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Interview With Student At The University of Chile: Building The Union At The Base Within The Sciences

Interview with Vicente Durán Toro, member of the General Coordination for the Students’ Center in the Department of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences of the University of Chile

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

The student vanguard that acts as a union should function to innovate, create, and produce environments conducive to expressing and fully representing the views and actions of those it directly represents.

This innovation is part of the vanguard character that produces the student union; it is an internal driving force for students seeking changes widely desired by the community, hence the strict need for candidates to be elected by proposals for this work rather than political views (political parties). This is because representation is achieved through actions, not political views.

Creating and building environments conducive to the students’ self-expression should be understood as our political tools, some of which we have and others which we have to create, in order to structure decision-making for the various actions through which we will concretize the already mentioned innovations. Examples of these tools include the Assemblies, electing delegates by level of organization, mass consultations, etc.

And finally, something that was not mentioned at the beginning is that beyond decision-making, the union must get the students to participate and must, with them, nail down specific agreed upon actions. It is understood that lots of topics are merely operative, and in practical terms it is almost necessary to only decide on them within the union. That’s why it becomes important to its functions and / or responsibilities to balance effectiveness and the participation of students.

meeting of FECh, the Student Union for the whole University of Chile

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

The formation of the student union for the School of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences had not occurred in 2011, but after the mobilizations of that year, the political and social processes generated a consciousness mostly absent in the schools of science.

Among the candidates, there existed two parties with similar if not identical proposals but with different, sometimes counter-posed methods. What’s curious about this process is that in 2011, the non-existence of the union led to a council of representatives by program of study, a council of four members mainly and advisers linked to the global federation of the university, in all, seven members of a council of presidents and advisers. This is what opened up the debate about the need for a central coordinating union for the different programs and the possibility of segmentation and direct coordination between each program.

University of Chile students map out plan of mobilization on the whiteboard during planning session

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

The idea for the union came out of the mobilization that lasted about six months (in 2011). Because of this, the level of mobilization was massive and the potential tasks were as high as they get in terms of commitment and results obtained by each undertaken initiative.

students in Valparaiso hold mass die-in for education [June, 2011]

What effect did choosing to build the union as a focus of the movement have on student struggle?

The union election did not take place until after the mobilizations were over, which suggests that it was a conclusion of the movement rather than an accomplishment of it, although the union is currently involved in the internal process under way in the university.

What was the process of building it like? What challenges did you face?

There were meetings to reach consensus regarding who would be members and the tasks the different fronts would take on to develop our authority, as well as how to socialize and generate our social fabric. Due to our political positions, some of the difficulties included finalizing an organic organizational structure that conformed to the ideas we had agreed on in our working groups, achieving consistent participation among the students and providing for liberties that were not seen as decisions being made behind the community’s back. We are currently in the evaluation process of devising a mechanism that encompasses these points since our term has not yet ended.

students hold pillow fight for education and to build community among students [July, 2011]

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

The political tools to be used to make decisions. Specifically, whether to move towards a direct democracy seeking greater participation from the community to take on the different social, cultural and political projects, or whether to continue with a representative democracy towards the same end. It must be noted that the social, cultural and political projects were not counter-posed.

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

We decided on a federation of nucleos separated by initiatives, based on the needs of the school and initiatives already undertaken by the community, all of which are coordinated by a central nucleo with organizational authority but without the power to make other decisions. In a word, we chose a horizontal model as opposed to a hierarchy of positions.

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

Just by the fact that one is a student in the department, one becomes a member of the union. There are no dues.

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

Only students participate in decision-making but this does not mean that the students are not involved with other organizations. Private schools do not participate.

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

Yes, it officially recognizes us and we try to ensure that each time the level of dialogue and decision-making increases in different areas, including planning the required proficiencies for each career or course, student welfare, and infrastructure planning, although the latter is open to less participation.

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?

As explained earlier, the tools used to make political decisions are determined by the unions, particularly how and when to make decisions. Unfortunately, this information is not yet included in our bylaws since a committee is currently working on this.

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

No defined relationship exists since the leadership of the union of the Chemical Sciences Department has never explored that arena due to the historical makeup of students that enter the department.

For a long time now, we, the students as a whole, have seen the political parties as the defenders of a fundamentally unjust systemic model that reproduces inequality, a model that is implemented by force and is socially questionable. For this reason, we do not seek to have a relationship with the political parties.

University of Chile on strike

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

Basically, to generate social fabric, to change the way higher education is thought of, to form decision-making bodies within the university, to open the university to the community, etc. Many of the campaigns are being taken up, both directly and indirectly, by a concrete struggle. In 2011, we achieve a change in the quality of our education which deeply encompassed all of these issues. To characterize and understand, to put into place a new quality of education demands we find new formulas / projects for the previously-mentioned campaigns. The 2011 mobilization embodied the fight for these campaigns.

banner listing student demands outside of school on strike

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

The return to classes and an academic schedule has limited the involvement of students and resulted in low participation levels. Our coordination capacity for the internal programs in our College where coordination happens between student representatives and university advisors. There are also many financial limitations that are an obstacle for our different initiatives.

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