The first social organisation for students at Owens College can be dated to December 1851 when a debating society was established. This society appears to have lasted until at least 1858.
By the early 1860s, when the College's position still appeared very insecure, concerns were raised by both staff and students about the weakness of corporate loyalties at the College. Developing such allegiances had proved difficult for several reasons: day students were non-residential, evening students (the majority) had little time or inclination to participate in social events, and the College's Quay St. building was ill-equipped to provide any recreational facilities . To remedy these defects, a Students Union was established in 1861. Its creation seems to have been promoted by former students of the Manchester Working Men's College, who had their own debating society at the College until it closed in 1861, and having transferred to Owens now wished for a similar society there. The original Union was run by a committee of six day, three evening and three former students. In these early years the Union confined itself to holding debates, following the example of the unions at Oxford and Cambridge.
With the removal of Owens College to a more commodious site at Oxford Road in 1873, the number of day students increased, allowing the Union to play a more influential role. Students began to pursue social activities out of the lecture hall. A number of specialist societies were formed: the Medical Students Debating Society (1873); the Literary Society (1874); the Chemical Society (1877), the Biological Society (1879) and the Engineering Society (1883).
In 1880 a major reorganization of the Union took place, with these student societies federating with the main Union to create a larger, more broad-based organisation. Each society formed a branch of the Union, including the Debating Society, which was now treated as a separate entity from the federal Union. The new Union was managed by a committee of twelve elected by the branches, and these representatives in turn elected the chairman and secretary. Every member of a branch society was also by default a member of the Union. Membership of the Union was not compulsory, and students wishing to join had to pay an annual fee. At this period the Union still lacked a proper headquarters, and was not able to offer the desired recreational facilities. Until 1893 the Union met in the Court Room in the College's main building. From 1893-1908 it was based in Dover House, a building which stood opposite the Whitworth Hall on the Oxford Road.
In 1904 further constitutional changes followed the creation of the independent University of Manchester. The new University's charter had established a Students Representative Council which would act as the official voice of the students in academic and social matters. This Council also took over responsibility for publishing the Manchester University Magazine. The Council represented all students, not just members of the Union. As a result the Union issued a new constitution, which abolished the federal organisation based on the student societies; the societies became independent entities again, and the Debating Society was absorbed back into the main Union. The SRC never really prospered, and it probably had less influence than the Union with students. In 1912 it was discontinued, although a separate Medical Students Representative Council continued to exist.
The Union realised that its continuing influence required that it offer a wide range of facilities for students, and for this a purpose-built headquarters was necessary. As a consequence, a building fund was launched and in 1908, a new building was opened by the Chancellor, Lord Morley, on the corner of Burlington St and Oxford Road. This provided facilities for the Men's Union, the Women's Union and the University refectory.
Since 1900 a separate Union had existed for women students. This segregation by gender was a common feature in UK universities at the time, although it was to last longer at Manchester than elsewhere (a single Union was only created in 1967). Women students had first entered Owens College in 1883, where they had been administered by the Department of Women. Initially, given their small numbers, it did not appear feasible to create a separate Union for them, and the existing Union showed little desire to include them in its activities. By the 1890s a number of women students societies had been created, the first of which was a debating society in 1889. On 7 February 1900, a meeting of past and present women students unanimously agreed "that a Union of past and present women students should be formed and that the Union have for its objects the promotion of intellectual intercourse, the provision of means of recreation, and the development of social life among past and present students of the College."
The Women's Union originally had the College Principal as its president, and its first chairman was Mary Tout, a history graduate and wife of Professor TV. Tout, who had been the driving force behind its creation. The Union was run by a committee of past and present students, together with representatives of the women-only societies. The Union originally had its base at 248 Oxford Road, but because it was relatively well-endowed with funds, it had been able to make a major contribution to the building of the new joint Union building which opened in 1908. Segregation was strictly enforced in the new building: a single door, normally locked, connected the Men's and Women's buildings. Although men and women shared dining facilities, most social events were segregated, with the Men's Union particularly keen to discourage fraternisation. During the First World War, when the number of male students declined and female students increased, more joint social events were held, but the post-war period saw the return of mutual suspicions. Each year the motion 'That this House would prefer a joint Union' was debated by each Union and then at a joint debate, each year it would pass in the Women's Union, be heavily defeated in the Men's Union, and usually fail in the joint debate. Support for merger by the Women's Union was influenced by their weaker financial position, having fewer students as members. In addition to the Men's and Women's Unions, a separate Union existed for Faculty of Technology students who were based at the College of Technology (later UMIST) in the city centre.
