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Are Societies that didn’t participate in the Climate Strike “Scabs”?

YES by Garrett Kennedy

Societies are a good thing. Having the chance to meet interesting people with whom you share a common interest or ambition is a valuable and important part of the college experience. We should encourage society participation whenever we can. 

Despite this importance, university societies are not the most important thing in the world. Among the things which are more important than societies is preventing the earth’s temperature increasing to a level where the havoc, which is already occurring, worsens. Any society event and the happiness it creates is clearly outweighed in pure utility by preventing climate change and the death and suffering that would come with it. 

All of this so far should seem reasonably uncontroversial. Nonetheless, we need to answer a few questions. The first is to discuss what a scab is. The second is what the purpose of the strike was. The third is simply how far up your own ass you need to be to think that anything that could have been happening in the freshers tent mattered more than attending the strike. 

So what is a scab? A scab is someone who refuses to take part in a strike. This is presumably because they either disagree with the fundamental goal of the strike or because they have some other motive which conflicts with participation, normally wanting to be paid. 

It is surely the case that being a scab is justifiable on occasion. There are many examples of unions doing things which are unquestionably bad like being racist. Presumably in cases such as these, being a scab is probably an ok thing. However, assuming we agree that the goal of a strike is good and the sacrifices demanded from participants are not excessive, it seems there is little excuse not to take part. 

The main reason scabs are bad is that it diminishes the impact of the strike if many individuals do not participate. This is clearly the case with more conventional strikes in which a union decides not to work and a few scabs cross the picket line. 

The objective of a conventional strike is to incentivise the employer to acquiesce to your demands because their business will not be profitable until they do. When scabs cross the picket line, this is no longer the case because it is then possible for the company to continue functioning to some extent. 

It is somewhat less obvious that societies not participating in the climate strike significantly damaged the objective of that strike. To understand why this is the case we need to understand how this strike differed from the more conventional form. This strike was much more indirect and symbolic than a conventional workers strike. School children were not striking to motivate their schools to be more environmentally friendly. They were striking to show the government that they care enough about this issue to miss a day of school. 

By refusing to strike, societies were implicitly stating that they were not willing to make such a sacrifice. An important thing to note is that many of the societies which did not strike were some of the biggest on campus; e.g. Food Soc, the L&H, Lawsoc, C&E. Having those societies join the strike would have increased its impact significantly.

These were among the societies which had the biggest incentive to stay in the freshers tent, too, because they compete with one another each year to get the most members. Also, while Fridays are generally quite a slow day in the freshers tent, these societies were far more likely to get a boost in membership than more niche ones. 

The significance of these strikes was not in terms of punishing any particular group but rather as an indicator of how important students think this issue is. If these societies had joined the strike, it would have shown how committed they were and added significantly to its symbolic power. The fundamental point of striking is that you are sacrificing something for the greater good. It is to show that you are willing to suffer until the powers that be fix whatever needs fixing. 

If you’re a second year on the L&H committee and societies feel like your entire world, then by participating in the strike you are saying that this issue is so important, you are willing to put aside one of the most important things in your life for it. Of course, letting more students join your society is important, but it is obviously not more important than preventing climate change from getting worse.

These societies made a conscious choice not to join the strike and that choice made the strike less effective. If that does not fit the definition of a scab, I do not know what does.

Rebuttal By Rory Clarke

My opponent answered 3 questions in ways that were convenient rather than accurate, and I reject all three.

On what a scab is, he says “A scab is someone who refuses to take part in a strike”. True, but what he omits is that these strikes are formally and democratically organised by a union. Societies are not part of a union. You cannot be a scab when you are not acting deliberately to foil a unionised strike. 

He answers what the purpose of the strike was, but this is irrelevant. No society should have its decision making competency stripped from it by virtue of other societies exercising theirs. Following his logic, if any significant number of societies had left the tent last week to strike for any purpose, those left behind would be shamefully undermining their colleagues. This cannot be the case. 

He also asks how “up your own ass” one needs to be to prioritise their society over the strike. Again, this, apart from representing a distinct lack of respect pluralism, is irrelevant. This debate is not about analysing whether every society should have striked last week. It is about whether they had to strike. Analysing the reasons for their decisions is inappropriate. It is enough to recognise that it was their decision to make.

Lacking any obligation to strike, lacking any union directing such action, societies exercised the freedom we prize them for. I applaud every society, those who went on strike, and those who stayed, for standing by their convictions and doing the job they were elected to do – run their own society.

