Formation of Students' Union at Brown University

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The newly formed Student Union of Brown University (SUBU) held its first general assembly (GA) meeting on 5-03-07. This founding meeting took place during one of the busiest and most hectic periods in the school year, amid the lead up to finals and everything else which flows from the end of the academic year. Despite this, the meeting was able to sustain a quorum for over two hours, with members packed in, sitting on a hard wood floor.

After only a few lightening weeks of gathering members via signatures on membership cards, SUBU had roughly 500 members as of the founding meeting, which comprises approximately one-twelfth of the total undergraduate student body. The goal of the organizers is to have this proportion grow quickly over the next period of time to encompass the majority of the student body, thereby making SUBU a truly representative body, with a longer-term membership goal of the entire student body. The larger and more active the membership of SUBU, the greater clout the students and their union would in presenting the issues and demands of the students to the administration.

The first GA of SUBU convened primarily to construct a foundation that would be ready to build upon in the fall. It included a plan for future GA meetings and an established organizational structure and procedures in order to jumpstart growth.  It will serve as a platform to open and raise discussion on what sorts of issues that SUBU will take up and what strategies and tactics will be used.

The structure of the union is based on a directly democratic process of participation and discussion. The GA meetings, are open to all members and at such meetings all members have equal say and vote. GA meetings are where all decisions are discussed, amended and voted on. Additionally a "fail safe" quorum was voted for at the first GA, which sets a minimum number of members present in order for a decision to be taken by the union, currently, as of the first GA, this number is 59 students, or the rough equivalent of 1 percent of the student body.

Because the GA is the highest body of SUBU, there is little room, at least structurally for a bureaucracy to develop easily or for unnatural leadership cliques, who could derail the healthy energy the present membership displayed at the founding GA. A fighting organization such as union or political party cannot make a fetish of any given organizational form, but must base its forms on the composition of the membership and the reality of the circumstances involving the activity of the organization. The key to a healthy organization is an active and dynamic membership, participating in the development of the organization at all levels and all stages. Judging from the first meeting, this energy and participation seems to be present, which will make all the difference.

The process of approving / amending the initial proposals for SUBU's organizational structure showed an interesting phenomenon. Most students and workers in the U.S. are unfamiliar with participation in a democratic forum where their say actually counts. The process of holding the floor and having a voice is something lacking from our day-to-day lives, and this was reflected in the initial awkwardness of the interventions by SUBU members, which at first took the form of posing questions to the chair person and other known organizers. However, about an hour and a half into the meeting, this life-long lack of democratic participation began to dissipate, and a greater number of members spoke, addressing the general body of members in the form of statements, and opinions. This little anecdotal incident does reveal the general process for the grasping and defense of real democratic processes: union power is based on the participation of members, and the participation of members is based on the grasping of such power, this interrelation operates dialectically. The more experience and confidence people acquire in the running of their lives, the easier this becomes.

The lack of democratic traditions we have in our society, as it was in SUBU, can be quickly overcome, superceded by comfort and confidence in democratically taking up matters which affect our daily lives. Having a voice and say in such a forum is an invaluable experience.  This can be seen in Venezuela, where the mass participation of the workers and poor in communal councils and workers' assemblies show in embryo the way forward to a new form of society. The modest beginnings of SUBU show what would be possible if this were extended to all spheres of society, not only on the campuses, but in the factories and workplaces, neighborhoods, etc.

Although the immediate issues and methods for dealing with the different administrations will vary, the students organized in SUBU should make a real attempt to build links of dialogue and action with the students of other schools and Universities (URI, RISD, PC, JWU, RIC and others, regionally and nationally, and even internationally, for eample with the Spanish Students Union or the Committee in Defense of Public Education in Mexico), if for nothing else than for solidarity and fraternal relations. But more so, for the exchange of ideas and experiences, which will strengthen us all. These relationships will also be critical for extra-campus issues, which student bodies will surely seek to address en masse, such as the question of continued U.S. involvement in the Middle East, intervention in Latin America, trade union struggles, and other broader social and political questions. This will also inevitably necessitate the linking up of the students' movement with the labor movement –  a critical link which should be fostered and developed to the highest degree.

We applaud the organization and active participation of workers and students in bodies like SUBU. SUBU can potentially play a huge role in shaping not just life on Brown campus, but in RI in general if it is able to link up with the broader movement. For this, SUBU must first consolidate its forces and continue building on the democratic and participatory foundation laid at the first GA. Already, a potentially galvanizing issue was raised at the meeting, related to the present student government and its dealings with the cutting of funds for student groups. The success or failure in rallying the student body to this concern will more than likely be a proving ground for SUBU in many ways.

For maximum representation for SUBU!
For a real democratic voice for all students!

The author would like to extend his appreciation to the general membership present at the first GA of SUBU for allowing independent press in to observe the meeting.

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