Student unionism should be voluntary

With legislation to ban compulsory student unionism currently before parliament, student groups are protesting “on the streets”:, on posters stuck around campus, and “to the press”: to *keep union membership compulsory*. Even “Vice Chancellors are expressing concerns”:

I find it staggering that people would protest *against their own freedom of association*. Okay, if you appreciate the services and representation the union offers you, join it and pay the fee. But give yourself an out if you decide it’s not for you, and let other people decide for themselves whether they join and pay or not.

Admittedly, students can already choose not to join (for the record, I *chose* to be a member of what remains of Melbourne’s student union, and of UMPA(University of Melbourne Postgraduate Association). But they have to pay the fee whether they join or not. I would skip out on membership of the union if I wasn’t paying already.

The main arguments against voluntary student unionism (VSU) seem to be these:

# it is an example of the Howard government’s union-busting mentality
# it will rob students of a body that represents them
# it will result in less services being provided to students

I’m not going to argue with the first one. I think that the Howard government’s antagonism towards unions is appalling. Workers and their employers (or universities and their customers) should be entitled to fight their battles, in whatever groupings they choose, without goverment interference.

Whether or not student unions really represent their students is debatable. There will always be those who dissent from the opinion of their representatives, whether they voted for them or not, and those dissenting people are not represented. Voter turnouts at student elections are, to the best of my knowledge, typically poor. That’s fine: those who want to have a say can have it. Student representation is a good thing, but…

…there’s no way to justify forcing people to join an association in order to secure that representation. For me this is an absolutely clear-cut issue. If student unionists do not wish to let students choose whether or not to join their association and pay the associated fees, then they are against freedom and therefore in the wrong. (Note that as far as I am aware it is voluntary to join the association, but you have to pay the fee even if you don’t join). If student unionists wish to remain a voice in student politics after this reform (and it *will* go through), they will have to convince students that it is in their interests not only to join the union, student association or guild, but also to voluntarily pay the portion of their amentities and services fee (the whole amount of which is currently around $400 a year at Melbourne, some of which goes to the University itself). I have to say it: I don’t think they’ll have many takers. They might be able to claw some of their membership back if they lower the fee. Price competitiveness is one of the great things that can come from forcing organisations to respond to market pressures.

So, too, I expect both union services, and the private businesses that will appear on campuses to fill the space created by shrinking unions, will have to compete on price and quality of service to secure the patronage of students. Students will be likely end up being better serviced as a result.

I think the Howard government has been appallingly repressive throughout its time in office. Its treatment of refugees is especially atrocious, as is its attempt to mislead people into thinking there were WMD(Weapons of Mass Destruction) in Iraq (especially when there was a good reason for war: removing Saddam Hussein, a tyrant, from power). But it seems about to strike a blow against the forces of coercion. And that goes to show how sometimes people you think are awful can do good things nonetheless.

Author: Ben Hourigan

Ben Hourigan is a novelist from Melbourne, Australia. His books Kiss Me, Genius Boy and My Generation’s Lament are Amazon category bestsellers, and are available wherever good books are sold online. Ben also works as an editor, copywriter, and self-publishing consultant at his own firm, Hourigan & Co. For news and book release updates, sign up to his email newsletter.