NO By Rory Clarke

This is not an argument about the climate. We all (should) know that climate change is real. Set that aside for a minute.

I have two core arguments. The technical one will be seen by many as the refuge of the amoral pedant, avoiding the real issue. The second argument is that societies, like any independent entity, have the right to decide what activities take place under their banner. While, for completeness’ sake I shall outline the former, for it certainly had a degree of influence on last week’s decisions, the latter is the more fundamentally persuasive. Society committees control the agenda of their own society and their views – rather than those of third parties – should be the principal consideration in any decision 

Scab is a derogatory term for an oft-derided group of people that, as part of a union or as workers employed directly to work in lieu of union workers, choose to defy the clearly indicated will of the striking union, and cross the picket lines.

Societies have no union. Societies are groups of students established around a common purpose: to serve its members, the wider UCD community, and to contribute to wider national debates or activities, where they think it necessary to do so.They have no elected body which purports to represent them and dictate views and positions for them to hold. That is, in fact, one of the keystones of student societies – tolerance of viewpoints and pluralism. Without mutual respect between students who fundamentally disagree, the Freshers tent would dissolve into what could also accurately describe the lambasting of non-striking societies last week: a farce.

Look for a moment at the reporting of last week’s strike in this very newspaper, whose bias in pushing an editorial agenda was apparent from the first – and inaccurate – line of their story; “A large majority of UCD societies have staged a mass walkout”. Did they though? A large majority suggests that the majority could not fail but be evident to anyone who walked through the tent last week. Yet it was not. It was 50/50 at best – as acknowledged later in that self same story  “with about half of the tables having one or two members supervising, the other half completely empty”.

Apart from a lucky few, any society stand is generally considered manned with “one or two members” behind it, Just take a look at any Freshers week stand rota for last week. Although this is a trifling complaint, it is indicative of the widespread virtue signalling that has dominated this debate, which is led by certain groups who seek to control not only their own agenda, as they are perfectly entitled to do, but to push it on others. 

There were plenty of reasons why the societies who did not join the walkout chose to do so. From a lack of clarity as regards the punishments for such (an email from James Alkayed ominously warned Auditors that manning stands all day was “important for your own financial reserves and grant applications”) to the impact on society recruitment of students who had not yet made it to the Fresher’s tent, it was not a straightforward decision.

Auditors and Committees had the right to discuss and determine, within their own society, the value of the society going on strike.They were being asked whether their personal views should affect their societies, and students’ ability to join them. Every society and auditor, in the days running up to last Friday, balanced these interests. Some societies chose to strike. Some chose not to. This should not be controversial – this was merely a high-profile example of societal independence and autonomy, which at a more mundane level happens every single day. 

Every society makes choices that others might not, that others might not agree with. But fundamentally, everyone has the right to make that choice for themselves, without being called a scab. It was never a joint decision to be made, and those who called for such, repeatedly and aggressively, in auditor group chats, were undermining the very principle by which they had reached their own decision: student societies’ autonomy.

How can you cross a picket line when it doesn’t exist? If one worker decides, of his own will, to not come to work, will you follow him? If a large majority of non-union workers strike for something that they themselves belief (even allowing the more generous interpretation of that term) will you follow them? Maybe you will. Maybe you won’t. Relating it back to our concern, whatever committees decided was their own decision – following the competence invested in them when members of their society voted for them to run it. No one voted for DramSoc to run LawSoc. 

Societies have no obligation to follow the decision of other societies.They are independent bodies, elected and obliged to make up our own minds, and run themselves. It was always thus.

Rebuttal By Garrett Kennedy

The fact that the costs to striking were apparently so high seems to show how symbolically significant striking would have been. If you are willing to potentially jeopardise your grant funding for next year, that shows that you are serious about the issue. That increases the power of such a strike. Furthermore, I understand that people have different priorities. Nonetheless, it seems genuinely bizarre to me that anyone would think that protecting their society grant is more important than protecting the planet. 

There is plausibly some merit in the specific attack on the word ‘scab’. However, this debate is really just a spicy way of arguing over whether societies should have striked. I do not know why an absence of a democratic mandate is an excuse for not doing something. It is generally considered immoral for societies to do lots of things that have not been explicitly voted upon. If there had been a vote against a strike, this argument might carry some weight. There was not. There was a petition demanding amnesty for students who wished to strike which received 1000 signatures in the three days it had been circulated. That seems to imply that there was more of a democratic mandate to do this than not to.