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Opinion //

Op-ed: Why the Left shouldn’t run for the USU

The only principled thing to do is to boycott USU elections and turn our energies to real unions and activism.

An image of Holme Building

Twice every year Eastern Avenue is littered with A-frames and people leafleting in coloured t-shirts. It’s for two different elections — one for people to be elected to the Students’ Representative Council and one for the University Sydney Union (USU). 

Some people on the left will say that we should run in both. Those people would be wrong. Fundamentally, the USU is a corporation and the best thing left-wing people can do is boycott it.

To justify participating in the USU elections, left-wing tickets have to argue that 1) the USU is a union and 2) by being elected to its board they can push it to do left-wing things.

So to address these arguments: 

Firstly, the USU is not a union.

Unions are designed to protect workers’ interests and fight against the bosses. Or, in the case of student unions like the SRC, they are designed to help students out, getting funding to organise on campus and fight for students’ rights. 

Does the USU do this? 

Absolutely not. The USU receives millions of our SSAF money (over $5.1m to be precise), which is vastly more than the $1.9m the SRC receives. Not to mention the revenue they get from ACCESS sign ups, charging the SRC and clubs for venue bookings and the profits of their many food outlets. They are a multi-million dollar institution and they make business decisions. 

Last year, in the face of COVID and classes moving online, they closed down their outlets and forced through a pay cut of 40% for workers, despite being eligible for JobKeeper. Much like the University at large, recently it was announced that they have an operating surplus of $55,000, proving their cuts to be completely unnecessary.

This is the behaviour of a for-profit corporation and not a union. 

Some left-wing people respond to this by saying ‘of course it is a corporation but surely by getting elected we will have the power to at least make some left-wing impact?’

This is also untrue. 

The elections to the USU are for its board, but the main decision-making body is corporate management. As a single board member you do not have power. The most you can do is vote against anti-worker motions and disclose classified information. For the left-wing candidates who have been elected in recent history making this bold move is deemed too risky. And with good reason — Tom Raue, the last Grassroots member who attempted to disclose classified information, was taken to court by the USU and slapped with $50,000 of legal fees. 

By being elected to this board all you are doing is providing the USU with left-wing cover. They need credibility so that when they do something egregious they are not in the firing line and are instead protected by the people who should be the ones protesting against them.

The only principled thing to do is to boycott USU elections and turn our energies to real unions and activism.