On the afternoon of May 30, protestors rallied around the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) office in response to the union’s decision to lay off two full-time staff members.
The decision to lay off Clubs and Service Groups Coordinator Vita Carlino and Health and Dental Plan Coordinator Maria Galvez was the culmination of what started as a contentious campaign issue for many members of the UTSU executive. Five of the seven executives, now a month into their tenure, ran on the Demand Better slate and vowed to cut staff in the coming year for a more secure financial future for the union.
The students gathered around the union to criticize its decision, arguing that eliminating the two staff members and their respective services was both unjust and a detriment to the total services offered to students.
“I came here because I’ve been part of this protest since it began on March 31,” said Emmanuela Alimlim, a former Vice-President External candidate with the We the Students slate. “I’ve been with them because I believe that most students, especially those who do not have money to pay for $700 or $1000 [for Health and Dental services] — they depend on Maria and I came here to support that.”
Mathias Memmel, President of the UTSU, told The Varsity that “there will be no coverage changes or funding changes to the health and dental plan or reduction in clubs funding or resources made available to clubs and service groups.”
The UTSU subsequently released a statement on the elimination of the two positions and their respective services.
“On March 31, 2017, the Board of Directors of the University of Toronto Students’ Union approved the elimination of two services,” the statement reads. “While the UTSU will still be able to support clubs and service groups and assist students with the Health and Dental Plan, the service of a specific ‘point person’ for each will be eliminated.”
Many of the students engaged with the issue, of which there were a number present on May 30, knew this would be the outcome of the debate over staff and services. “This was [Memmel’s] decision, he didn’t try and talk with students or the CUPE 1281,” said Alimlim, referencing the union representing the UTSU’s full-time staff. “We saw it coming.”
Memmel disputed Alimlim’s comments, saying “we’ve done our part in terms of fulfilling our obligations in the collective agreement, with meeting with CUPE a number of times to provide the rationale that there’s a shortage of work for these positions.” According to Memmel, one of the meetings was specifically to discuss the shortage of work, while the others were for discussing the union’s financial situation more broadly. The shortage of work, according to the UTSU President, is “a result of service reductions, which are as a result of a dire financial position for the organization.”
Andre Fast, a UTSU presidential candidate in the 2017 UTSU elections and an active campus organizer, was also present at the rally.
“I think it’s a shame. I think it’s a big loss for students,” Fast told The Varsity. “A lot of the students here today that I had the opportunity to meet were sharing how much they rely on the Clubs Coordinator and the Health and Dental Plan Coordinator.”
Fast also raised concerns about the transparency of the union and the way it communicated with students on the reduction of services.
Moving forward, Fast says that a new campus group called ‘Save Our Services, Support Our Staff,’ which is entirely student-run will be advocating for the continuation of services that they say are important to students. The UTSU “is proposing to cut services that are important to students. We are calling on the UTSU to rethink their plan,” states the group’s Facebook page.
Fast said they have been working to collect petition signatures on campus. The group currently boasts almost 500 signatures.
“I know many of the members who were outside today. I’ve made at least five overtures to meet with them individually, and I will continue to do so,” Memmel said. “As well, I am happy to meet with any member who has a grievance on these issues and talk through it with them. Unfortunately, no one has taken me up on my offer to meet with them.”
Although the decision to cut the jobs previously held by Carlino and Galvez has already come to fruition, it remains unclear whether the debate surrounding their jobs and the services connected to them is over.
This is not the first time the UTSU has been met with protests for its decision to eliminate the two staff positions. Protestors disrupted board of directors meetings in March and April as well as during the Annual Ratification Meeting in April.
Carlino and Galvez declined The Varsity’s request for comment at the rally. The Varsity has reached out to CUPE 1281 President, Orion Keresztesi, for comment.