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Op-ed: The SCSU’s practices are undemocratic, undermining the union’s constituents

Students and administration need to keep unions accountable
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ANDREA ZHAO/THE VARSITY
ANDREA ZHAO/THE VARSITY

The Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) collects mandatory fees from all full-time UTSC students. Recently, it requested that the University of Toronto increase these fees based on a motion passed during the January Board of Directors (BOD) meeting. If approved, all UTSC undergraduate students will pay the SCSU $499.93 per session during the 2022–2023 academic year — an increase of $26.45 per session. 

According to the Policy for Compulsory Non-Academic Incidental Fees, unions have the power to increase these fees if the increase matches inflation. However, the SCSU can receive students’ money at all “only so long as the [union operates] in an open, accessible and democratic fashion.” 

So does the SCSU uphold all the policies to ensure a democratic decision-making process? As someone who started investigating the SCSU after resigning as a former director of arts, culture and media — I highly doubt it.

Questionable allocation of funds and wage increase 

SCSU financial statements from May 2021 to February 2022 show that $642,078.80 — or 56 per cent of all expenses the SCSU accrued within the 10-month period — went to wages and benefits. In contrast, expenses associated with the union’s main responsibilities events, programming, services, and funding accounted for only 27.32 per cent of its expenses. 

During the Annual General Meeting (AGM) in November, the membership approved a motion to increase SCSU executives’ honoraria from $13.53 to $19 per hour. In addition, the membership approved a policy rewarding all board members with a $500 honorarium for their work.

“I do understand the need for more money if you want to treat SCSU like a job and put in the amount of hours that you could,” said Farah Ahmad, a former vice-president (VP) external. “But I think if that is being done, then there needs to be a stricter-eyes approach to how we’re regulating powers and how we are regulating work, [such as] having more performance indicators [and] measuring more of what… the execs are doing.”

Ahmad and TJ Ho, a former VP campus life, shared that they had not heard of the motion since students were not made aware of anything that would be discussed during the AGM in advance.

“That’s an abuse of power to pass that kind of stuff in [the] AGM with a lot of [proxies],” said Ho. “[An increase to] $19 is very suspicious.” 

Undemocratic practices of the union 

The SCSU has a proxy system, meaning that members can assign their votes to anyone who plans to attend a meeting. Proxies are also used for attendance since the bylaws require a quorum of no less than 500 members for each general meeting. Unfortunately, representatives constantly abuse this rule.

“On paper, proxies sound like a decent idea, but in practice, it’s only the SCSU insiders and their friends who actually are able to max out proxy votes,” said Maxwell Fine, SCSU Director of Physical and Environmental Sciences. “And then you’ll notice — it won’t necessarily be the SCSU execs who might come with only one vote, but it’ll be their friends… with all of the votes, which is a real way for them to steal power from the students.”

The proxy system is not the only thing that allows the union to abuse its power. In the 2021 SCSU elections, the MOTIVATE UTSC slate won five of six executive positions as well as most positions on the board of directors. 

Ho shared that slate chats formed during the election period weren’t closed and some members of the slate continued having conversations in these chats. He said that it is “a common practice” that would sometimes involve the president telling the members of the chat how to vote.

Ho shared that there was pressure coming from certain people to vote in a specific way. 

“Every single meeting, whenever there’s something to vote on, I cannot have a different opinion than the majority of the other VPs,” he said. “I don’t know about the BOD [slate chats], but in VPs’ [SCSU Execs chat], if the president has started [a motion]… she will ask the other VPs to amend for her, so that doesn’t seem like she is doing this on her own.” 

According to Ho, executives would discuss who would speak on the motion, how the board should vote, and who would amend certain clauses. At the same time, if there were students who decided to speak against something, the executives — in some cases with the recommendation of the executive director and, allegedly, the speaker of the board — would come up with strategies to shut down all conversation and proceed to the voting. 

Unfortunately, many elected representatives seem to be loyal to the person who brought them to power — the president — so they won’t question any demands the president makes. In contrast to Ho, I had never experienced pressure from the executives, and no one ever contacted me asking why I voted in a certain way. However, if you do vote against the line pursued by the executives, you will more than likely end up in the minority. 

Together with the proxy system, this unfair collaboration makes it impossible to bring any changes to the union that go against the vision of the people who orchestrate everything. In addition, it makes all board meetings pointless other than to provide an illusion of democracy.

Politicization of the union and who dictates it

In late 2021, the SCSU was involved in a scandal when it passed a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions policy that imposed a political test on Kosher food providers. In February 2022,  the union ran into a problem when it advertised events on abolishing police on campus without consulting students. Most recently, the SCSU published a statement on Instagram in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which led to backlash from the student population. The post with their statement has since been removed. 

“[The union is] supposed to represent all students, and [it takes] a very left-leaning approach to all of [its] politics,” fourth-year UTSC student Katherine Todd said. “I wish that [the SCSU] would be more apolitical because [it’s] a student union, not a political outlet.”

According to the SCSU’s bylaws, the main purpose of the union is to advance the interests of the UTSC student community, but even people who held the office didn’t see that happening.

“I feel like the purpose of a student union, at least part of it, should be providing students a service that is valuable to students, but [the SCSU], unfortunately, [is] not doing that,” Ho said. “[The union is] mostly focused on creating [a] political agenda.”

In its bylaws, the SCSU introduces commissions to function as forums for students to guide the work of the union and help create new campaign services and events for the UTSC community. During one of the SCSU BOD meetings in the summer, the board appointed me to serve on commissions. Yet, throughout my whole term as a director, the SCSU did not hold a single commission meeting. 

