Chile: Building The Student Union At The Department Level

Interview with Camila Ruz, Communications Secretary of the Students’ Center in the Department of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences of the University of Chile and militant of Revolutionary Front – Communist Left (FR-IC, LIT-CI)

University of Chile On Strike!
Department of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences and other departments display their banners

For you, what is the function and role of a student union?

Its function is first and foremost to represent students, whether it is in academic or political matters. A Students’ Center is created out of the students’ need for organization. It is how they structure themselves to respond in an organized way to issues such as participation, decision-making, demands regarding the quality of education they are receiving, and, at times, political demands. It is also useful for the communication between students and other sectors.

5 years studying, 15 years paying

protestors demand free education

Please give us some background on how your student union formed and out of what conditions.

When we decided to join the Students’ Center for the first time (in 2010), the truth is that there was very little participation or interest in it from the students. In the elections, some of the Students’ Centers were not reaching quorum to be elected, and in other cases (like ours) we were the only slate that ran for the center, so in other words the voting students’ only choice was to say whether they accepted or rejected the slate.

In 2011, [when students occupied the University of Chile for 6 months in response to the neo-liberal Constitutional Law of Education] there was clearly a qualitative advance in the consciousness of the students. Now they are more interested in self-organizing and they do want to elect their Students’ Centers. The next time we proposed to be part of the Students’ Center was in 2012. We were a group of students who got to know each other during the mobilizations. This time, unlike in past years, there was more than one slate for the Students’ Center (as a result of the students’ increased need for self-organization), and finally, thanks to this project, our level of representativeness and the serious commitment we had to the work, we were elected.

protest in Santiago demanding access to free quality public education August, 2011

The conditions for creating a Students’ Center were to be in agreement with the common project to give more decision-making power to the bases, and to create a more politicized Students’ Center–one that was more socially and politically committed based on understanding the need to fight for free, secular and quality education.

What was the level of mobilization at the time you formed a student union?

The first time we decided to form a Students’ Center was in 2010. Of course the crisis was in full swing by then, and for that reason there already were many small struggles, but in general the level of mobilization was low.

The second time we chose to participate in the Students’ Center (in 2012), we came in with the entire struggle and movement of 2011 behind us, and we had a higher level of understanding as a result. We were able to unite around not just the student project, but also around a political project of wanting a different society–a just one.

the entrance of the University of Chile, Dep’t on Architecture & Urbanism on strike
“welcome those who fight for education”

university on strike “to struggle and build student organization”
in front, a tombstone reading “capitalist mercantilist university”

How was student struggle effected by the choice to make the union a main focus of the movement?

The student struggle had a major effect on the decision to form a Students’ Center. Within the 2011 mobilization, many of us had many criticisms and proposals about how the processes were conducted within the student organizing bodies. During this long process of reflection about what we wanted for society and for education, many ideas and projects emerged. But we knew that the best way to channel these projects was into a Students’ Center, through which we could build relationships with fellow students, create representation, and prepare for new challenges like future fights and demands.

What was it like building the union? What challenges did you face?

The process was special in that we were coming out of one of the largest student movements of the last period. Comrades from the Center got to know each other through the various commissions that were created through the movement (the education commission, the commission of critical analysis of the sciences, etc.). So in this way it was a very rich period, full of discussions and work.

The challenges we faced began with the creation and consensus around the project we were putting forward (which is a very special one in that it would further empower students through its proposal to vote for delegates by “curso”, among other things) and continued into the forums where we debated proposals with the other slates of candidates. Ultimately, we unfortunately had to deal with a forceful counter-campaign (with no clear arguments) from the other slate. But the students, the majority of whom voted for us, knew us and had confidence in us.

What were some of the central debates that arose in the formation of the student union?