In the inter-war period, the role of the Unions was still essentially to provide supplementary social activities in a club-like atmosphere; its role as a campaigning organisation would only really develop in the late 1950s. The Union provided food laundry facilities, games, a library, a coffee bar, and from the late 1930s in the Men's Union, a licensed bar. These were valuable services for students who could lead quite isolated lives in 'digs'.
The most high-profile social event sponsored by the Unions was the annual Rag festival; an important and symbolic interaction between students and their host city. The Rag had begun as an informal revel in the 1890s, when students would enter theatres in the city and heckle the performers before being ejected. This was followed by a torchlight parade of students, some wearing fancy dress, through the city in the evening. By 1910 Rag had become a more formal event held every Shrove Tuesday, when the University cancelled lectures for the day. In 1921 the Rag festival was used to collect money for local medical charities for the first time. In 1924, a rag magazine, Rag Rag was introduced; the magazine was characterised by its bright well-designed cover pages, and the jokes and satirical articles contained within; occasionally the contents fell foul of the University authorities. Rag had been an almost entirely male affair, but in 1935 the Women's Union sanctioned female participation in the event. In the post-war period the event continued to enjoy a very high profile, with students carrying out ever more audacious stunts to mark the event, and succeeding in collecting ever-larger amounts for local charities.
By the late 1940s the Union came to be recognised as the official representative of the Manchester student population, helped by the fact that all students were now automatically members of the Union. It was affiliated to the National Union of Students, which had been established in 1922. By the 1950s, the Union was devoting more time to welfare issues, and attempting to regularise consultation with the University authorities. With a growing number of students, the Unions' old headquarters proved inadequate; 1n 1957 the new Union building (which it still occupies) was opened in Lime Grove by the prime minister, Harold Macmillan. The building was designed so that it could operate as either a unified or segregated Union, and comprised a main entrance hall, a debating hall seating 500, a coffee bar, a common room and a mixed bar. The building is now known as the Steve Biko Building. In 1989 the Academy next to the Union building was opened, and acts as a venue for musical concerts and student fairs etc.
In 1958 following the opening of the new Union, and partly in response to criticisms of the continued existence of two unions, a new constitutional structure was agreed. A new federal structure was introduced, with a joint executive committee and general committee governing the Union, and headed by an elected president. In 1967 full amalgamation of the Men's and Women's Unions took place to create the University of Manchester Students Union.
By the late 1960s the Union was deeply involved in campaigns for greater student participation in academic affairs. As in other British universities, student politics became overtly militant, symbolised by the election in 1969 of a Communist student as president of the Union. There were campaigns for formal participation in the governance of the University, against the teaching and examination system, and against political files on allegedly held by the University on 'subversives'. This agitation culminated in the occupation of the Whitworth Hall and several administration buildings in late February-early March 1970. Such student militancy recurred on several occasions in the 1980s, and the Union has retained a high-profile political campaigning role.
The Union's current constitutional structure comprises the executive committee, with 12 members who are directly elected by the student population, which is responsible for implementing Union policy and managing the Union's administrative staff. Six member of the Executive are salaried, and six are voluntary. Beneath this is the Union Council consisting of fifty elected officers which is responsible for student societies, Union committees, property and premises, and any legal proceeding the Union is involved with. The supreme decision making body is the general meeting, open to all members, which has powers to make policy, adopt constitutional changes, dispose of assets and remove Union officers. The Union's finances are supported by the University and from its trading profits. The Union provides an entertainments programme, helps publish Student Direct , formerly Mancunion with the other Manchester universities, and provides an important range of welfare services, providing assistance with accommodation, childcare, grants and loans, legal problems, and runs Nightline, a counselling service for students. Services provided within the Steve Biko building include a coffee bar, Union shop, second-hand bookshop, bars, and a TV room. Since 1974 the Union has produced an alternative prospectus which gives the views of current students on University's courses.