Mandatory Student Union membership is a violation of our rights

By Brian Collins

The mandatory nature of student unionism in Ontario is in direct violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Specifically, the fact that we as students are forced to be a member of the Lakehead University Student Union (LUSU) violates our right to free association. This also violates the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “no one may be compelled to belong to an association.”

It’s hard to believe that a fundamental human right is denied to students in Ontario by a provincial law that forces all post-secondary students to belong to a student union, and to make union fees compulsory.

Student unions should be voluntary. There are a few arguments against this, such as: Student unions are a kind of government; student unions represent the issues of all students; and students who do not join the union benefit from actions of those who do. All of these arguments are false and misleading.

The vocal proponents of mandatory student unionism argue that student unions are a form of government. This is simply not true, as the definition of a government is a “political authority that can legislate and enforce laws to protect the civil rights of individuals.”

Student unions obviously fit into the definition of a union, as they exist to represent a specific group of individuals to secure their particular interests. This is even specifically admitted to by the Canadian Federation of Students on their website: “we organize students on a democratic, co-operative basis in advancing our own interests.”

The problem is clear when one looks at the varying interests of students.

The union institutes fees and has political events and views that not all students agree with, yet they can claim they have the support of their members.

My personal gripe is that the union has always advocated for tuition to be free. This view is far from universally supported. Free tuition will predominantly benefit students coming from wealthy and upper middle-class families, compared to the progressive system in place today that has tuition subsidies for low income students. This is strange, as the student union claims to be progressive, but this policy is clearly regressive in nature.

Students have a large number of varying opinions on this and other issues and what the solutions are, but since we are forced into the union, we only have one voice.

The largest argument for mandatory student unions is that they provide a public service. Students that do not join benefit from the actions of those who do. This is known as the free rider problem, and has been accepted as an argument for compulsory employment union membership.    But student unions are not employment unions, and this free rider problem simply does not exist. All services provided by the student union are easily excludable to those who don’t join by use of ID cards. All of the services provided by LUSU could still be provided by a voluntary union.

The free rider argument does not hold when we look at services.  The second portion of this argument deals with bargaining between the student union and the university. Again, this does not hold true because there is no true bargaining by the union. Rallies hosted by the union are simply political rallies for the interests of select students. The right not to associate with certain groups is violated in this case as not all students support the political views of the minority.

This issue has also been investigated by the public think-tank, Frontier Centre for Public Policy, which came to this conclusion in their study, “The Case for Voluntary Student Unionism,” as posted on their website:

“To ensure that student unions remain legitimate, effective and accountable, membership should become voluntary. Not only would it amount to restoring a fundamental human right, it would dramatically decrease operating budgets and compel student union officials to allocate resources according to what a majority of assertive students are willing to pay for, as opposed to what a minority assume a majority of passive students might want in return for their compulsory fees. In other words, by allowing individuals to make an active choice upon entering university, voluntary student unionism would ensure that student unions are composed of members who actually share in the goal of advancing common interests.”

Voluntary student unionism is needed at Lakehead; with low voter turnouts, it is clear that LUSU does not have the support of students. This is even noted by our newly elected president, Ian Kaufman: “It’s a little sad, because it looks like over 90 percent of students didn’t vote. I get that some students just aren’t interested in being involved with LUSU − they’re busy with school, work, social life, kids, whatever − but that’s a sign that the student union isn’t doing its job,” as quoted in the Argus.

The student union can never do its job when students are forced to join. The Ontario government should act swiftly to restore the right of free association to students.

At least give us a way to opt out.