State of the (Student) Union

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State of the (Student) Union

On Tuesday, Jan. 28, President Obama made his annual State of the Union address in front of the United States House of Congress. He vowed to use his executive authority to act unilaterally should Congressional Republicans continue to stonewall his agenda. House Republicans have successfully forced Obama to scale down his ambitions for 2014, and they will drive him to use more politically risky methods of getting things done by continuing to oppose him in Congress.

Often, blame for America’s climate of partisan gridlock is laid on the Tea Party Republicans who infiltrated the GOP’s ranks in 2010 with their off-brand, caustic conservatism. Its members loathe any concession to the Obama administration, and their influence within the party has helped force blunders like the most recent government shutdown.

Incidentally, just one day after the State of the Union address, the Central Student Association (CSA) ran its Annual General Meeting (AGM) – perhaps the Association’s nearest equivalent to a State of the Union address. As with the State of the Union address, the political climate surrounding the AGM is by far more interesting spectacle: For here, too, the Guelph Student Mobilization Committee (GSMC) appears to be doing to the CSA what the Tea Party has done to the Republican Party.

In a similar fashion the CSA, if it is not more prudent with its affiliations, risks compromising its ability to enact meaningful change.

The GSMC is a left-leaning group inspired by the Quebec Student Strike, which formed in 2012. The group campaigns for free post-secondary education, resists university austerity measures, and “stands in solidarity with students all over the world that are struggling towards the same goal,” according to the ‘Basis of Unity’ document available on the GSMC website.

For the past two semesters, the GSMC has been pouring resources into a high-profile publicity campaign against the Program Prioritization Process (PPP). Their most recent event was the Alternative Town Hall, which offered a forum for students, faculty and staff to voice opposition to the proposed budget cuts, despite the fact that little is known about how the much PPP valuations will count when the time comes to enact cuts. The poster the GSMC used to advertise the meeting featured a chainsaw emblazoned with the letters “PPP.”

To be clear, the problem here is not the GSMC. The group has just as much right to mobilize as the Tea Party, and students are better served by having them around. The problem is the extent to which the GSMC has been invited to cosy up to the CSA, a far larger institution that has many of the same mandates as the GSMC, but in theory has a greater obligation to work toward realistic goals.

January’s CSA Board of Director’s meeting demonstrated just how close the relationship between the two groups has become. Each member of the CSA Executive in attendance spoke in favour of a motion to endorse the GSMC’s anti-PPP “Pay More, Get Less” campaign, and at least two members of the CSA Executive – Julia Forster, the Academic and University Affairs Commissioner, and Dominca McPherson, the External Affairs Commissioner – said they regularly attend GSMC meetings. The motion to endorse the campaign passed 16-9, due in part to their influence.

The CSA is understandably attracted to the way the GSMC has so effectively been able to mobilize student support, lay the groundwork for its own campaigns, and present a strong face to the administration. But in supporting the GSMC so intimately, and by allowing the group to manoeuvre its way into the CSA agenda, Guelph’s student union is binding itself to an organization that does not have the same responsibilities and obligations as its own: a group that can afford to rankle precisely because it has nothing to lose. The CSA, however, must preserve a commitment to making thoughtful concessions on behalf of the student population. Like the Republican Party, they will do no good service to anyone by taking uncompromising positions on important issues.