On May 30, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Board of Directors approved the elimination of two-full time staff positions. This action was taken following a campaign promise to cut spending at the union, and has caused increasing tension between the current executive and supporters of the student-led Save Our Services, Support Our Staff (SOS) movement that has developed in response.
Amidst this controversial situation, there is a growing need for the UTSU to restore a much-needed sense of credibility, trust, and assurance in order for it to truly live up to its motto of being “For Students, By Students.” Fortunately, what the UTSU has done with the layoffs tells us it is moving in the right direction.
Democratic practices are essentially comprised of three broad stages: A platform is expressed to voters, voters exercise their right to choose, and whoever comes out the winner is then tasked with executing the promises they pledged to accomplish.
UTSU President Mathias Memmel and his team are doing exactly that. Memmel campaigned with the Demand Better slate during the UTSU elections, a slate that argued that the UTSU is a “broken” organization that needs to be fixed. The elimination of the two-full time staff positions in question represented a key portion of the Demand Better electoral manifesto and Memmel’s proposed large-scale reform for the UTSU.
The changes proposed by the UTSU suggest that they know how broken the organization truly is. In order to resolve their significant budgetary debt and repair attitudes of mistrust towards the organization, there is no doubt that the UTSU needs whole-scale changes. And if ensuring the financial future of the organization and instilling credibility means that tough calls must be made, then both the UTSU and those opposing the changes have a shared responsibility to formulate a path to move forward.
Had Memmel hesitated to implement these measures, he and his team would be deemed hypocritical and accused of abandoning their electoral promises. Observing such an early and firm decision is therefore encouraging — it’s an indication that the UTSU is taking the idea of fixing itself seriously.
Another key component of democracy is listening to what opposing sides have to say. Memmel has expressed interest in sitting face-to-face with those of his constituents who have been protesting the elimination of the staff services, yet he has been met with jibes and protests. Though protest serves an important function in expressing opposition held by members of the public, the optimal solution for actually resolving conflict is direct interaction on the table. SOS must therefore reconsider its current strategy — of purely opposing the result of a democratic process — and should instead consider reaching out to the UTSU to find common ground in what is turning out to be an ugly and terribly disheartening episode for all actors involved.
The election is over, and respecting the mandate that Demand Better brought forwards is important. Being in a position of power, UTSU executives are certainly responsible for listening to all stakeholders, including members of the SOS movement and any other students who voice opposition to their decision-making. Nevertheless, the environment for deliberation seems not to exist at this time — and if activism for the sake of activism continues, then what appears to be a good-hearted initiative to ensure that two staff members keep their jobs might transition into a political stunt.
Ultimately, all stakeholders involved need to get past this divisive conundrum. Preferably, a resolution will come quickly so that other UTSU priorities — such as clubs funding, academic advocacy, transparency, and mental health — are not left on the back burner. If the UTSU is unable to perform its fundamental duties due to continuous opposition, then all hope in reinstating the sense of trust and credibility the organization so surely needs will be lost.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is an incoming fourth-year student at University College studying Economics and International Relations.