Defeating voluntary student unionism

Issue 

By Alison Dellit

The campaign against voluntary student unionism legislation, introduced by the Kennett government in 1994, has entered another stage. With the cancellation of federal funding under the Coalition, many student unions have less than half the amount of funding they had last year. All student unions except Melbourne University have experienced a significant drop in funding.

Under VSU legislation — the most fundamental attack yet seen on students' right to organise in Australia — universities withhold funding from student organisations for all political activities. Democratic elections of student representatives are banned, and if these elections are held, the representatives cannot decide how to spend students' money.

The first question facing the student movement in fighting VSU is whether we can win. We have to evaluate our tactics not by what will cause the biggest splash, or what will make the campaign look grooviest, but by what will force the Kennett government to scrap VSU legislation.

Mass action

We can close down an administration building for one day, or we could occupy a casino for a couple of hours, but these things in and of themselves will not stop or even harm Kennett.

But a campaign that draws in thousands of students, and has the support of thousands more, would have a real impact. The last thing Kennett wants is a strong voice of opposition that has community support. That might start other people wondering why the trade unions don't take such action and might lead to even more sections of society fighting back.

Kennett needs the support, or at least the toleration, of the population. The best way to make sure that Kennett loses support is to convince as many students as possible that they need to oppose him. So the focus should not be on annoying Kennett, or disrupting boardrooms, but rather on convincing and involving students.

Concrete demands

The best way to convince students of the political role of student unions, and the real aim of VSU in smashing student opposition to attacks, is to involve them in the struggle. We need to broaden the appeal of the campaign by focusing on the effects of VSU on a campus level and mobilising students around concrete demands like funding for student newspapers, clubs and societies and student elections.

This will allow us to draw in students who may not understand all the implications of VSU, but want to fight around one aspect. This needs to accompany continuing propaganda around the political and undemocratic nature of VSU.

We need to mobilise all those opposed to VSU and bring them together in a united campaign with clear demands. At a statewide level, we need to demand repeal of the VSU legislation. This is the maximum demand for the movement: it's what our overall aim is, and if we don't put that up front, then we are accepting defeat. This is also a demand that can unite the whole movement behind a common goal.

On a campus level, the demand put on uni administrations needs to be the restoration of funding for all student union activities. Vague demands that are not directly put to administrations don't put real pressure on them, and certainly don't clarify for students what is at issue. It is central that administrations are forced to negotiate with student unions on the understanding that when demands are not met, students will take direct action.

Negotiations need to be reported to student general meetings, and motions put for further actions. We need to create a campaigning atmosphere on campus, not just based on one central rally. By using a variety of actions like marches, strikes, occupations, blockades, pickets and street theatre, we can maintain momentum without over-stretching our resources.

Tactics

The student occupation at ANU against up-front fees in 1994 was a useful tactic in building that campaign. But it was not successful because it upset management or inconvenienced them. It was successful because it reached out and involved massive new layers in the struggle. It upped the tempo of the campaign, had clear and concrete demands and polarised the student body, forcing many more to support the campaign. This is how we need to view occupations: as a tactic that should be evaluated on the basis of whether it will help build a campaign.

In attempting any occupation, we need to take into account that administrations are faced with three choices in an occupation — give in, wait to see if it lasts or call the cops. What they decide to do is dependent on the strength of the campaign, the number of students involved and the level of support for the campaign in the community. For an occupation to be successful, the majority of students need to be convinced of the necessity of the tactic, and prepared to carry it out.

Occupations are also not always possible. It is not difficult for a university to place enough cops and security guards around an entrance to a building to render it impossible to get in. So no action should be built entirely around this tactic.

Another tactic is citywide rallies. One common viewpoint is that the more city rallies we have and the longer they are the better, and that they preferably involve an occupation. The problem with this is that it can wear out activists. The rallies are often smaller because the time hasn't been taken to build them properly. Students can get demoralised because they seem to be constantly rallying without any real result.

This leads them to conclude that such rallies are a waste of time, which is another common view in the student movement. This is equally destructive. Citywide rallies are an essential part of bringing the whole movement together. They allow students to sense their combined strength. They also provide a real action that unions and groups offering solidarity can come along to.

Regular, but not constant, citywide rallies are an essential component to maintaining a unified, statewide campaign. These rallies also serve the purpose of keeping the pressure firmly on Kennett, and the focus on the legislation.

Some activists have suggested that the best way to "defy" VSU is to spend money allocated to the student union for other purposes, on activities which the government intended to prohibit, then make this breach of the legislation publicly known. They argue that this will force the government to crack down on student unions, and students will then rise up in huge numbers.

We have to decide between mass defiance and defiant accounting. The best way to "defy" VSU is by running a political campaign to defend student unions. This will allow thousands more students to be directly involved, not just those who sign the cheques. This does not mean that SRCs should always comply with the legislation, but breaking the legislation as a strategy to fight VSU is no substitute for a mass movement.

We can win this campaign. The key thing is that we start from this premise and seek to build the biggest and most powerful possible movement against VSU.
[Alison Dellit is Melbourne Resistance organiser. This is an edited version of a talk presented by to a student workshop at the Democratic Socialism '96 conference.]