Spencer Fernando’s comments in the Jan. 4, 2012 issue of the Manitoban’s “UMSU membership should be voluntary,” about what is sometimes called Voluntary Student Unionism (or VSU), clearly deserve a response. In a way, his article is helpful — it gives me a chance to clarify some misconceptions, both about UMSU and also the importance of students’ unions.
First off, I’d like to correct one fundamental error Fernando has made. Students are not allowed to freely opt-out of the UMSU Health & Dental plan as he claims we are; for precisely the reasons his arguments about VSU fail. If we made the Health & Dental plan purely voluntary, the cost of the plan would skyrocket due to the business realities of providing insurance. Try and purchase individual insurance from a private provider by yourself and compare the price, and you’ll see that our UMSU Health & Dental plan is a bargain by comparison. Students are only allowed to opt-out if they can provide proof of existing equivalent coverage from an insurance provider, usually provided by an employer or through a parent’s insurance plan.
The remainder of his article delves into two broad arguments: first, that students (or anyone, presumably) should have complete control over where their money goes; second, that when they don’t, that the recipient of their funds must only do things that make everyone happy. I’ll discuss each of these in turn.
Fernando may be familiar with the idea of a “free rider,” an economics term referring to the phenomenon of people who, when given a chance to collectively benefit and the option of paying in or not paying in, will choose to benefit without paying. Essentially the idea is that people like to get stuff for free. This would happen if the government implemented VSU for UMSU membership, and has happened elsewhere when it has been tried.
There is no doubt in my mind or in the mind of any rational observer of UMSU’s history that the actions of the membership, organizing through their students’ union, has successfully fought off tuition fee increases far larger than the dues paid to UMSU. Students are still saving hundreds of dollars a year through UMSU’s success at minimizing ancillary fees in the mid-2000s. Students in the professional faculties are paying thousands of dollars less in tuition, in part due to UMSU’s efforts a few years ago to stave off massive tuition fee increases in those faculties. Students will save even more as UMSU works to push the Manitoba NDP to slow or reverse tuition increases in the future.
There are myriad other issues that UMSU has fought with the government or the university over for the benefit of students. We’ve fought for stronger rights for students facing disciplinary actions on campus. We’ve fought for copyright legislation from the federal government to be as pro-student as possible. We’ve fought for student loans to be as accessible as possible while lowering the burden they place on students. We’ve fought for government funding to be increased for all post-secondary programs. We’ve fought for better public transportation in the City of Winnipeg. Not all of these have been rousing successes, but I have no doubt we’ve improved the outcome for our membership in ways a voluntary fee could not reflect.
Finally, the issue of supporting “divisive” issues: Mr. Fernando seems to have no problem paying tuition fees to the university, even if he doesn’t support everything they do. He also, presumably, pays his taxes — even when a government he doesn’t like is elected. I fail to see how this is radically different from those circumstances. If anything it’s a more democratic situation: UMSU members have far more ability to directly influence how and where their money is spent through UMSU than they do through either the university or any level of government in this country. The amount of money collected and spent by UMSU is determined democratically during UMSU elections and referenda and between elections by UMSU Council and the various committees thereof.
I’m proud to be a member of UMSU and of the past, present, and future successes of UMSU, the Canadian Federation of Students, and the entire student movement — and any form of VSU is something I believe all members of UMSU should oppose.
Camilla Tapp is the president of UMSU
Fernando’s point was not that UMSU doesn’t attempt to make students’ lives easier. His point was that it should not be the responsibility of this bureaucracy to make students’ lives easier unless they individually ask them to do so. The opposing collectivist mentality is the only reason student unions have maintained any measure of relevance to this day. That, and events featuring cheap beer and pizza.
Tapp may accuse Fernando of being a free rider, but I saw no indication from his article that he believes he’s getting much out of paying his UMSU dues, and I don’t imagine he’s alone in that. UMSU isn’t responsible for the things all U of M students benefit from. They don’t pay for facilities, teaching staff, technology or maintenance the way federal, provincial and municipal governments pay for infrastructure and other public services. Therefore, why should everyone be compelled to pay? To compare a student union to a real government is self-aggrandizement of the worst kind.
Furthermore, linking UMSU campaigns to provincial tuition policy is a bit on the pompous side. We’ve lived under an NDP regime since the 90s. Does Tapp really expect that they’d approach post-secondary education policy any differently without the annual rehash of the same overtired CFS talking points? And tying UMSU activism to advancements in municipal transportation or federal copyright law doesn’t even merit a laugh.
Finally, I’m not sure you could successfully argue that UMSU and its actions are democratically chosen when voter turnout in the 2011 election was just over 12 percent. If students were as enamored with UMSU as Tapp seems to think, surely the majority of them would be mobilizing to elect new presidents year after year? Instead, it stays in operation thanks to the tyranny of the minority – which, coincidentally, seems to be overwhelmingly composed of people who have been drinking the orange Kool-Aid since high school. Perhaps this is why Tapp is so quick to dismiss the few among the politically engaged student population who stray from the party line.
But of course she would be proud of UMSU regardless. THEY pay HER.