Interview with Natalia Chousou-Polydouri, a PhD student in Environmental Science, Policy and Management, UAW 2865 Head Steward at UC Berkeley, and member of La Voz de Los Trabajadores (La Voz, LIT-CI). She is a former member of the Student Association of the University of Athens.
For you, what is the function and role of a student union?
First of all, I would like to clarify the terms I am going to use. In Greece, the terms student union and student association are used interchangeably for the official student associations that exist in each department in every university. Intervening in the student unions are different political groups (I will call them student caucuses) with very different and often conflicting opinions and politics. Many of these caucuses have political ties with political parties or organizations. This does not mean that all the members of a particular student caucus are members of a certain political party, in fact most of them aren’t.
For me, a student union is a democratic, bottom-up body that involves all students in a particular unit (department/university etc.) and is committed to voice and fight for student needs and rights.
Please give us some background on how your student union formed and out of what conditions.
Student unions started being built in every department in the 60’s as a result of a national student conference that decided to form EFEE (the National Student Union of Greece) using as a model the French student movement. The formation of EFEE was one of the results of the newly born student movement which demanded abolition of tuition, free textbooks, student transit passes and sanctuary campuses, where the police could not intervene. It must be noted that all those demands were eventually won and were still in place until a year ago. During the first years, EFEE played a very important and progressive role in the Greek student movement and in Greek politics in general and was largely led by the Left. During the dictatorship in Greece between 1967 and 1974, EFEE was disbanded and many of its leaders imprisoned. After the fall of the dictatorship, EFEE was reconstituted and played again a major role in the country politics, being one of the biggest and most democratic unions at time when even the workers’ federation had leadership appointed by the government!
Since 1980 though, EFEE has been non-functional at the national level, as the different caucuses (especially the ones tied to the right, PASOK and the Communist Party) fail to agree on the nationwide percentages of the student elections that would determine the composition of the leadership of EFEE, although they all supposedly agree that EFEE should be reconstituted. The radical Left on the other hand has argued that the reconstitution of EFEE in Greece would just provide a conservative spokesperson for the student movement to the government and the role of the General Assemblies at each department would be diminished. The modern student movement in Greece fights primarily through marches and occupations and hasn’t been involved in any negotiations with the government (the excuse being that EFEE is not functional). Of course, I don’t want to say that negotiations are not possible, it is just that the movement was never strong enough. We saw in Puerto Rico recently how students successfully negotiated for their demands and they didn’t even have a student union to begin with. We should note that the modern student government in Greece has only managed to delay and turn back attacks to public education but hasn’t won any of its demands to expand public education and to further democratize the universities.
How do students join the union? And do students pay dues?
Students in Greece are automatically members of the student union of their department as soon as they are enrolled (in Greece you cannot be undeclared, everybody belongs to a department). Students don’t pay dues, but traditionally many unions handle the sales of the bus pass, with a tiny profit that goes to the union fund.
Which sectors of education are represented in your student union? Do private schools also participate?
The student unions represent all university students. There are no private universities in Greece… at least not yet!
Does your campus administration officially recognize you? Do they negotiate with you? If so, over which issues? Do you have a contract?
All student unions are officially recognized by the university administration and the state. They don’t strictly negotiate with us, since we are not employees of the university, nor do we have a contract for the same reason. Students, through their student union, participate in all the administrative bodies from the department to the university level along with representatives of the faculty. Faculty have 2 /3rds in all those bodies and students 1 /3rd. The left student caucuses in Greece have as a long standing demand the increase of student representation in these bodies to at least half, with the more radical caucuses demanding that administration decisions are made in general assemblies of faculty, students and staff.
It should be noted, that this shared governance system is under attack today in Greece among all the other student and worker protections and rights. The last government of PASOK brought about great changes by introducing managers to run the universities as businesses and reducing greatly the participation of students and even faculty in the governance of the universities. These measures were met with resistance from both students and faculty and their implementation has been delayed if not postponed in many universities.
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?
All student unions of each department are completely autonomous and have full rights to decide whatever they want. Each union has two governing bodies: the General Assembly (with a quorum determined by the participation in the annual elections) and the Board which has few members (7 or 9). The Board is elected each year during annual elections, where the different student caucuses run slates of candidates. In most cases, the vote is through a slate-specific ballot and it reflects support for political platforms rather than individuals. The distribution of the Board seats is according to the percentage each slate got in the elections, and smaller percentages are boosted. Any decision of the Board can be overturned by the General Assembly, which is the highest decision-making body.
In practice, the decision-making process varies from department to department depending on how active the students are (and especially the left student caucuses). In relatively “inactive” unions, the Board makes most of the decisions and very few assemblies take place or they don’t have quorum. In fighting unions, it is typical to have General Assemblies as often as you need them (they can be called by the Board or by gathering a number of signatures) and this can be every week if an occupation of the department is going on or one in a few months if things are “calm”.
Tactics for fighting vary a lot, but they never include “strikes” per se, as students are not employees. Usual tactics are delegations and actions to various administrative bodies, marches, rallies and walkouts. The most powerful tactic of the Greek student movement though, which has been used continuously and successfully for decades is occupations. When a student union decides to occupy their department, we take over all the buildings and all activity in the department stops, including classes, research, and administration. Usually, no professor or staff member can even enter the building, unless of course they want to participate in the occupation, and students self-organize cultural and political events, discussions etc. As it is obvious, this is an extremely powerful means of applying pressure to the administration and the state, and in cases of state attacks against public education, occupations spread like wildfire in a few weeks and can go on for months.
Of course, the reason for all the above is that there is no university police in Greece and regular police is not allowed to enter university grounds unless there is a murder going on. And of course, along with everything else these past 2 years, the state recently gave the right to police to enter the university, which created an outrage. And, like many other measures targeting universities, its implementation starts creeping in from the weakest and least active universities and it might take years to be implemented in the big ones.
What is your relationship with labor unions? With political parties? With student government? With popular struggles?
Student unions in Greece occasionally do joint marches and demonstrations with labor unions and occasionally support workers’ strikes, but these are traces of solidarity and the student movement has too many times fallen short in supporting the worker movement. The reverse is probably even more times true and I would say that both sides are to blame for that.
In popular struggles, the student movement has usually a relatively small presence, especially compared to its strength when more narrowly education issues are at stake. As for student government, student unions in Greece are essentially the student government and they don’t have any ties to political parties. The student caucuses are the ones who have most of the time strong ties with political parties.
What campaigns does your student union address? What fights are you involved in right now?
Some of the typical issues student unions are involved in are department-specific and university- specific policies (making the final exam schedule, classes offered, prerequisites, etc.) but most importantly student unions are heavily involved (and usually fighting against) state policies and laws regarding higher education and education in general. Over the last decade, the student movement in Greece has been defending free, public education for all from continuous attacks: the introduction of private universities, abolition of free textbooks, evaluation of universities with market criteria tied to state funding, etc.
1] The Panhellenic Socialist Movement: one of the two main Parties in Greece and the Party of the last Greek government led by Papandreou. Today in Greece, they are seen as one of the Parties of austerity and structural adjustment.