Referendum for OPIRG-Toronto levy fails to meet quorum

Less than four per cent of eligible voters turn out to vote

Referendum for OPIRG-Toronto levy fails to meet quorum

The Toronto chapter of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG), based at U of T, will continue to receive its optional $0.50 levy from full-time undergraduates after the referendum to remove its funding failed to meet quorum.

On November 23, the results of the OPIRG referendum were released, showing that of the total electors, 1.6 per cent abstained. Of those who did not abstain, 40.1 per cent voted ‘yes’ to remove the levy, and 59.9 per cent voted ‘no.’ Only 3.1 per cent of students, or 1,165, who were eligible to vote participated. A quorum of 7.5 per cent was needed to make the results binding.

Daman Singh, Vice-President Internal of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), stated that “an inquorate referendum is effectively a survey.”

In an email, Chris Dryden, the head of the committee that campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote, mentioned that he “could foresee that there was [going to be] a very low chance of reaching quorum.” He added, “Considering this was a referendum with no adjunct election it was an average turnout.”

Dryden had previously expressed concern that a UTSU error resulted in a delayed voting period for the referendum, describing the situation as a “double-edged sword.”

Before the voting period, Dyrden said he knew “that [the UTSU] wanted to be able to bring forward the petition.” He conceded that students at UTSG are generally apathetic toward elections, which may explain the inquorate results.

“The majority of people vote only when it’s election season,” said Dryden. “So, if a petition is set during an election season, I think that there would be a much greater turnout.” The turnout at the most recent UTSU election this past spring was 11.8 per cent of the membership, which is relatively high. Dryden said that previous records indicate “the only way to reach quorum is to have a referendum in the spring.”

“Three percent of people voting isn’t very indicative of the overall student view of campus,” said Dryden. According to him, this poses a conundrum because students who “are the most apathetic to voting are less likely to know that they are paying these fees.”

Nevertheless, Dryden believes that, regardless of the referendum results, “considering that levy [groups] do not often have their funding questioned, it will put more pressure on funding groups to have more accountability with their spending.”

OPIRG did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment on the results of the referendum.

Op-ed: What’s at stake for your $0.50 each term?

Why you should vote ‘No’ in the referendum to defund the Ontario Public Interest Research Group

Op-ed: What’s at stake for your $0.50 each term?

OPIRG Toronto is a volunteer-based group at the University of Toronto dedicated to research, education, and action on environmental and social justice issues. It is part of a network of Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) that seeks to empower and educate students while giving us tools and opportunities to work cooperatively for social change.

The group achieves this through programs like the Toronto Research and Action Community Exchange (TRACX). Students are paired with community organizations to conduct research for academic credit and are given an opportunity to network and participate in panels, keynotes, and group discussions.

OPIRG democratically decides on what programming to run among students. Institutional support for these initiatives creates a space for students who would otherwise be faced with bureaucratic and institutional barriers, unable to access the necessary resources.

From November 20 to 22, OPIRG is facing a referendum vote to remove its 50 cent per term levy from the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), which is paid by its members. Opponents have criticized the group’s financial management and programming in an attempt to challenge the very existence of one of few organizations supporting activism on campus.

It’s concerning that a largely unidentified and unaffiliated group’s push to defund an entire organization is seen as a valid solution to criticisms purportedly surrounding its work’s efficacy, especially when a meaningful dialogue was not attempted first. Places on campus where students can gain an institutional foothold while doing grassroots social and environmental justice work are few and far between, and many of the opportunities that OPIRG provides do not exist elsewhere at U of T.

Anxieties about the amount of money students are paying the university are not unfounded. Tuition fees continue to rise and the quality of our student experience doesn’t get any better. Many of us take on jobs and work long hours on top of participating in extracurricular activities, all while trying to maintain good grades.

As students, we know the problem doesn’t stem from service groups that work hard to support the U of T community. Conducting a critical cost analysis should begin by looking at all of the fees we pay, and at the number of university administrators, many of whom spend little to no time meaningfully engaging with the student body, making it onto the sunshine list every year.

