By Biplob Kumar Das (UG21)
Editor’s Note: This op-ed is part of a two-part publication on unionisation. The other op-ed, opposing unionisation, can be found here. The Edict recognizes that the campaigning period is officially over. Both the drafts were written separately — either author did not see what the other wrote — and were submitted for editing before 9th February EOD, and we have decided to publish them right now because we want the students to evaluate the merits and demerits of unionisation for themselves. Neither piece is intended to solicit votes for any candidate for the 7th HoR and they are published in no particular order.
In March of 2020, Student Government’s push for a new grading policy in lieu of the Covid-19 pandemic was dismissed by the administration. The House of Representatives and the Ministry of Academic Affairs had three proposals to consider: P/NR, Double A, and Course Drop. Despite repeated meetings, the administration made it absolutely clear that they would not accommodate any of these proposals. The SG called for mass emails on 2nd April, to show the administration the massive student support for a policy change and to display student strength in the face of the administration’s authority. The admin had to succumb to that mobilisation and the VC accepted the demand for a Town Hall. The SG called for an Open Meeting, attended by over a hundred students, where the three proposed policies were discussed. The SG decided to push for P/NR as its official grading policy proposal upon a popular show of hands. Soon after the VC Town Hall, P/NR was approved by the Academic Council.
In August of 2019, women of ASP’20 returned to campus only to find themselves stationed in a residence (SH5) which had construction underway. This happened even while the administration accommodated international delegates in comfortable residence floors. The ASP women, with some support of the SG, mobilized, shared petitions, drafted email spams, and attended a Town Hall with the VC where the administration had to apologise to them and promised immediate changes in their residential situation. Both during the P/NR mobilization and the SH5 fiasco, the students of our University acted in the spirit of a Union, even as the representative body continued to be called a ‘Government’.
It is this difference of spirit and structure that makes unionization the logical next step for the student body. A Student Union will be accessible, self-reliant, and above all, have the confidence of the student body at all times. Students will engage with the administration as equals. Elected representatives will listen to all the stakeholders. And if members of our community are exploited, or our basic rights violated, we will demand justice, not negotiate for it.
Only the student body alone can decide whether or not they want to unionize. A referendum on unionization can address this precise question of whether the student body wants to be recognized as a Union and begin pushing for the structural changes that come with it (which includes financial independence). For those who lack the imagination to think of a political life beyond institutional frameworks, allow me to sketch the “cultural shift” that unionisation will catalyse.
In the current structure, the administration has immense control over the SG’s budget. The SG merely proposes a budget, which is “approved” by the Office of Student Affairs after scrutiny. Funds are not transferred but reimbursed after bureaucratic requirements are met. A separate bank account where the SG’s funds are easily accessible and secure will allow greater flexibility in our expenses. While financial autonomy can be achieved through negotiations, the fact is that financial autonomy will practically turn us into a ‘Union’. Financial autonomy is an important tenet of unionization, where the student body can be self-reliant and its representatives can utilize funds independently.
General Body Meetings
General Body Meetings are practically Open meetings where all UG and ASP students attending will get a vote on the issue being discussed. It is crucial for Representatives to attain the direct consent of students before taking decisions that directly impact a vast number of students. In hindsight decisions like the P/NR policy change, removal of the Undergraduate FB group should have been taken in General Body Meetings. These meetings provide students with an opportunity to be a part of the decision making process in a future Union, through direct voting. Unlike formal referendums that require petitions, support of the AUEC, and campaigning logistics, General Body Meetings can be called on short notice to decide upon pressing issues.
Change in Inner Structure
Prakrit has proposed that the inner structural change of a Student Union should be formulated and then proposed to the student body by an ad-hoc House Committee that will consult all stakeholders and recommend changes. Such consultation has to be widespread. Will the Student Union retain the legislative-executive separation? Will the Student Union have a directly elected President? Will we even continue to have a House of Representatives? All these outstanding questions and even the technical nitty gritties that come with unionizing will have to be answered through a conversation with the student body, Ministries, AUEC, etc. The student body, including members of the other parties, may choose to approve or disapprove the proposed inner structure, constitutional changes, and elective offices of the Student Union in a referendum. The current structure need not even be totally dismantled; some parts should be retained, and others re-structured. However, the internal change in structure that unionization will bring about is secondary to the primary principle that it will uphold.
