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What’s wrong with students’ unions?
Before I ran for a position on AUSU council, I began to hear stories of the strife that had rocked the union for years.
Starting with the very first AUSU council in 1993, which fired the entire executive only months into the union’s existence, AUSU has been a hotbed of personality conflict, accusations of unethical behavior, and revolving door memberships.
Many reasons have been posited as to why this has occurred – the most common being that our position as a distance university leads to low student interest in the union. This, in turn, leads to a small pool of people willing to be councillors, and very little student input into what the union does.
The reasoning seems sound, but if this were the case AUSU would be the only union which suffered such conflict.
The problem seems endemic to students’ unions, however. Just this week, I received a copy of the June 11th issue of the Excalibur – student newspaper of York University, and the front page article – YFS President Deposed (by Aliza Libman and Angie Oliveira) – caught my eye.
York’s Students’ Council – known as the York Federation of Students (YFS) – consists of a whopping 40 members, (28 voting members) compared to AUSU’s maximum of 9 members. Currently, their council has 4 vacant positions, which still leaves 36 members, indicative of a high level of student interest. Nevertheless, on May 28th of this year, YFS voted unanimously to remove their president, Angie Joshi, over accusations that she had missed three meetings without explanation. Two months previous the council initiated impeachment proceedings against their vice-president, Michael Novak, citing “insurance fraud: embezzlement:” and “:deliberately misleading council,” but the charges were later dropped and Novak now serves as president in Joshi’s place.
Bizarrely, Ms. Joshi claims that she was present at the meetings in question, but did not sign the attendance sheet because she was too busy helping other members. I say that this is bizarre, because it does not seem possible for a council to be in disagreement over whether the president was at the meetings, but YFS seems to have just such a conflict. In fact, the union was not able to present minutes of any of these meetings in question either as evidence at the removal proceedings (which probably makes the whole process illegal), or to the university newspaper on request.
The fact that minutes are not available to students is mentioned as a final note on the last page of the long article, and little weight is given to this matter. YFS says that the minutes are not available due to “audits” that are in progress. This is not an insignificant fact, as the Excalibur article would have us believe. To prevent student members of a student funded organization from viewing minutes is the highest level of irresponsibility and probably grounds for an audit of the proceedings of the entire union. However, the fact that this situation exists – and that the YFS president was deposed without any evidence being submitted – indicates that students have probably shown little interest in what the union does.
I’m not picking on YFS – lord knows our own union has many skeletons in its closet (although I can’t imagine AUSU ever making minutes unavailable on such a lame excuse). I’m interested, though, to understand why the same problems seem to plague so many students’ organizations. Certainly there are bylaws and procedures in place which give students and council members power to address these problems, but it seems that there is not enough interest from students to keep their representatives in check.
I suppose this should not surprise me. The students’ union situation could easily be considered a microcosm of the larger political situation across Canada. Our municipal, provincial, and federal politicians are responsible for representing the views of their constituents, yet these leaders consistently and openly make policy based on their own biases – without regard for public input – and no one seems too concerned. One current example of this is Alberta Premier Ralph Klein’s insistence that he will use the not-withstanding clause of the federal government to allow Alberta to opt-out of any legislation legalizing gay marriages, despite the fact that the majority of Albertans do not appear to support this action. However, Klein feels confident that he can impose his will on this decision, and why shouldn’t he? Albertan’s have shown, again and again, that they won’t kick up much of a fuss and that we expect our leaders to do as they choose, not as we want.
This attitude seems to have filtered down from a national consciousness -or unconsciousness – which created hardly a murmur when Brian Mulroney used deeply imbedded constitutional loopholes to stack the senate in his favour, and which said hardly a word when young students in BC were viciously pepper-sprayed for exercising their constitutional rights.
If Canadians are not likely to fight unethical and unconstitutional behavior in our federal government, it seems absurd to expect busy students to expend much energy in watch-dogging their students’ organizations.
Given this, you would think that I would support the coming changes in Bill 43, which would allow a university to call for the audit of a students’ union without student support. I don’t support this, though, for the same reason that I don’t support the right of any foreign body – even a coalition of countries – to overthrow an elected government because it’s not adequately representing its people. As long as there is a democratic process in place for addressing the concerns of the populace, and as long as the populace has chosen not to exercise that right, then we have to assume that the populace is more or less satisfied with the representation that they receive, or that the quality of that representation is not of significant importance. AU student Arthur Setka said it well in a Letter To The Editor – “You get the government you deserve.”
Oddly, I feel much better about our students’ union after reading the Excalibur article. AUSU has had a rocky past, but even a cursory glace through the records of the last decade shows a great increase in productivity and student programs under the current council, and while some members have left before the end of their terms (including me), there have been many productive sessions and the group is positive overall. The last council meeting (to be reported on in the next issue) lasted nearly four hours, and while debate was lively, not a single argument or harsh word was heard – a far cry from the apparent bedlam of the YFS.
The problems endemic to students’ unions seem to stem from an overall lack of interest in politics in the minds of Canadians and probably all North Americans. One thing I learned from my time on council, however, is just how valuable input from members can be. Far from ignoring the wants and needs of students, AUSU spends many long, long, long (!!) hours trying to come up with ways to get more input, so that they can be sure that programs are addressing your needs. This makes me wonder if a lot of the problems with our larger governments stems from a lack of input from the populace.
One thing I do know, is that when input is sparse, the voice of a single student can carry a lot of weight. After all, it may be all the union has to go off of. If the same is true of our municipal and provincial governments, it seems that it is well worth it to contact your local representatives and make your opinions known. If very few people do so, your opinions may carry a lot of weight.