One of the primary debates that emerged in the process (and which still has not been resolved by the community as a whole) had to do with what type of democracy we wanted: Direct Democracy or Representative Democracy. The department has for a very long time functioned with representative democracy. On many occasions, the Students’ Centers have taken decisions representing the student body, but we as a Students’ Center would like to advance, little by little (since the bulk of the students still do not participate), towards Direct Democracy. One example of that was our idea to have delegates be voted.

we will build from the BASES the strength of the STUDENT MOVEMENT

Another key difference we had with the other slate, and which held a lot of importance for the students, was our position towards the 2011 student conflict and its leadership (the Chilean Communist Party), and what kind of education we want. To this, we responded clearly saying we rejected the leadership of the student movement of that time because of their fiercely bureaucratic practices and the lack of democracy, and that we fight for free, secular and quality education.

What internal structure did you ultimately choose? Is it centralized or federated? What were your considerations?

Generally, the Students’ Centers in our University are dependent on a powerful leader, the President, and are in most cases centralized around this. We opted for a new organizational structure consisting of a Students’ Center Team, so in place of a President we have a Coordinating Board made up of three people. There are various teams working along with this Board, such as a sustainability team, a communications team, the extension team, etc. We made all of these innovations with the ideas of having a more horizontal democracy under which we don’t have to depend on a caudillo (authoritarian leader), but rather on the real work of a team.

How do students join the union? And do students pay dues?

The students are represented by Students’ Centers just by the fact that they are undergraduates. They don’t have to directly pay any dues, since the Students’ Centers receive funding from the University Federation (FECh) [there are Federations at the University level that are then part of a national federation called CONFECh].

Which sectors of education are represented in your student union? Do private schools also participate?

In our Students’ Center, only undergraduate students from the Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences Department participate. But our Center is connected to Centers from other departments. There have been advances to better connect with high school students in the area close to our campus as well.

high school students

Does your campus administration officially recognize you? Do they negotiate with you? If so, over which issues? Do you have a contract?

Since there have not been serious struggles against the authorities, the Students’ Center does recognize the University administration and also negotiates with them, but mostly through the Student Federation of the University of Chile (FECh).

What is the internal decision-making process? What level of autonomy do individual campuses and departments have? Who has the right to call a strike, for example?

In general, the internal process for making decisions is the General Assembly by department. There are also Assemblies by schools [School of Education, of Law, of Business, etc], directed by the Centers of the schools autonomously, and now we are fighting to have delegates chosen by class [like freshman, sophomore, etc]. Depending on their relevance, decisions can be taken in the Assemblies or through the ballot box [public vs. anonymous voting]. The Students’ Center of the department has the right to call a strike, but students must first vote for it at the base through the ballot box.

What is your relationship with labor unions? With political parties? With student government? With popular struggles?

Because our department is a scientific one, and therefore a little bit isolated, unfortunately there isn’t very much consciousness about the need to have relationships with unions, but of course we want to advance in this – holding forums on May Day, building relationships with the union representatives in our own department, among other things.

In general, there is a rejection of political parties because of the falsity of the Social Democracy existing now and because of Stalinism reflected in the Chilean Communist Party. However, there is a slight presence of student collectives and parties that are alternatives to the traditional ones.

With other Students’ Centers in general we have a good relationship – we have the same positions and we defend the same interests of the student body.

With popular struggles, we don’t have a more developed work beyond what came into existence during 2011, but we have called for various marches and rallies.

What campaigns does your student union address? What fights are you involved in right now?

We are part of the struggles for a better education, trying to stop the counter-reforms pushed by imperialism like creating more repression or expanding privatization. Also because our department is for chemistry and pharmacy majors, we pay attention to new developments in the medicine sales in supermarkets and the privatization of these. Right now, we want to begin a campaign against the rising cost of lunches in our cafeteria, where now the scholarships we get from the government no longer cover the actual cost of the food we need.

“we prefer our education to our food”
high school students stage one month long hunger strike

What are ongoing challenges you are facing and your perspectives for continuing to strengthen this work?

The main challenges we are facing are to achieve greater participation, empowerment, and representation of the student body around various issues, above all political and social issues. The idea is to stop being a department that is narrowly scientific, to begin to relate to society, which we will do through more campaigns of solidarity with workers, etc. In order to continue strengthening this work, we are planning a series of forums with political themes, to raise students’ awareness. We want to do campaigns where necessary so that the students feel like they are part of the movement and they empower themselves, and also to give the students the tools they need to become active participants in the department, in the University, and in society, above all.



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