The primary principle of unionization is thus: students deserve a representative body that solely represents students. Far from including the student representatives in decision making, the administration expects the SG to simply be a messenger between students and the admin. Unionization will flatly refuse this expectation. A Student Union by definition will not ‘govern’ the student body, but will solely ‘represent’ them. Whereas the term ‘Student Government’ by definition is a paradox, if the literal job is to represent, let’s strive to be an entity that does that. A little peek into the history of popular movements and student resistance will dispel one’s curiosity about why students, workers and farmers in our country’s history have ‘unionized’. To even afford to call ourselves a ‘Student Government’ and appoint ‘Ministers’ and assert an intangible sense of authority that in reality does not exist and in the process, structurally make students in the margins feel excluded, is a unique privilege that only an elite private University like ours can afford. But not for long.
Our student body is expanding, both in numbers and in diversity. Over the past two years the most relevant issues have shifted from cross access timings to academic accommodations, worker’s rights, and representation of communities on campus. Students of our University in the past year have actively taken part in national movements that were nothing short of revolutionary, and in the process, been manhandled or detained by State authorities. Affirmative action and reservation policies are now talking points in our politics. The shift in priority of issues that we care about, the several instances of mobilizations, and a steady political awakening that we have witnessed, were but an attempt by the SG and students of various other organizations to consciously push for this change. To state that mobilization works without unionization is factually correct. But people who believe that we don’t need to unionize to mobilize, display a clear lack of active involvement in past mobilizations, which were in the first place initiated with the intention to act like a Union.
Each time the SG mobilized, we envisioned inching a little bit closer to unionizing. Each time we opened our conversations to several hundreds of students, we envisioned becoming a community where its representatives are able to get off their high horse of immaculate articulation and for once listen to the diversity of voices within the masses, and at its margins. We have consciously attempted to dismantle the ivory tower that the Student Government tends to be. Yet our bureaucratic ways have not entirely been dismantled and neither have we gotten totally rid of our self-important vocabulary. There is a long way to go. We have to move away from ‘vending-machine’ politics, ‘hot water’ politics and ‘meeting-records’ politics.
Negotiation is the literal job description of any student representative. The truth however is that negotiations only take place behind closed doors. The challenge is to think creatively and imaginatively about other methods to pressure the administration. It is to create a politics where the singular authority on campus, i.e. the administration, is not only compelled to join the negotiating table, but it does so with an awareness of the consequences they will face for taking decisions contrary to student interests. The objective of unionization, above everything else, is to achieve equal and democratic negotiations with the administration. Where negotiation is a consequence of collective dialogue (in the form of General Body Meetings), and where negotiations happen with due regard and respect for student interests. Where representatives are not removed from conversations on the ground, but have the Union’s confidence while entering any negotiation.
A shift in our political culture cannot happen solely through a change in structure, it will require years of engagement on pertinent issues, encouragement of active involvement, and overall a political life that is not riddled with apathy. More importantly, a shift in our political culture cannot be an objective to be actualized eventually, but a process that is continuous and unending. The process of unionization cannot in itself be more important than fighting for rights of students and workers. Brainstorming the structure of a union cannot be more important than discussing measures to ascertain reservations on the basis of caste. Moving in the direction of a union itself is not more important than standing constantly in solidarity with progressive political movements around the country. Unionisation is a means to these ends, not an end in itself.
The purpose of unionization is to re-imagine how we practice our politics, where campaigns focus more on issues and political realities, where we do not obsess about the nitty-gritties of student institutions and self-constructed structures, but give onus to the battles for the rights of those in the margins, for justice and against exploitation. If the student body is able to turn financially self-reliant if we are already able to take collective action and act like a Union, if we are able to make the administration aware of our collective strength, and if we are able to prioritise and fight the issues of our community that truly matter; the question is – why not unionize?
Biplob Kumar Das is an elected member of the 6th House of Representatives and the secretary of its National Engagement Committee. He is currently affiliated with Prakrit, and was also a member of the 5th House.