The idea that staff salaries and benefits are misplaced fees is a misconception which underestimates the importance of fairly compensated employees. If we demand that staff be paid less than a living wage for their work, it contributes to the undervaluing of our own labour as students.

Other anti-OPIRG arguments and efforts have included publishing false statistics on OPIRG’s operations and costs. Simultaneously, student union representatives have both failed to follow and adjusted the UTSU’s own by-laws in the creation of the referendum, and their negligence in providing due notice has disadvantaged OPIRG by shortening the amount of time it could dedicate to preparing for the campaign.

This process has made it clear that the referendum supporters’ objections to the organization have little to do with any genuine desire to improve campus activism or lower student fees. This is not surprising — previous attempts to defund PIRGs and other equity-seeking university organizations reveal that this referendum is not an isolated incident, but rather a symptom of the shifting political climate on university campuses. Fuelled by right-wing movements and interest groups, referenda like this one continue to try to push the organizing of marginalized students out of the university.

If you have criticisms of OPIRG Toronto and how your fees are being used, getting involved directly by joining an action group or the board can allow you to make your voice heard. Levy groups are meant to be a resource within our community that have been determined by a majority to meet a unique need on campus, but if students would like to opt out on principle or because of financial constraints, they are welcome to do so.

All we ask is for you to consider why many students have decided OPIRG is worth fighting for. On November 20, 21, and 22, vote ‘No’ to save OPIRG.

 

Nooria Alam and Ben Swadron are members of the Vote ‘No’ to Save OPIRG campaign advocating committee. Swadron is a third-year student at Victoria College studying Health & Disease, Physiology, and Equity Studies. Alam is a fourth-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Political Science, History, and Geography, and a current Arts and Science Students’ Union executive; the views expressed here are her own.

ASSU loses bid to raise levy by $3

Course unions, ASSU Executive dissapointed

ASSU loses bid to raise levy by $3

Last week, the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) lost its bid to raise student fees by $3 per semester.

The tallied results of the referendum showed that 60 per cent of student voters were opposed to the proposed fee increase. Of a total of 1,533 voters, 925 voted against the increase, 578 in favour, and 30 voters abstained.

ASSU’s proposal would have raised union fees to $12.50 from the $9.50 that students currently pay per semester. It also proposed a new “cost-of-living adjustment” to tie future fee increases to the rate of inflation.

According to ASSU, funds collected from the increased fee would have gone towards funding its 66 course unions as well as towards grants, bursaries, and event programming.

ASSU’s decision to ask the student body for a fee increase was also, in part, due to financial concerns regarding its budget. Speaking to The Varsity earlier this year, ASSU President Ondiek Odour explained that the the union has been operating on a budget that “far exceeds our income.”

Sahal Malek is the President of the Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations Students’ Union and the French Course Union, which are two groups that could have benefited from the levy increase. Malek called the referendum results “extremely unfortunate.”

Malek explained that the work that course unions do includes representing the interests of students in the respective departments, hosting academic workshops and conferences, and organizing social and networking events: “We do these tasks on a shoestring budget, and are not paid for any of our efforts.”

“[It] tells us that our efforts to enrich the lives of students on campus are not worthy,” Malek continued. “I hope that students will appreciate what course unions do for them in the future, and maybe decide that we are worthy of a mere three more dollars.”

The political climate on campus likely played a major role in the referendum’s defeat. A month ago, the UTSU held a referendum on a levy increase, which also failed to pass.

Tanzim Rashid, a third-year Trinity College student opposed to the fee increase, explained his objections in a statement to The Varsity. Rashid is a member of Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS), a student group critical of ‘political correctness’ which began in wake of the psychology professor Jordan Peterson’s YouTube lectures on the topic. Rashid encouraged fellow SSFS members to vote against the levy increase.

Rashid expressed concern that ASSU is being used as “a platform to promote radical polarizing political views” and suggested that the impartiality of the union had been compromised in light of recent events. ASSU was one of several student unions to release a statement criticizing Peterson.

