“Are Student Governments Obsolete?”, an early-70s essay by New York student activist Ray Glass, has enjoyed a boomlet of attention in recent months. A couple of people put the text up online, and it’s been getting passed around quite a bit — I keep seeing it pop up on Facebook and Twitter and various blogs.
Ray Glass was one of the founders of SASU, the system-wide student association for the State University of New York. He was the engine behind SASU’s successful campaign to get an elected student representative on the SUNY board of trustees (and on those of all the SUNY campuses), and was completing a stint as the organization’s legislative director when he was struck and killed by a drunk driver in Albany in 1975.
When I joined SASU in the late 1980s the group’s annual organizing conference bore his name, and “Are Student Governments Obsolete?” was one of our touchstone documents — a passionate, broad-ranging critique of university governance, student government, and campus organizing as they had existed fifteen years earlier. In it, Glass argued that voluntary student unions, “dependent in all respects on students and independent of all other people, agencies or forces,” are the path to true student power, an argument with a powerful allure for anyone who, like those of us who worked in SASU, had spent years struggling in student governments compromised by their institutional relationship with the university.
Student unionism is today experiencing a rebirth of interest as our contemporary wave of campus activism grows, matures, and begins to ponder next steps. It is that phenomenon that has spurred the Ray Glass mini-revival, and that element of his work that has drawn the most attention.
But there is a strange paradox here. Ray Glass helped build SASU from a perch in student government, serving as student association president at SUNY Binghamton while he did much of the early organizing that brought the statewide group into being. The SASU that he and his peers constructed wasn’t a voluntary union of individuals but a confederation of student governments, and it was the power of that confederation that enabled SASU to win SUNY students’ first ever direct role in university governance — a victory to which Glass devoted years of his life. And neither was SASU funded by individual memberships, as Glass advocated in the essay. At the time SASU drew revenue from those same student governments, and later it would be supported through binding campus referenda.
This seeming contradiction puzzled me when I first encountered “Are Student Governments Obsolete?”, and the essay offered no guidance as to how to resolve it. An editorial note on the first page of the typed version we all endlessly photocopied said that Glass had written it while serving as SASU’s legislative director, but SASU was — bizarrely, it seemed to me — mentioned nowhere in the document. (My hunch now is that the piece may have been written earlier, but I’ve never found anything to confirm that theory.)
For nearly twenty years the unfolding story of SASU, the organization to which Ray Glass devoted the entirety of his adult life, stood at odds with the thrust of his best-known written work. In the years after his death the organization continued to grow, emerging as the nation’s strongest and most successful statewide student association — winning victories on tuition, governance, and student rights issues, building stronger and more independent student governments across the SUNY system, and helping to transform the United States Student Association into a more activist, progressive, effective force nationally. The collapse of SASU in the 1990s left a void in American student organizing that is still felt today.
So how are we to reconcile these facts?
To start with, much of Glass’s critique stands even if we demur from his conclusions about organizational models. His criticism of student government is acute and lacerating, and many of his arguments about the nature of real student power are cogent and convincing. If student government has more potential than he recognized, it is in part because his generation of activists, and those whom he and his peers influenced, fought like hell to make those institutions into something more worthy than they’d been before.
It’s also, I think, worthwhile to interrogate the specifics of Glass’s argument in favor of voluntary dues. He envisioned the student union as a direct analogue to the labor union, with collective bargaining standing as its central task and responsibility. Voluntary dues were crucial to this project, he wrote, because “the mandatory dues which labor unions charge have probably done more to facilitate their entrenchment, removal from rank and file, and conservative policies than any other factor.”
Reading that sentence today, one is struck by its datedness. Where Glass wrote of labor unions as an “entrenched … conservative” force in the workplace, today nearly all observers — including those unions’ radical critics — would argue something close to the opposite, on one or both counts. Indeed, our era’s legal and organizing struggles around so-called “right to work” laws proceed from a mirror-image premise from Glass’s — nowadays, right-to-work’s voluntary dues schemes are understood by supporters and opponents alike as a mechanism for union-busting.
Consider the following, from a December interview with labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein on the right-to-work struggle:
“Solidarity isn’t a purely altruistic concept. Unions have to be a combat organization, ready to fight the boss. That means there is an element of coercion involved. It’s like taxes. The price of civilization is taxes. The price of unionism is solidarity. And, yes, that does involve coercing people to contribute to the union. Unions are not like the NRA or the Sierra Club, they’re not purely voluntary organizations. They were given a slice of state authority in order to solve the problem of industrial violence. … [Unions] need money, staff. They’re the ones hustling for votes. That’s where the battlefield is being fought. And the money to do that comes from dues. When you don’t have that, unions shrink.”
There are obvious critiques of this perspective to be offered. But its core message is hard to dispute, and its applicability to the student unionism movement as Ray Glass conceptualized it seems clear.
Students like Ray Glass fought hard to build to gain access to mandatory funding mechanisms for student activist organizations, and their successors are fighting hard to keep them, and expand them, today. (As I write this, the Arizona Students Association has seen their democratically-approved student fee funds frozen by the university in a dispute over ASA’s pro-student organizing activities. The fate of the ASA may well hang in the balance.)
If you believe — as Ray Glass wrote, and as I agree — that every American campus should have a student union “which so overwhelmingly speaks for students that it becomes recognized by the university as the exclusive collective bargaining agent for students on all matters affecting the students of that university as students,” then the events of the last four decades suggest that you have to entertain the idea that building a robust, democratic mechanism for implementing mandatory dues schemes is a valid, even essential, organizing goal. And if that’s your goal, you have to at least contemplate the possibility that student government organizing may be the path most likely to get you there.
If reading Ray Glass is the first step in building student unionism in our century, arguing with him may well be the second.