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Letter to the Editor: Is our failure a sign of success?

Re: “UTSU AGM 2018: Where’s the spirit of union democracy?”
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On October 30, 2018, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) held its Annual General Meeting (AGM) for the current term. I was in attendance that night, and I truly believe that the union accomplished goals that will make our campus, and our place in it better in the coming years long after we are gone.

The Varsity’s editorial talks about the progressive stance of the UTSU and how a more direct democracy could potentially be a good thing for the union in the future. However, I felt the need to clarify two issues from my perspective as a Board of Directors member.

The first issue is how the ability to submit policy is framed. In the past, the AGM has been a heated event, major reforms had been made, students were more involved in campus life, and the union had different rules. We don’t live in that era anymore, campus is thankfully not as polarized along certain student issues like online voting anymore, and we have seen reduced turnout for the AGM because of this.

I would argue that this is a good thing; it means that our union has actually listened to our membership but the drawback has been that we are no longer as engaged as a membership. The ability to submit new policy could potentially revive a student sense of being able to actually make change, instead of having to go through a long committee process filled with only “insiders.”

Critics use the example that ill-intentioned members of our community could use this as a way to hamper the union, to force us into a corner. These critics forget to mention that the items and motions for AGM must be approved by the Board of Directors, and we have a duty to protect the union and what it stands for. Yes, the “insiders” have the final say, but it is up to the students to elect good representatives too. I find the cynical view that students will take advantage of this new direction for the UTSU to harm the union very saddening, and, potentially, just plain wrong. If the membership wanted to, they could already enforce bad bylaws on the union, but so far, they have not.

The second issue, raised by the editorial, was that falling out of quorum broke the spirit of our student democracy. In a sense, I have to agree with you. When the quorum check was called, I was ready to pack up and leave, happy with the unanimous accomplishments of the night but that did not occur, and thus we continued. Falling below quorum is an issue our union needs to solve, and one that I plan on working to fix. It is a complicated issue. Having motions that are internally controversial brings out crowds, as the policy submission bylaw did at the most recent AGM. It also caused tensions in the room.

A quorum check was called in an attempt to ensure that the bylaw didn’t pass, something that I find to be also out of the spirit of democracy. Theoretically, this could happen in the future as well, should one side of a debate stage a walkout and force the AGM to adjourn early, despite a majority of students in the room being in favour of something. Just as you said that a group of friends could take over an AGM for their own agenda, they could also force an AGM to end on their own terms. These are the issues the UTSU must now play with, and we must look back at what made our meetings successful in the past, potentially adding new rules and requirements for the AGM.

This AGM proved one thing to us that we need to continue to review our bylaws to ensure that they best represent the membership. I believe that the motions we passed that night make the UTSU more democratic, not less. The motion for members to submit policy to an AGM puts more power into the hands of average, and I believe this is critical to the future of the union. To answer the editorial’s question, the spirit of our student democracy can be found again by setting up a future where our members can be involved in a more meaningful way.

To build on this future, we need to engage with our membership more effectively. Although I can only speak for myself, and the opinions in this letter are my own, I want to assure everyone that we have an amazing team working for the UTSU this year. I believe we can and will make the UTSU, and the University of Toronto, better for everyone.

Lucas Granger