For some time now, I’ve been hearing talk of a “student union.” In the past, I could hope the talk would come to nothing. But now the formation of such a “union” is upon us, and I can no longer hopefully hold my voice.
My opposition has nothing to do with opposition to unions, activism or democracy. Rather, it is because these ideals are so important to me that I am not merely skeptical, but aghast, at this proposal.
The idea of forming a student union is based on the claim that students share a common cause and common needs with workers and that the same forces threaten us all. This is a noble sentiment, but as a description of fact or a program for action it is false.
Students face an entirely different set of problems than workers. Our voice is not their voice, and our plight is nothing compared to their plight. I am shocked by the presumption of students who claim any similarity of position or needs to workers. We are not exploited. At best we are pampered, given amazing educational and social opportunities. At worst, we are ignored, and that needs to stop. But there are more honest ways to effect change than to play at being members of the proletariat.
The claim that students are workers is also damaging to the ideal of the university we should all be fighting for.
A university should be a community of individuals devoted to knowledge as a good in itself and as a benefit to society. It is an association of students; all with insight and passion to contribute; all with a right to be heard, though to differing extents; all with an interest in working together for common things. Students aren’t employees of the university or consumers. We are part of the university.
Adopting a union method of antagonistic, interest-based organizing is fatal to this ideal. A corporate model is an inappropriate and dangerous one for a university to adopt. Yale has already done this far too much. The last thing we should do, in trying to reform Yale, is to buy into the same fallacy.
Not only is this union misconceived, it is dangerous. I think it will fail and drag Yale activism down with it.
Advocates claim the student union is necessary to give students a voice and to bring them together. But since the student union began to organize, I have heard more internal recrimination from my socially conscious friends than talk of positive and creative action.
The student union claims to be built on consensus. But I see no such consensus, and I don’t see how such consensus is even possible. A student organization should be unifying, but the student union is already a source of dissension. And while we argue over this ill-conceived project, positive efforts to make Yale truly democratic will come to a standstill.
The history of left-wing activism holds too many examples of reform efforts thwarted by infighting — and by the haste and heavy-handedness of self-appointed, autocratic vanguards — for anyone to dismiss this possibility.
Behind all of this lies a beguiling but fundamentally flawed idea: that a student union really can do everything at once, representing everyone and bringing everyone together in one voice because ultimately, everyone’s needs and wishes are the same. I’d like to think so. But it’s manifestly untrue.
Often we can, and should, find common ground and common cause with others. But we must remember we’re not all the same. And though we may equally want or respect many things, they will not necessarily be compatible with one another. We should not force a multiplicity of goals, needs and concerns, into the straitjacket of a single, partisan and possibly coercive organization.
I don’t think students can or should form a union. I don’t think such a union can be truly unifying, and I fear it won’t be truly democratic. I don’t think such a body could live up to its claim to be all things to all people.
In pursuing this illusionary goal, such a body represents an appalling lack of honesty, lucidity and responsibility — all of which are indispensable qualities if we are to change Yale for the better.
Joshua Cherniss is a junior in Saybrook College.