He said that the failed referendum was a message to the “ASSU, UTSU, and U of T admin, that the mismanagement of funds, and the misappropriation of the ASSU… will not be tolerated by the silent majority” and slammed the union for “purchasing drake posters, having coffee soirees,” and supporting the Black Liberation Collective.

Following weeks of campaigning, the ASSU executive was left “disappointed” by the results of last week’s referendum. In a collective statement to The Varsity, executive members addressed some of the concerns that ‘No’ voters may have had.

“A lot of individuals’ criticism of our levy stemmed from a misunderstanding of our current financial situation,” they said. “We admit that we could have been clearer with disseminating our financial situation to our membership, so that they could be better informed.”

Their statement continues: “One of the more common criticisms we received was that we had somehow mismanaged our funding by passing a deficit budget when having deficit budgets at tale end of our five-year levy cycle had been practiced for more than 25 years.”

The executive also admitted that “this is a difficult year to hold any sort of campus-wide vote.”

“Most of the discussion surrounding our referendum—ironically—focused on how our Union chose to freely speak out against a professor’s problematic actions,” they continued.

If it had been successful, the fee increase would be the ASSU’s first since 2010. The referendum also marked the first time that the ASSU used online voting instead of paper ballots. ASSU allowed students to vote remotely online or in-person with computers set up at Sidney Smith Hall.

Despite the new voting measures, voter turnout was meagre. Of the approximately 23,000 students that the ASSU represents, only 6.6 per cent voted in the referendum.

“The final votes cast are disappointing in light of the size of our membership, and show only a small increase compared to our last paper ballot in 2010. Regardless of whether students supported the levy or not, we were hoping to see more engaging numbers,” reads a portion of ASSU’s statement on its website.

The results of last week’s vote will be formally submitted to the ASSU Council Meeting on November 15 for approval.

Op-ed: Is the UTSU worth saving?

A UTSU Executive reflects on the organization's failures, struggles, and potential for change

Op-ed: Is the UTSU worth saving?

Is the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) worth saving? I asked myself that question last week after students voted overwhelmingly against the creation of a new UTSU fee. To be clear, I don’t blame students for how they voted, and I’m not here to justify or explain away the referendum. In fact, it was, in many ways, my project, and I accept responsibility for its failure.

To be blunt, the UTSU is rotten and was mismanaged for years. None of the problems that have come to light in the last 18 months are new; they’ve just been deliberately concealed, even from the Board of Directors. For instance, last year, when I was on the board, we learned that the Health and Dental Plan — arguably the only UTSU service that matters to most students — had lost $1.6 million in a six year period. No one had even notified the board, let alone the organization’s members. The UTSU is often accused of being out of touch with students’ needs, and in many ways, it is.

When an organization like the UTSU runs into trouble, it has two options. The first option is to hide what’s going on and become progressively more authoritarian. This is what the UTSU did for more than a decade. The second option is to throw open the doors and let the members see the corruption. This is what needs to happen now, and why I’m being so blunt about the Student Commons project.

What the referendum taught me is that students don’t yet trust the UTSU with their money, and I don’t blame them. They haven’t been persuaded that the organization has changed, and it’s absolutely true that it hasn’t changed enough. We assumed that we could earn the trust of students by quietly reforming the UTSU. It’s now clear that we were wrong about that, and that a more radical, democratic restructuring is required. We can’t ask for more money even for clubs that need it until we’ve proven that we aren’t misspending the money that we currently have.

[pullquote-default]The UTSU is worth saving — but only if it’s saved for everyone.[/pullquote-default]

The UTSU could also learn to take itself somewhat more seriously. While advocacy on behalf of students is of fundamental and non-negotiable importance, it’s the height of arrogance to carry on like a foreign ministry while struggling to do anything useful. Empty words persuade no one; self-congratulatory statements are no substitute for effective action.

