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Saturday, 20 April 2019 02:14 pm

Last bastion of forced unionism faces extinction

UNION DEBATE: Victoria University's Liam Grandy (left) and Aishling Reilly favour voluntary membership.

Student unions in New Zealand are about to collapse – and no-one seems to care. JONATHAN CHILTON-TOWLE talks to students and their unions about the ACT party’s voluntary membership bill:

NEW Zealand’s student associations are the last bastion of compulsory union membership in the world and the castle looks set to crumble if the ACT party has its way.

Opinions in the student community are divided on whether compulsory membership is good or bad.

Some think the worst – students unions will collapse if membership is voluntary.

Others say the opposite – they’ll become more efficient than the current operations, which favour a few and offer services many don’t use.

So who’s right about the great student union debate, about what will happen if new law passes that will do away with compulsory membership?

Victoria University student Aishling Reilly reckons nobody should be forced to join anything: “I don’t feel you should be forced to join any organisation against your will.”

Her friend, fellow student Liam Grandy agrees, saying he can understand why the (ACT) bill has been put forward. “It’s not like other unions force their members to join.”

“It would mean less fees, right?” says Aishling, giving voice to a concern of many other students.

She is right about that. Every Victoria student is required to pay $130 to the student union each year.

Victoria graduate, Alexander Abernethy supports compulsory membership

“I think their existence helps some students enough to warrant their existence,” he says.

Regardless of the opinions of students, ACT are intent on pushing through the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill, which will make it the student’s choice to join student unions.

It is thought that most students will decide not to join their unions given the choice and this would deprive the unions of membership fees. Without these, the unions may be unable to provide services or even pay their own salaries.

The unions are well aware of the danger to their incomes and are raising a hue and cry on the internet and in student magazines throughout the county.

“ACT MP Heather Roy and the Government are committed to destroying students’ associations and students’ ability to have a meaningful voice,” wrote Victoria student association president Seamus Brady in Victoria University’s Salient last month.

But most of this is passing unnoticed by the general public, who have not seen anything about the bill on TV since last November. Even the students have not put up much resistance. Compared to previous demonstrations, protests against the freedom of association bill have been tiny.

Last December saw 20 New Zealand Union of Student Associations members and associates picketing parliament grounds.

The Bill passed its second reading last November and is currently before the House. The last attempt to alter the bill’s shape was voted down in parliament in late February. It was an amendment from the Green Party aimed at smoothing the transition to voluntary membership by channeling extra funding to student organisations for the next two years.

ACT probably has the numbers to get the bill through its final stages, as it is a coalition partner. If a majority of MPs agrees, the bill  will move on to its third and final reading where it is very unlikely to be rejected and will become law.

New Zealand Union of Student Associations co-president David Do (left) is a staunch opponent. “The Bill will have a strongly negative impact on students, student services, and tertiary institutions, tertiary education, and wider society,” he says.

David says voluntary membership will destroy the union’s ability to provide services to their members by decreasing their incomes by up to 78 percent.

He believes students from minority groups will be the most hit by voluntary union membership. “Many disadvantaged groups of students are particularly assisted by the work of associations, including Maori, Pacifica, rural, international students, and those with disabilities.  This Bill could see significant negative effects for such groups, undermining important representation and support.”

On their website, NZUSA claims an independent public opinion poll of 750 New Zealanders revealed 77 percent of respondents felt that students should decide the structure of membership of their associations rather than the Government.

“These results follow an overwhelming response at select committee where 98 percent of the 4800 submissions were against the Bill and in support of the status quo,” says NZUSA co-president Pene Delaney.

“With students, the public, and (some) tertiary institutions opposing the Bill and warning of its negative consequences, why would the Government support such an unpopular and unworkable Bill?” she says.

ACT MP Heather Roy (right) is the brains behind the Freedom of Association Bill. On her website, she says the overarching principle behind the bill is protecting students’ rights to freedom of association.

She says Kiwi students are the only people in the world still forced to join their union and this is wrong. “Students are having their freedom violated. So important is our right to freedom of association that it is protected in the Bill of Rights,” she says.

Heather Roy disagrees with David Do about voluntary membership hurting student union services. “Opponents of voluntary membership claim that if students are not forced to pay the union fees no-one will join and services and the student voice will go.

“This attitude merely says to me that the associations have no belief in themselves. If they provide services students want they will prosper.”
If unions provide quality services they will not need to worry about lacking members. “The reason any customer service outlet provides quality services is because they know that their customers have the opportunity to shop elsewhere.

“As soon as you have the option of opposing shoddy service delivery by withdrawing your money from the association, they, out of necessity to survive, become far more accountable.”

She says many student unions misappropriate students’ money and points to $1 million in student fees that went missing from the Whitireia Independent Students Association last year as a glaring example.

Students have their own views on the subject.

Michelle Cooper (left) is a Whitireia journalism student who was formerly a class representative to her union. The antics of her union last year left her jaded and changed her opinion on union membership.

“After the bad experience with [the former Whitireia student union president] I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of students from Whitireia support ACT’s Bill to make union membership voluntary.”

Even before Michelle learned about the missing funds, she was dissatisfied by the services her union provided, as a lot of student facilities were based at the main campus in Porirua and it was inconvenient for her to go there from the Wellington campus where her course is based.

Alexander Abernethy (right) is a Victoria university biology graduate who supports compulsory union membership, even though he thinks the unions help only a minority of students.

“Voluntary membership will lead to them not existing in any meaningful way which isn’t ideal,” he says. “Personally, I think their existence helps some students enough to warrant their existence.”

He took full advantage of the university doctors provided by the union, but didn’t make use of other services.

“I find student unions to be a bit of a joke, with a few people getting things done while the rest just seem to ride along doing nothing. The union at Vic seemed fairly ineffective at getting student advocacy type stuff done, but did a good job of running sports clubs that I wasn’t interested in.  This club funding seems a waste to me and would have caused me not to join if I had a choice.”

In Australia, student union membership has been voluntary since 1996. After that date, student union fees income reduced by more than 95 percent on average for Aussie unions and such losses in revenue are not sustainable, says NZUSA co-president David Do.

Noelle Fynmore (left), a Kiwi who has studied in both New Zealand and Australia, supports voluntary student union membership. “Membership should be voluntary because the union does not represent the ideas and interests of all students. I dislike being forced to affiliate with an organisation which I do not share the same viewpoints or concerns with.”

When she was at Wellington’s Victoria University she was not aware of many of the services her union offered and resented paying for services she did not use.

She thinks student unions can be a very useful medium for students to have their concerns heard, but feels the unions are largely disconnected from the mainstream student body.   “Unions now seem more like a forum for student activists and do not truly represent the majority of student ideas and interests.”

She recalls on incident one ANZAC day when the Victoria Student Association refused to place a wreath or be involved with ANZAC celebrations. “I knew many people with relatives who had been involved in the wars or had family and friends serving, and it seemed like most students I spoke to thought that the student union was now just like an activist-filled minority party,” she says.

After Victoria, Noelle finished her study at Perth’s Curtin University. She describes her experiences with the student union there far more favourably. “It (the Curtin student guild) was a very active voice in the university, constantly making its presence and its plethora of services known to students and offering help and advice.”

She believes voluntary membership forced the Curtin Student Guild to become a superior organisation and cut out much of the activism present in Kiwi unions.

It is likely that student unions in New Zealand will soon become voluntary like their Australian counterparts.

Most students interviewed clearly support the move away from compulsory membership.

However, many students say they are willing to join their union if it provides a professional service.

If ACT’s bill, passes the student unions will have no choice but to struggle to adapt to the new circumstances.

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