Last week I spoke about a disturbing new trend among Edmonton high schools. Student government is no longer being elected democratically by the students, but appointed by teachers instead. This disenfranchisement and loss of democracy is being justified with excuses such as, “student politics is just a popularity contest,” “students don’t vote anyway,” and “teachers will pick qualified students for a more egalitarian model of government.”
It’s not just high school students, however, who are having their democratic rights challenged. An Edmonton seniors’ organization has become a potential candidate for loss of organizational democracy, with their unified voice being hampered by conflict from within.
The problems began on November 10, 2003. In an Edmonton Journal article on November 11, 2003, entitled, “Angry row splits new lobby group,” we learned about a lobby meeting of Seniors United Now (SUN). This meeting began as a democratic protest, a unification movement among seniors disturbed by recent provincial government cuts to seniors’ services. SUN was organized in September by some 700 seniors angered at a 40 percent hike in long-term care fees, and soon the group had swelled to a membership of 4000 seniors. This initially occurred under the leadership of Grahame Blundell, but by the November 10th meeting, he had become the “former acting chairman.” When he attempted to enter the meeting as a non-member, a near-riot erupted and police were called.
Why had the organization deteriorated to this point in such a short time? According to initial news reports, as acting chairman of the interim board, Grahame Blundell had hired an office assistant to help process hundreds of new memberships, doing so without permission of the board. As a result of this contravention of society bylaws, Blundell was asked to resign and his membership was revoked.
Blundell attempted to attend the meeting as a non-member, and although the members later voted to allow him in, tempers flared and the police were called to quell the increasing anger. The meeting was being conducted under the leadership of an interim chair, an individual specially appointed due to her expertise in Robert’s Rules of Order and proper meeting procedures. Arguments continued, however, with members taking over an hour just to approve the agenda. Debate became mired in an argument over “majority will” versus “proper protocol.”
Over the next few days, more bits and pieces of the story began to come out. From all accounts it appears that Blundell and the initial group of seniors began with very good intentions of bringing government attention to the plight of seniors who feel ignored and abandoned by a government that “many of them put in power.” It appears that at some point Blundell lost sight of the importance of working as a team and following structure and rules in order to accomplish goals. At the meeting, one SUN member, referring to Blundell, commented, “we’re 4000 members, not a one-man orchestra.” Another stated that, “if we build this organization on a faulty foundation, it will crumble.” Blundell himself admitted that, “I’m not good at bylaws, I’m not good at paperwork, I’m good at what has to be done.”
It was Blundell’s inability to follow the rules and respect the bylaws that apparently caused his ouster as chairperson. In addition, it appears that he let the idea that he alone was responsible for founding SUN go to his head, and he began to operate as a “one-man show” rather than operating as part of a team. This notion was corrected on November 19th in a Letter to the Editor by Yvonne Sutherland, “former acting secretary, Seniors United Now,” who explained the “real story” behind SUN’s origins.
As president of AUSU, I can vouch for the importance of respecting policies and bylaws. Far too many people take the attitude shown by Blundell — the attitude that all that matters is “getting the job done” quickly, without following proper protocol. No organization can be successful unless it is built on a strong foundation of rules and regulations, and no organization can be successful if an individual attempts to hijack the group in order to pursue a personal agenda. Projects done in a hurry, without taking the time to “do the paperwork,” or seek input from team members, are doomed to failure.
To his credit, Blundell followed up the fiasco with a letter to the editor in which he threw his support behind the new board and exhorted members of SUN to work together as a group in order to make their voice heard to government. He asked members to not be distracted by previous quarrels and serious disagreements, since they are of little consequence to the long term goals of the organization. The new chairperson of SUN, Albert Opstad, stated that Blundell’s ouster was too secretive and says he is open to allowing Blundell to return.
SUN came very close to falling apart as an organization because of the actions of an individual who was bent on pushing projects through quickly without following rules and regulations. Although this individual had good intentions, the results of his not being willing to follow proper policy had potentially disastrous consequences for the organization. Hopefully this worthwhile group will learn from experience, overcome their growing pains and become a viable and powerful voice for seniors in Alberta.
It’s an important lesson for any union, student or senior. AUSU has gone through many periods of conflict. Our union, too, has had individuals who were more interested in pursuing an individual agenda, who took personal ownership of projects instead of working within the organizational team framework, individuals who have been in such a hurry to put their name on a project and push it through, that they don’t stop to follow rules and regulations. These actions have caused major problems for the organization. There is a well-known saying that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. I’ve taken this as my personal philosophy and have tried to look at the past lessons and mistakes made by AUSU in order to improve how we do things in the future.
There were two interesting sidelines to the SUN issue. One writer to the Journal stated that all the trouble was caused by a “non-elected board who installed a non-member to enforce its aims.” This allegation has not been expanded on, but it is troubling — what happens in an organization when a group forms as a club or organization under an individual or small group of individuals, but does not immediately use democratic procedure to elect a board or a board chair as soon as membership grows? Is this not asking for trouble? The self-appointed president or board chair may have a vision for the organization and may be the impetus for starting it, but once others join, the organization cannot move forward unless democratic elections take place.
A second interesting sideline was in the election of a new chair for SUN. Mr. Opstad was elected as chairman at the November 10th meeting – but no one else stepped forward or accepted nominations for the role. Given the fractious state of the meeting and the attitude of the membership toward first chairman Blundell, its hardly surprising that no one would be eager to take leadership. I can sympathize. Of the many lessons I’ve learned as president of AUSU, the most important one is that the job of president is the most thankless and difficult of all. Next week I will expand on life at the top – the ups and downs of being president.
Edmonton Journal, November 10th, 2003. “Angry row splits new lobby group” http://www.canada.com/edmonton/edmontonjournal/archives/story.asp?id=222FCBFB-6341-4443-9564-0790B91559DD
Closed doors angered seniors http://www.canada.com/edmonton/edmontonjournal/archives/story.asp?id=9335FF2F-36EF-44A7-B244-029E182E7EA1
Edmonton Journal, Letters to the Editor. November 18, 2003, “Time for seniors to focus energy on unified effort: Quarrels a distraction from long-term goals”. November 19, 2003, “The real story on SUN’s start”