Fighting to exist: Why Alberta unions (of the labour and student variety) should work in solidarity

CAPSE Rally for Post-Secondary Education, UofA campus (March 2013) 

CAPSE Rally for Post-Secondary Education, UofA campus (March 2013) 

Ishani Weera
Yesterday’s online issue of the University of Alberta's student-run campus newspaper contained an editorial that captured two of my interests: campus activism and public-sector unions.

Gateway editor Kieran Chrysler defended Students’ Unions (SUs) and was critical of  Alberta's right-wing Wildrose Party and it's proposed anti-SU policy that sought to amend the province's Post-Secondary Learning Act and defund student unions.

The Wildrose's proposed policy leaned on frames it frequently used to demonize workers and their unions to attack student governments and their advocacy for public education. The proposed policy stated that SU fees are like "mandatory mebership dues to any public sector union”. It went one step further by also suggesting that much like those ghastly unions, SUs used their financial resources "to advance certain, often progressive, political agendas."

Here’s an excerpt outlining Chrysler’s opposition to the comparison:

It's also interesting that the letter that the Council of Alberta University Students issued ahead of the Wildrose AGM focused on differentiating student governments from the party's (mis)charachterization of union transparency.  

This is yet another bit of proof union organizers and student activists have more work to do in collaboratively defining common ground.

Common Enemies

Recently, the right-wing Fraser Institute heralded the passing of Canada’s federal anti-union bill as a move in the right direction.  “The next step” they declared in their press release was to “ensure that workers have a choice about whether or not to becoming union members at all.” The Fraser Institute also insisted that workers should have the “choice” not to pay union dues in exchange for collective benefits like union-negotiated dispute resolution processes, wage increases, health benefits and pension contributions.

Calling the dismantling of labour unions an issue of “worker choice” is clever, though intentionally misleading. We can’t help but notice that it’s the same cleverness embedded in the Wildrose policy proposal to dismantle SUs in the province.

Same strategy, different targets

The approach of the partisan right is the same when it comes to both SUs and worker unions: Undermine the economic viability of institutions that act as counterbalances to power.

When members of the Wildrose Party unanimously approved a policy proposal for student “choice” at their Calgary AGM it was all about an attack on the financial resources of student government. The policy would allow every post-secondary student to “choose whether or not he/she wishes to become a dues-paying member of a student association.” Keean Bextem, a former student’s union representative himself, put forward the anti-SU proposal at the Wildrose AGM and lamented to CBC that students are "being forced to pay money, pay thousands of dollars throughout their degree, to fund organizations that don't necessarily represent them."

What happens when we frame all collective action as oppressive

Calling dues oppressive burdens forced on people -- rather than collective investment in people’s collective good – is not dissimilar from the right’s preoccupation with insisting all taxes are “burdens” rather than revenue for public services we count on. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff talks about this at length when discussing metaphorical language like “tax relief”.  Combine the word tax with the word relief says Lakoff and “you get a metaphor that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain.”

The same rhetoric informed John Mortimer of the right-leaning Canadian Labour Watch Association when he declared in his National Post editorial that workers are unfairly “forced to pay union dues”.  It’s worth noting that the Canadian Labour Watch Association is part of the right-leaning employer lobby group known as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. Mortimer’s attack on union dues shouldn’t be a surprise. Employers groups are afraid of the voice unions provide to workers. They also don’t really care for our advocacy around things like worker safety, fair hiring practices and well-funded public services for all. 

Similarly, SUs ensure students have a voice on campus. Universities (who are also employers) don’t really care for the way Students unions advocate for things like investments in advanced education and tuition freezes.

Defending ourselves against the partisan right through solidarity

The response of workers and their unions to these attacks has been to explain the democratic, transparent and fair processes unions provide workers. It echoes the sentiments of collective action that underlay Chrysler’s attempt to defend Student Unions in her editorial. Chrysler points out that SUs are valuable organizations where “each incoming year elected representatives can work on issues that, based on their successful campaigns, are ones that students care about.”

So if we’re all targets of the partisan right, then why aren’t unions and students unions making more public statements of solidarity? The political forces that apply austerity economics to the public university are doing the same to public-sector services like health care, infrastructure and road maintenance, and social services.

It’s scary stuff, and cause for greater solidarity, not division.


Ishani Weera is the Senior Social Media Strategist at Solidarity Media.