What gives me hope is the existence of students’ unions that are well run and, moreover, not so widely disliked. One good example is the Federation of Students at the University of Waterloo. Another is the Alma Mater Society at the University of British Columbia. We need to look at what these unions and others are doing differently and learn from them.

The more important point is that student government is, in principle, a good thing. Like it or not, the UTSU is the student government that we have. People can do a lot of good when they govern themselves together — even as students, even at U of T.

I asked to write this piece because students are rightly angry at the UTSU, and I want them to know that they’ve been heard. We’re going to respond to this defeat by accelerating the process of reform. If you don’t like the UTSU, tell us. If we’re making a mess of something, let us know. The UTSU is worth saving — but only if it’s saved for everyone. A UTSU that exists only for the benefit of a small clique of student politicians isn’t worth anyone’s time.

Mathias Memmel is a third-year student at University College studying Computer Science and Political Science. He is the UTSU’s Vice-President Internal and Services.

ASSU levy increase referendum unsuccessful

'No' side wins 60 per cent of votes

ASSU levy increase referendum unsuccessful

The Arts and Science Students’ Union’s (ASSU) bid to increase the ASSU student fee by $3 per semester has failed.

Referendum results on Friday shortly after midnight showed that 60 per cent of 1,533 student voters have voted against ASSU’s proposal to raise its student levy from $9.50 to $12.50 per semester. Of the total votes cast, 925 voted against the fee increase, with 578 in favour, and 30 voters abstaining.

Voting took place in-person at Sidney Smith Hall as well as online on November 2 and 3. According to ASSU, the proposed fee increase would have supported increased budgets for course unions, bursaries, and grants.

A levy increase referendum held by the University of Toronto Students’ Union two weeks ago was also unsuccessful.

This story is developing, more to follow.

A screenshot of the referendum results. VIA VOTING.UTORONTO.CA

A screenshot of the referendum results. VIA VOTING.UTORONTO.CA

UTSU referendum for clubs levy fails

'No' side wins 76.3 per cent of votes

UTSU referendum for clubs levy fails

The votes are in and University of Toronto Students’ Union’s proposal for a new levy to fund student clubs has failed, with 76.3 per cent of referendum voters casting their ballots against the fee.

The referendum was held from October 18–20. Of the 2,026 students that voted, only 23.7 per cent voted in favour of the proposed levy. 2.4 per cent abstained.

The proposed levy would have been $3.75 per session for the next five years. The funds collected would have been restricted towards clubs, events, and student service funding only, with no amount going towards salaries.

This story is developing; more to follow.

Petition for referendum on UTSU membership with the CFS launched

Signatures from 20 per cent of members needed to trigger referendum

Petition for referendum on UTSU membership with the CFS launched

Students have launched a campaign to petition for a referendum on the University of Toronto Student Union’s (UTSU) continued membership within the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS).

The campaign, called You Decide UofT, is running two separate petitions to achieve the referendum: one for the Canadian Federation of Students Ontario (CFSO) provincial executives and one for the national executives of the CFS.

The CFS by-laws require a petition to receive signatures from 20 per cent of UTSU members at the St. George campus in order to trigger a referendum on continued membership within the federation. The UTMSU is recognized separately from the UTSU by the CFS and as such, UTM students are not eligible to participate in the petition.

The CFS is an organization made up of over 80 post-secondary student unions across the country. Along with the UTSU, its membership includes the Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students (APUS), the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU), the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), and the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) are also members of the CFS. The UTGSU’s attempt to leave the CFS was unsuccessful after the union’s referendum missed the quorum by seven votes.

You Decide UofT says it does not take a position on what the outcome on the hypothetical referendum should be. “We simply believe that students should have the opportunity to decide if they want to continue to be in the CFS themselves,” reads a portion of the description of its Facebook page.

Former UTSU board member Daman Singh spoke to The Varsity on behalf of You Decide UofT discussing the practical steps the organization will take in reaching the referendum: “We will work with various groups on campus to receive the signatures of at least 20% of local 98 members. Following this, we will ensure that the petition is delivered by registered mail to their respective Executives. The most rigorous part of the petition is ensuring we follow each and every rule that the organizations have laid out.”

