Going beyond councilling: Address UMSU’s problems with increased democracy

Student unions need general assemblies, not autocratic executives

In the Sept. 6 issue of the Manitoban, Levi Garber wrote a piece highlighting an important issue of student governance within the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU). The article speaks to the rather undemocratic nature of UMSU, taking issue specifically with the way UMSU’s council has been functioning. Garber points out, importantly, that decisions are not made simply by council’s five executives, but that there are 45 or so elected UMSU councillors which share “just as much culpability, for better or for worse, with the five executives ” for the functioning of the union.

Along with this, Garber highlights the social aspects of how council runs. I have no doubt that his analysis is correct when he highlights a culture of sycophants who by and large follow the whims of executives.

However, Garber’s description of problems is a far cry from a diagnosis, and there is little suggested in the way of solving these issues. We can all agree that this culture needs to change, and that councillors need to get their act together, but declarations like Garber’s will simply – like so much else – slip through the vacant tunnel between the ears of sycophantic-councillors.

We must remember why this culture exists within UMSU council. Part of the problem is that UMSU is a breeding ground for aspiring student politicians wishing to weasel their way into the big leagues of legislative and parliamentary politics, think-tanks, and NGOs.

A term which can be applied to many such students is “careerist” – those who makes their decisions based on what it does for their future job prospects, rather than making decisions based on principles or the effects they may have for the student population. It is more useful for such aspiring careerists to make – perhaps unspoken – pacts, and to not rock the boat, or at least not the boat on their “side” so as to work their way up the ladder of executive titles, all with the intent of making their resumes stand out. There is an incentive, not officially, but due to careerism influencing social dynamics, to go with the flow rather than against the tide.

The implications of this improper governance has seemingly incredible repercussions to students outside this political social circle. To refer to the example used by Garber, students were generally in quite an uproar over former UMSU president Jeremiah Kopp’s controversial spending of union funds. Council, however, was not up to the task of holding him accountable, nor to truly speak on behalf of the politics spreading among students on campus.

Addressing the issues

Whether it is five or 45 people, there is a serious problem with allowing the Stephen Harpers-of-tomorrow make all the political decisions which affect us so greatly. While some students may think that we have control of UMSU’s political stances insofar as we vote for these representatives, there is a constant barrage of political moments arising which were not foreseen by the elections.

In other words, shit happens, and executives and councillors react to shit by making decisions which don’t actually represent the political will of students. We all too often don’t get a say.

One way of changing this sad state of affairs is by switching to a general assembly (GA) decision-making model for our student union. Every member of the union – students filled with passion and opinions – could gather to discuss, debate, and vote on whatever motions come to the floor, to address whatever political situations they face.

These assemblies would be the highest decision-making bodies in UMSU, with the roles of executives becoming the implementation of the popular will, rather than forwarding their own agendas. While the GA model is far from perfect, and careerism would still find a way to plague such assemblies, individual students would have far more power, and the ineptitude or apathy of a council less problematic.

A GA would be a welcome model at the University of Manitoba; held once to twice a year, with perhaps special GAs when important political situations arise, could increase the cession-making power of individual students.

This model could have a great impact on current issues, like the cuts to UMSU community coordinator positions. Someone could bring a motion to the GA floor to reverse these cuts, and students – any and everyone interested – would gather to have their say. Some may persuade the assembly to vote to reverse the cuts by pointing out that they would like to ensure that dedicated members of marginalized community groups possess the resources to ensure such groups’ growth and well-being. Some may attempt to convince the assembly to vote against the reversal by suggesting that this drop in the bucket of UMSU’s finances is too high of a cost. Regardless, more – all students – rather than less – just executives – would have a say in their union’s governance.

You may think that the GA model already exists on campus – we have semi-annual meetings referred to as a “general assembly,” where the quorum 200 students, who can pass a motion which becomes UMSU policy. Council, however, has the ability to overturn the decision of AGMs with a two-thirds vote.

What does that say for student power? No one ran on the platform of cutting or keeping coordinator positions last year. Students haven’t had a say on the issue, so how is any politician acting in students’ interest? So, say there was a political situation, like the coordinator cuts, which was not a part of anyone’s platform last year, and so wasn’t one of the reasons why students selected one representative over another. With the GA model, this wouldn’t be an issue – students themselves would weigh in on what to do. But under the current inept structure, about 30 students, councillors, choose for the entire campus. If we remember Garber’s insights that council follows the whim of execs, then its de facto the case that five Justin Trudeau wannabees could overturn the decision of campus.

Where we’re at

Our current model of student governance is insufficient, and should be replaced by a GA model. While AGMs are still a tool to be used to try to get students back some self-governance, we must bring a General Assembly model to the University of Manitoba. Part of this necessitates spreading a new, more democratic political culture on campus, have an AGM meet quorum, and push for progressive motions at this AGM as a first step toward establishing GAs.

Democracy is about power in the hands of the masses. While we push for a structure that better recognizes and legitimizes this, steps toward increased democracy must be taken today. We need a wide range of support and participation to work towards GAs, which will in itself be a way to grow student power. Any progressive, radical, revolutionary, or simply democratic student should reach out and get involved. And while our university largely exists as an isolated community in-and-of itself, the conclusion is a general one – all power to the people.