The Cape Breton University Student’s Union (CBUSU) recently lost a lawsuit brought against them by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). Specifically, the CFS alleged the CBUSU’s 2008 referendum to leave the CFS did not comply with its own bylaws, as the required signatures were never received. The CBUSU had countered that the required signatures had been sent and that the “vote fairly reflected the wishes of the students at CBU, even if it didn’t comply with the federation’s bylaws,” an argument that was rejected in court.
For those who may be unaware, the CFS is an organization dedicated to national advocacy on behalf of students. It is made up of “member unions,” such as the University of Toronto Student’s Union (UTSU).
Over the past decade, complaints regarding the CFS’s democratic processes have arisen frequently. CBUSU’s lawsuit is not the only one: in fact, the CFS has a lengthy track record of losing court battles or settling out of court over defederation referenda, like in the cases of McGill, Dawson University, and Concordia University.
It’s saddening to see the CFS winning a lawsuit against one of its own member locals. In the case of the CBUSU, 92 per cent of students voted to leave – an overwhelming percentage of voters.
The CBUSU’s argument in the court case that there was a lack of local representation is unfair. When you are a small union dealing primarily with local issues, how can the CFS benefit your membership? After all, the CFS focuses on larger member unions and much broader issues.
It’s true that there are some common issues that unite all students, but at a larger university like U of T, we can represent ourselves on the provincial and federal level. Even though solidarity with other student unions is a great idea, there are better ways to go about that without giving money to the CFS.
Most shocking of all, however, is how content the CFS is with collecting these dues from the CBUSU, even as it might now face bankruptcy. How can the CFS justify fighting to keep a union that clearly wants to leave, even to the point of completely destroying it?
The CFS continues to show hostility towards dissent amongst its member locals. The threshold to hold a decertification referendum remains prohibitively high (20 per cent of members must sign a petition) and motions to reduce that threshold continue to be shot down, as recently as this past June. An organization that doesn’t listen to its members but champions itself as a defender of students is ironic.
Let’s be frank — the relationship between the UTSU and the CFS needs to be re-examined. Beyond platitudes towards being a national advocate for students, the CFS’ main way of supporting individual campuses and campaigns have had very little impact on the ground. Issues of paramount importance, like high tuition, still haven’t budged, despite the push for administrations to “drop fees.” Complaints of electoral fraud and campaigners from other universities persist, even to this day.
Since the UTSU joined the CFS back in 2003, there has been no critical review of how our membership is benefiting students. There is never justification given as to how the fees collected are being put to use ($700,000 to $750,000 from U of T students). When that much money is collected from students, an amount that rivals what the UTSU itself collects in membership fees, it should make students pause and think about the value of such a venture. After over a decade of paying fees, it’s about time that the UTSU took a hard look at what benefits its affiliation has given.
It’s important to remember that one small mistake can lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and damages. This could push any student union to the brink of dissolution, not unlike the CBUSU. To add insult to injury, the CFS used other students’ fees to fight the CBUSU, essentially ganging up on the union with other student union dollars.
The CBUSU deserves solidarity from other student unions, and while they may have lost this fight, it has revealed further weakness in the CFS. As the CFS continues to be embroiled in a conflict with its own provincial wings — as seen through CFS-Quebec’s dissolution and CFS-BC’s boycotting of the CFS’ national general meeting — it continues to spend less time focusing on students and more time focusing on trying to keep locals at bay. When the CFS deliberately shuns locals who do not “get along” and forces them to continue paying fees (like the GSU, for example), the animosity will eventually boil over.
If the CFS continues to spend its money defending lawsuits instead of proving its worth to students, it may not have many locals left.
Ryan Gomes is the UTSU’s vice-president internal & services.