In April, the UTSU ad-hoc committee on the CFS, of which Singh was a member, released its report criticizing the federation’s structure and defederation process.

UTSU President Jasmine Wong Denike declined to take a position on the campaign and noted that a petition on federating from the CFS must be initiated by the membership and not the executives: “The bylaws of the CFS state that any petition must be initiated by students, not by the students’ union. As such, the UTSU takes no position on the petition at this time. We are forbidden from doing so, and intend to respect the rules.”

The CFS did not immediately respond The Varsity’s inquiries for comment.

This story is developing, more to follow.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the petition needs to receive the signatures of 20 per cent of UTSU members. In fact, the petition needs the signatures of 20 percent of local 98 members.

Op-Ed: Vote yes in the upcoming LGBTOUT referendum

Secure funding will strengthen LGBTQ+ networks

Op-Ed: Vote yes in the upcoming LGBTOUT referendum

Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Trans People of the University of Toronto (LGBTOUT) is an organization of student volunteers dedicated to providing resources and programming for queer and trans students at the University of Toronto. Our primary goals are to promote queer visibility,  create safe spaces for LGBTQ+ people, and educate U of T students about LGBTQ+ issues. We work toward these goals by hosting LGBTQ+ networking events, which help foster a sense of community for students who may feel alienated in straight spaces.

Due to the budgeting process of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), our event schedule is usually structured according to when cheques are distributed and how much money is made from ticket sales during our larger events. UTSU funding covers expenses up to half of a club’s operating budget. The limited budget decreases the amount of advocacy-based and community-building events we are able to run, despite this being the main purpose of LGBTOUT’s establishment.

A levy of just $0.25 from each UTSU member, each term, would allow LGBTOUT to overcome these financial barriers and better fulfill our mandate. This, in turn, creates a more equitable and healthy campus for all.

For instance, secure funding means we can host more intersectional events that cater to the diverse LGBTQ+ community. This could take the form of hiring American Sign Language interpreters at educational events or securing accessible event spaces. We would also be able to offer small grants to clubs who take the necessary measures to ensure their events are LGBTQ+ inclusive. Thus, campus would be a more inviting space for queer students; especially those who wish to get involved with other groups outside of queer-centred organizations.

We always talk about improving mental health, and this levy would be a step towards doing that. Improved access to queer friendly spaces, as well as education and advocacy, would help to boost morale and inclusivity for queer students. Furthermore, increased funding means LGBTOUT can better collaborate with queer organizations around Toronto, bringing necessary queer resources from around the city to U of T students.

Strengthening LGBTQ+ presence and networks could be the difference between a queer student feeling like they can reach out for help and feeling hopeless or alone. The LGBTOUT Drop-In Centre is a safe space on campus where we have over 40 amazing volunteers. They act as both a friend for those who need someone to listen, and as a person that can direct students to various resources around campus and in the city. A levy would ensure that LGBTOUT is able to continue providing educational resources, safer sex supplies, and drop-in services, in a way that adapts to the changing needs of our diverse community.

Opportunities to learn about LGBTQ+ advocacy and equity in general exist, but these opportunities are not always accessible. Many LGBTQ+ people, specifically trans people of colour, may face financial barriers in attending opportunities such as these. With secure funding, LGBTOUT looks to offer scholarships and alleviate these financial burdens.

Our organization has tried twice to get a levy in the past, with little success. Last year’s Drop-In Centre director, Cathie Renner, said that “there was more open homophobia on campus in 1999 and 2004… other groups were [advocating for levies], but because it was queer students it was seen as subversive.”

Between March 22 and March 24, show that our campus has moved forward from these attitudes. Please vote yes in the referendum online at utsu.simplyvoting.ca or at polling stations on campus.

Nathan Gibson is LGBTOUT’s Drop-In Centre director.