Jess Moore, Wollongong
The National Union of Students (NUS) has abandoned the campaign against the Howard government's "voluntary student unionism" (VSU) legislation. This is despite last December's NUS national conference voting to continue with the campaign in 2006.
Instead, the ALP-dominated NUS leadership announced on February 8 that it will focus on a student welfare campaign.
NUS president Rose Jackson insists that VSU remains an important issue, but none of the orientation week material posted out to campuses contained any mention of VSU. Though the demands of the proposed welfare campaign should be supported, they do not address the fact that VSU is a strategic attempt to destroy the organisations that students have to defend their rights as students.
VSU is designed to eliminate the funding base for student unions. Unless students fight now to retain their unions, they will be less able to campaign against future government attacks on their rights.
VSU will also decimate essential services for thousands of students, including subsidised child-care, academic support, welfare, advocacy, counselling and financial support. These services are, or were, an integral part of life on campus, and provided many students with the necessary support to remain at university.
Before lobbying for conditions (the welfare campaign), we need to ensure that students can come to, and remain at, university and that those with less money are not forced out. Unless VSU is repealed, students will not have the voice to fight for essential services run for students and not for profit.
Though the first "Stop VSU" national day of action (NDA) last April mobilised more students than the second round in August, the campaign has not lost student support. The decrease in the size of the mobilisations resulted from the NUS leadership diverging from the student movement itself. Decisions on the Sydney march route, speakers and action, made by the NSW cross-campus Education Action Network, were overturned by Labor Party students.
Furthermore, the official speakers at the protest actions toed the ALP line, only addressing the concern for the future of services under VSU. The political nature of the VSU legislation, which attacks collective organising, political dissent and the role student unions play in broader social justice and environmental protection movements — all reasons to fight VSU — were largely withdrawn as demands.
By contrast, the VSU campaign at Wollongong University largely addressed political concerns and, as a result, the contingent from Wollongong at the second NDA was three times larger than the first.
National student associations should continue to build the campaign against VSU, not only to exert more pressure on the NUS leadership, but to build a more powerful campaign.
In an effort to cohere the movement, the cross-campus Education Action Network has decided to combine the key demand "repeal VSU" and the welfare campaign for the NDA scheduled for April 12. In addition, the education collectives at Wollongong and Newcastle universities will be waging a "Repeal VSU" campaign this year. The Wollongong University Student Association produced its own information about the April 12 NDA for o-week, demanding that VSU be repealed.
Unless students fight together for the right to a strong union now, there will be no guarantee it will have the means to oppose ongoing attacks or maintain recognition. It will be at the discretion of each university whether or not they recognise the union on campus. Students will be rendered unable to provide essential services run for students not profit. They may not have the voice left to fight for fair conditions within universities and society. They may not even be able to run welfare campaigns.
[Jess Moore is president of the University of Wollongong Undergraduate Students Association.]
From Green Left Weekly, March 8, 2006.
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