A union that needs to learn to take criticism

As someone who happened to start paying close attention to UTSU politics at a time when exciting things were happening, I’m looking forward to the annual general meeting on Wednesday. Last year the agenda was shot down before the meeting could even start and a president stood in tears before the assembly, an executive candidate resigned in defiance during the campaign, and several daughter societies (that’s UTMSU’s status, by the by) voted to split but were denied the chance. A lot of momentum had built up by the end of last year. Wednesday’s meeting will tell us whether it’s still building or now cooling off.

First, a disclaimer: being excited by developments isn’t the same thing as agreeing with them. For one thing, as a UTM student and editor, I’m better able to make informed judgements of happenings at our campus than downtown. For another, there’s a certain degree to which the players are bound to certain parts that colour what they do. For example, when engineering student Pierre Harfouche was elected to UTSU’s board, he posted on Facebook that he would now advocate to “get rid of” the board. Whether he likes it or not, statements like this brand him as “opposition” and bear on how a disinterested observer should interpret the motions he submitted for UTSU’s AGM, which would partly decentralize their authority, whether or not his arguments for their legitimacy (they were rejected) were valid. That is, we should be excited by the criticism—and, in my opinion, glad to see any stirring of student interest in a politics that governs much of our university experience and moves massive amounts of money—but we should keep in mind that it comes from a self-proclaimed critic.

When Sana Ali resigned at the peak of her campaign last year, she was coming from the opposite direction. She was running for the responsibilities and sizable salary of an executive, after all, and I suspect that that had everything to do with why the response from the establishment was—rather than the cold, flatly delivered shut-out Harfouche receives with his much more direct jabs at the union—so emotional and personal (and finally shameful: “I drove you home once!” declared now-president Munib Sajjad, on video among his teary-eyed cohort). UTSU has policies for responding to self-proclaimed critics; it has no idea how to handle dissension.

When this really became clear to me was at last year’s general meeting. One thing to watch out for are the proxies that inevitably dominate these meetings. If you’re not acquainted with the fact, a member can cast his own vote plus those of up to 10 other members who don’t attend the meeting but do sign a form handing over their vote to him. This is frequently cited as a democratic policy, and in theory it is: it allows those who are prevented from attending to avoid losing their vote and their voice. But in practice it’s murkier. At last year’s special general meeting, the vote on a motion to implement online voting was barely approved, 575–567. Spread throughout the room were many smaller votes—yes, some with proxies attached—for the motion. And voting against it was a block of yellow signs bearing the number 11. That almost every member of that block held the maximum number of proxies is not accidental—it requires intentionally going out to stop students in the hallways to scoop up as much voting power as possible. And to see a single closely seated group, undoubtedly mainly made up of supporters and friends, trying to stop a motion that most of the rest of the room was in favour of was simply farcical.

It bears repeating (if only because the opening will be seized otherwise) that this observation is not to take a contrary position to UTSU or on student unions in general. I don’t have a set of policies to pick out and disagree with. See a past editorial on the idea that we at UTM might not even need to have as large a stake in UTSU as we do. But it is to suggest that the reason the recent developments have seen such a flurry of attention—even from those who don’t normally pay any—is that they tap into a long-standing frustration students have with the union for just such an inability to take criticism as we’ve seen above. It’s not specific policies that generate the most attention, it’s the (sometimes almost indiscriminate) suggestion that something might be honestly challenged.

If UTSU wants such episodes as the explosion of support for Sana Ali’s resignation to go away, they need to allow such disagreements to be commonplace, rather than to retaliate. Whereas what they have on their hands now—the serious threat of defederation from multiple important constituents—is the release of something pent up for a long time. It’s a rare occurrence, so you’ll forgive my watching with intense interest to see whether it comes to anything or, as per the norm, is summarily squashed.


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