All of the people I interviewed for this article didn’t even know that such forums existed. 

“That definitely did not take place; there’s nothing even remotely similar to that,” Ho said. “Students can voice their opinions and their visions [by] directly contacting us but not in a centralized meeting.”

Hence, it is unclear how the union’s political views are shaped if neither students nor the board members are consulted on any issues. The politicization of the union is quite disturbing, and I talked to people who shared similar sentiments.

“It’s something that I brought up a couple of times in a casual conversation, but it was always discussed that we function like we lobby, and our views have to align with [the Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario (CFS–O)],” Ahmad said.

Conflict of interests

According to the Handbook for Student Societies, all individuals must declare a conflict of interest, if it arises, and refrain from voting on the motions related to that conflict.

During the January BOD meeting, SCSU President Sarah Abdillahi moved a motion to increase society and student centre fees by 5.2 per cent as well as CFS fees by 4.8 per cent. At that time, she was the CFS–O Treasurer and was ratified as the organization’s National Executive Representative for the 2022–2023 academic year. 

“[The] Chairperson and National Executive Representative are full-time salaried positions as per the by-laws of the Federation,” wrote CFS–O National Executive Representative Kayla Weiler. “In terms of the Ontario Treasurer, the by-laws outline the Treasurer as a part-time position who receives an honorarium for their work.”

Needless to say, Abdillahi’s involvement in both the SCSU and the CFS–O raises many questions regarding a conflict of interest — both financial and constitutional. 

So who does the SCSU serve? Does it serve students who pay mandatory fees? Or does it serve the CFS?

The Office of the Vice-Provost writes that U of T has a responsibility to the students to oversee that societies function “in an orderly, open, accessible, and democratic fashion.” So maybe we should start keeping our student unions accountable?

Is there a solution?

U of T should investigate all conflicts of interests that have existed and have never been declared, the influence of the CFS on the union, and the breach of the democratic practices within the decision-making process. 

At a minimum, it would be wise to disallow elected representatives from seeking out proxies and to change the bylaws to require the presence of undergraduate students in a number greater than that of the elected representatives during the AGM and Winter General Meeting. Each member of the union should have only one vote. 

In addition, there should be clear communication to the student body regarding the motions the union brings to the table. In the end, it doesn’t require a lot of time to post the agenda on social media, the same way the University of Toronto Students’ Union does it. In fact, the agenda can even be emailed to all students, regardless of whether they registered for the annual meeting or not.

Also, the union’s hiring policies should be reevaluated. People who worked for external affiliates should not be eligible to hold any positions on the SCSU until at least three years have passed since they left their post. 

During the June BOD meeting, the board approved the speaker of the board for the 2021–2022 term. According to operational policy, the speaker should be an impartial person with final say in the interpretation of the bylaws in each meeting. 

Ho alleged that this position was never opened for applications. “It was always [a] recommendation from the executive directors or people in staff,” he said. This year, Alice Wu was appointed as the speaker of the board. In addition to her role on the SCSU, she is a CFS financial coordinator, which also raises some concerns about conflicts of interest. 

Also, the existence of slates should be reconsidered. Some may argue that removing slates could decrease election participation rates, but let’s recall what happened during this year’s SCSU election. The union has slates, but most candidates ran with no opposition, and the UNIFY UTSC slate won all executive positions as well as almost all BOD positions. Only one member of the INSPIRE UTSC slate won a BOD position. The voter turnout was less than four per cent.  

Personally, I think that this decrease in voter turnout signals that there are many problems with the union — a lack of transparency, communication, and real representation of students’ needs in all of its campaigns. 

“It’s like, corruption [for] the most part where they end up just again, paying themselves extra, getting their friends contracts, doing things like that,” Todd said. “So, it’s basically just using the shell of this student union that once upon a time was supposed to help students, but now is just, again, an outlet to pay themselves.” 

Todd was also dissatisfied with the union’s representation of the UTSC community, “I think [it is] negative even to have one [student union], and I wish we didn’t at this rate because if we didn’t, then students would be able to voice their own opinions instead of getting co-opted by this group that doesn’t really ask anybody for their opinion.”

I have reached out to the U of T Media Relations, asking what happens when unions do not function in a manner outlined in the Policy for Compulsory Non-Academic Incidental Fees.

“If a member of a Student Society has a complaint about the extent to which a Society is operating in alignment with their constitution and/or bylaws or in an open, accessible and democratic manner – they should first attempt to address their concern through the Society’s internal dispute resolution process,” the U of T spokesperson wrote. “If the internal Society process has been exhausted and the complaint remains unresolved, the student may submit the complaint to the Complaint and Resolution Council for Student Societies.”

As it stands right now, it is hard for the elected representatives who disagree with what is happening within the union to submit an internal complaint because the executive director and speaker of the board do not seem impartial. At the same time, the contract that BODs sign makes it harder for them to speak with anyone externally regarding the union’s wrongdoings. 

The union’s system favours those who are willing to be proxies for other people and just channel their views. The only viable option for those who disagree with the executives in power and don’t want to participate in the orchestrated decision-making process is to resign. Therefore, students and the administration need to hold the SCSU accountable to ensure that the union functions in the interests of the UTSC community.

The Varsity has reached out to the SCSU for comment.

Anastasiya Gordiychuk is a fourth-year journalism student at UTSC. She served as an arts, culture and media director for the SCSU from May to December 2021. She was an Associate Business & Labour Editor for Volume 141 of The Varsity.