supposed to adhere to, that comes with the charity model, and none of it is very compatible with democracy. And in your induction as a union officer, someone may try to convince you that this model and its agenda are a good thing that you should embrace and buy into! Your job here becomes a balancing act.

Many officers succumb completely to this agenda, and happily take on their new role as a “responsible” trustee of an “apolitical” charity. The leadership of our movement, in the form of the NUS, does little to oppose this, and at worst it often actively embraces the constraints imposed on us by our institutions and a state both eager to hold back any political threat from organised students.

There is also a subtler problem, where officers don’t see themselves as buying into the agenda, but in practice become overly concerned with maintaining the shell and conforming to the model that’s expected of them, at the expense of democratic, activist student unionism. Recently, we’ve seen student union Trustee Boards quash democratic decisions, and officers who see themselves as radical leftists haven’t been immune to this either.

Some activists would rather sacrifice the resources to which these shells give us access rather than give an inch. Or they may respond to the bureaucratic nature of it all by trying to completely avoid the (sometimes mundane yet still necessary) tasks of maintaining and administrating the union. There’s an appealing spirit to this, but this would be a very serious loss that would ultimately make us weaker and worse off. Yes, the student movement desperately needs to put together a coherent challenge to the agenda that’s been imposed on us and fight to expand democratic rights for unions. But until we start – and win – that fight, we’re better off maintaining our shells and the resources that come with them, as long as we push the legal and bureaucratic envelope as far as possible to uphold democracy – and resist buying ideologically into the anti-political agenda.

Be prepared to fight university and college managers

This article is part of a series written by an NCAFC activist and student union officer, about some of the issues new student union officers (especially full-time officers) face as they are starting in their roles. The other articles published in the series so far can be found here. These questions are just one part of the wide range of issues in the student movement that will be discussed at NCAFC’s Summer Training & Gathering. This is an annual gathering for campus activists and student union officers alike, consisting of workshops, discussions and debates for the student movement to equip itself for the battles of the coming year. It will be held 29-31 August, Sussex University and will be free to attend – more info here.

You represent students, not bosses. One thing it’s vital to understand is that the various people with power over the things you want to change – from the director of your student well-being department, to a Vice-Chancellor, to a local councillor – are mostly working to fulfil different goals than the interests and desires of students (or education workers). That’s not to say they are consistently opposed – in some cases, our interests and goals more or less align with theirs. In these cases, you may be able to secure wins just by talking to the right people and saying the right things – or lining up the institutional powers that do agree with you against those that don’t. But if those things were the only things we wanted to win, we wouldn’t need unions.

We can’t win by sending a silver-tongued union officer into back-room chats with managers. It is naïve to think – as some of the student union movement seems to – that authority figures are so incredibly impressionable and incompetent that a few clever words from a student officer will make them act contrary to their goals and material interests. In these situations, the main power we can bring to bear is coercive, not persuasive. We have to force their hands, against their will, by making it more difficult to continue to oppose us than to do what we want. Tactics like occupations, disruptive protests on open days, strikes and other industrial action, and creating PR crises and negative media attention – most of which are based in collective action – are the key weapons in your arsenal. And you can’t just conjure these out of nothing when they’re needed, nor can you take them out of the box when you deem it tactically appropriate and then just put them back again – you need to nurture and maintain grassroots political organising among students constantly, and put them in control of action as much as you can.

You don’t work for the college or university. Senior managers often seem to think that they can treat a student union as some sort of “student experience department” that works for them – you exist to provide entertainment and maybe some individualised welfare support, and to tick a box saying they listen to the “student voice” (just so long as it didn’t disagree with them). Unfortunately, that’s what university and college bosses often mean when they talk approvingly of “partnership” with student unions.

There’s nothing wrong with cooperating with management when their interests align with students’. But the student union doesn’t work for the institution. You may rely on the university or college for resources and possibly space. But in a democratic education system, all those resources would be under the control of students, staff, and the community. Senior management’s control is illegitimate, so the fact that they give some of it back to students in the form of a union block grant doesn’t mean the union legitimately owes them anything. Your work to maintain and increase that grant might include a presentation exercise of playing up those aspects of the union’s work that align with the interests of the people holding the purse-strings, but managers cannot be allowed to set the agenda.