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Criticisms of executives, approval of new $19 per hour salary dominate UTSU February meeting

Comments against VP Equity Michael Junior Samakayi by directors make for a tumultuous meeting
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President Joshua Bowman speaking at the February board meeting. NATHAN CHING/THE VARSITY
President Joshua Bowman speaking at the February board meeting. NATHAN CHING/THE VARSITY

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) held its February Board of Directors meeting last Thursday, during which University College Director Lina Maragha laid out grievances that she had about the low number of hours that UTSU executives worked over the recent reading week, and about the vice-president equity’s ability to follow through on projects. The board also discussed the passing of a new higher hourly salary of $19 for UTSU executives, and the hiring of directors to carry out the opening of the Student Commons, which is set for April.

Increase in pay for executives

A motion passed during the meeting to increase UTSU executives’ hourly pay from the current $16 per hour to $19. The increase would take effect on May 1, meaning that those elected to executive positions for the next school year would secure this rate, instead of current executives.

The proposal received support from numerous executives and board members. UTSU President Joshua Bowman identified that the main motivation for the pay increase was making the UTSU more accessible and equitable. Many board members asserted that the new pay rate would incentivize those who need to work while carrying out their education to participate in the union.

Executives also discussed the importance of paying students a higher wage, and cited the current living wage in Toronto, which the Ontario Living Wage Network has calculated as $22.08.

President Bowman also discussed the increased net pay for executives that the UTSU has to consider. He identified that this year, the net pay for the seven executive positions was $176,000. Next year, with the wage increase and six executives instead of seven, the net pay will be $177,840, meaning a total increase of $1,840. Executives currently have hours capped at 40 hours per week.

In an interview with The Varsity, Bowman said, “I believe that it’s a great change now, that students will know that we are paying them what they are due. We are respecting the price of living in Toronto. We are respecting the different lived experiences of students [who] want to come and try out the UTSU.”

Criticisms of executives

A topic discussed at length at the meeting were criticisms made by Director Lina Maragha about the general amount of work being put in by the executives. She also brought up specific criticisms aimed at Vice-President Equity Michael Junior Samakayi.

Maragha’s criticisms of executives as a whole included their low number of hours worked, especially over the reading week, as well as what she perceived to be a lack of accountability among executives.

She specifically said that executives failed to alert the president that they were planning on taking reduced hours over reading week, which she alleges many of the executives did. Furthermore, she called for a better attendance system to ensure that executives are being held accountable for their attendance and other aspects of their jobs, while also acknowledging that putting in more hours does not necessarily mean doing a greater amount of work.

Bowman apologized, and called for a culture shift within the UTSU. He agreed that it is often difficult for directors to speak out against executives or meet with them in person to air their grievances. He also said that there is an implicit hierarchy in which directors are placed far below executives in terms of both power and the standards they are held to. Of his time as a director, Bowman said he “felt like there was an environment where directors were always taken to task whenever they had a criticism of an executive.”

For her criticisms on Samakayi, Maragha cited many instances in which she felt he had failed to meet expectations for events. Specifically, she mentioned his work on eXpression Against Oppression (XAO), which in the past has been a series of events that aim to bring awareness to marginalized students on campus, but only consisted of two events this year.

Samakayi sent a response to the Board of Directors, in which he wrote  that, as a Deaf student who works with an American Sign Language interpreter to complete his work, he has to take reduced working hours. On the criticisms of his work on XAO, he wrote that Maragha’s criticism “lacks merit. Last year we only hosted a single event. Unlike last year, this year will be hosting a lot of events.” The Varsity could not independently verify his statement.

Student Commons updates

Bowman gave updates on the upcoming opening of the Student Commons, which has been repeatedly delayed since its approval more than a decade ago. The UTSU plans to move into the Student Commons at the end of the year.

The union has worked to expand the staff apparatus for the commons. The three biggest new staff positions are the new project manager, training developer, and director of operations. The project manager will work to ensure that the commons is opened by the end of the year as projected. The training developer will work to transition UTSU staff, such as front desk and full-time staff, to the Student Commons, which means working with many more students with more diverse needs. Finally, the new director of operations will work with the general manager to find more opportunities for revenue generation for the UTSU.

Bowman said that the union needs to create new methods of revenue generation that are separate from the money the union receives in student levies, which the Student Commons has the potential to do. This could be especially important given recent cuts to education by Ontario Premier Doug Ford that have affected the UTSU, such as the Student Choice Initiative, which was struck down by the Divisional Court of Ontario in November.