At the Students’ Society Council meeting last Wednesday, SSMU voted in favour of a motion to “stand in solidarity” with the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill, or AGSEM, as they push to unionize course lecturers. Some councillors raised concerns about SSMU being too political and the motion being against students’ best interests. While the implications of course lecturer unionization are not totally clear, the discussion surrounding the motion did raise the important question of just how political SSMU should be. It’s important to affirm that when it comes to issues affecting students, student representatives have the right to take defined political positions.
As a representative body, SSMU officials have the responsibility to advocate on behalf of students, and political resolutions give them democratic mandates on which to stand. In the case of AGSEM, for instance, the potential for attracting better course lecturers and improving the quality of work for those who are here are measures with direct and important impacts on student life. In that sense, this is exactly the type of motion on which SSMU should be taking a stand.
As with any political decisions, though, SSMU statements have the potential to be quite controversial. It’s important to note, therefore, that SSMU’s jurisdiction is by no means unlimited. It is difficult to draw a clear line, but in general SSMU’s positions should be constrained to issues that directly affect students. We consider the AGSEM motion especially non-controversial. While it implies few tangible obligations for SSMU, most students can likely support “standing in solidarity” with a union as it fights for increased course lecturer rights.
This is an issue with important implications for the way SSMU conducts its business in the future. From controversial GAs to fiery council debates, hurt feelings and political opposition are often couched in terms of what should and should not be discussed in SSMU forums. We have spoken time and again against a GA we see as irrelevant to student lives, but we do believe that the representative institutions SSMU has in place should address issues affecting students, even if they’re political. At its best, SSMU speaks for its members, the students. President Zach Newburgh, the rest of the executive, and the council are within their rights to adopt positions they consider properly reflective of the interests of the students, and should not be too wary of taking stances—within limits—on behalf of McGill undergraduates.