The subject of the role of commercial services in politicised students unions has come up in conversation a lot recently. I think it’s a genuinely interesting and useful topic of discussion so I’ve written my thoughts. Please do leave a comment with yours!
For the majority of students’ unions, commercial service provision is a minor or non-existent part of their activity. But many unions, predominantly in universities, operate significant commercial services which have a huge impact on the day to day running of the union. Most commonly this includes bars, shops, catering and entertainments but some unions have branched out further into employment temp agencies, letting agencies, and health and fitness services.
Students’ unions initially went into commercial services in a big way because they wanted to provide services which students could not access elsewhere. Many pubs used to have ‘no students’ signs in their windows, insurance providers turned students away, and travel agents weren’t interested in the student demographic. These gaps in the market were filled by students’ unions and by NUS, creating a legacy of hundreds of SU bars, Endsleigh Insurance, and STA Travel.
Students who don’t know much about their union, or right-wing students who reject its values, will often think that this service provision is the only important thing that the union does, and everything else is a nice addition at best or a distraction at worst. The latter argument is sometimes used by right-wing managers and staff in students’ unions to prevent officers and actions from taking action to defend their members: “supporting an occupation would damage the good reputation we’ve built since refurbishing the bar”, “we can’t advertise your anti-sexism campaign in the nightclub, it’ll spoil the vibe”. This is sometimes couched in the argument that commercial services fund the campaigns so jeopardizing their success also undermines potential for future campaigns.
When faced with these ideas, left-wing student officers and activists (those who want their union to fight for the rights of student and to change the world for the better) could be excused for dismissing commercial services entirely. But unions which are able to provide commercial services can use them politically. Commercial services can be interwoven into the campaigning and non-commercial activity in the union in a relationship which can help both sides.
Aside from the obvious arguments that it is good to provide services which students want, and even better to make some money from it to spend elsewhere (which are both obviously true but no surprise to anyone) there three political benefits that commercial services can provide.
1 – Service provision can be a political action in itself
The divide between commercial services and campaigns is incredibly blurred. Changing the provision of commercial services can be done for political reasons, to effect change in the world. The clearest example of this is the use of boycotts: no longer selling a product or set of products to exert economic pressure, usually on a company. In the past ten years Nestle and Coca Cola have been big targets of this, alongside various companies who operate in the Palestinian occupied territories.
2 – Services can be used to generate goodwill towards the union generally and campaigns specifically.
A major role of student unionists is to bring students into the political sphere of the union. An effective way to do this is to bring students into the physical buildings and spaces of the unions, and politicise them that way. A student union bar or café shouldn’t feel like its high street equivalent, it should feel like the entrance to the union’s democratic and political life. This means encouraging people to organise in the space and displaying information about the union’s campaigns on walls, surfaces and staff uniforms (with staff able to give further information if asked). Products themselves can carry political messaging: cocktails, sandwiches and pizzas can be renamed after campaigns or slogans; and plates and glasses can promote the ideas of the union.
None of these ideas are complicated and many can be done cheaply, but all too often they aren’t. In far too many unions, commercial services are siloed from the democracy and campaigns. In theory their role is to support this core activity through surplus generated but often the striving for ‘professionalism’ in commercial services completely undermines the union’s political work.
3 – Genuine democratic control of students’ union commercial services can act as a small glimmer for what an economy could look like if ran democratically.
Free market capitalism allocates resources on its own weird logic, making the rich richer and the leaving the poorest in society to starve. Having democratic control of the economy means that resources are allocated on the basis of need not profit. This distinguishes socialism from capitalism.
Students’ unions are not socialist organisations – they operate in a market economy in a legal framework designed to protect the interests of capitalism. However, their democratic nature allows students’ unions to sidestep the demands of the markets, if only in limited ways. For instance, a union might run an unprofitable club night catering to a small LGBT community on the grounds that providing this social space has value in itself. Similarly SU shops could subsidise, or provide freely, products which the union feels are important and overpriced, female sanitary products for instance.
The most high profile example of this is the Zero Tolerance campaign, where clubs and bars can become accredited for adopting a zero tolerance policy to sexual harassment. Students’ unions are leading the way on this because many have political priorities which align to this campaign, making the additional time and effort needed more worthwhile to them than to a high street club.
It is too easy to fall into the trap of dismissing commercial services entirely, either treating them with disdain or seeing them as nothing more than revenue earners. A politicised left-wing union doesn’t just run isolated campaigns, its entire existence and relationship with its members is on the basis of ideas and political action. Officers should do what they can to break down the ghetto walls between commercial services, and democracy and politics.