As we wait for the University of Manitoba Students’ Union’s (UMSU) governance committee to announce its decision about whether to grant community representatives the right to vote on union decisions, I have been reflecting on some longstanding issues I have noticed while reporting on the union.
The debate around extending the vote seems to revolve around one question: do we want a representative union, or do we want a so-called efficient union?
The question is a red herring. We need to be asking: of whom is the union representative? Efficiency toward what end? However, we don’t really need to be asking any of these questions seeing as the governance committee has already made its decision for us, we just don’t know what it is yet.
Unsurprisingly, it has become apparent that not even our elected board is trusted with proposing changes to governing documents. As UMSU president Brendan Scott made clear both during debate at a meeting Jan. 6 and in a subsequent interview, it is expected of representatives to simply provide yes-or-no answers to questions presented by bureaucrats.
It’s exactly this issue that gets to the heart of significant issues that define the union. It is clear UMSU has been positioned above and apart from its members, driving chronically low engagement and limiting the ability of the union to push for meaningful change.
Students as a group are hard to pin down in terms of their interests for relatively obvious demographic reasons. The student body is made up of people across national, class, racial, gender, religious and political lines, making consensus about any issue beyond the lowest common denominator practically impossible.
So, what is a union that is supposed to represent and advance the interests of the student body left with? The lowest common denominator centres on providing services, social events, neutral-appearing equity, diversity and inclusion commitments and feeble approaches to advocacy.
To give a few examples, most people can agree they would rather have insurance than not, pay less tuition rather than more, access certain services on campus rather than off and so on. In terms of politics, this can take the form of advocating for amendments to anti-student legislation rather than opposing the legislation outright.
In other words, our union functions through a willingness — even a desire — to play the game, to challenge power within the boundaries of what that power has deemed acceptable. Change rarely comes from engaging power on the terms it sets for itself.
To give credit where credit is due, the Manitoba Alliance of Post-Secondary Students (MAPSS) — of which UMSU is a member — was able to lobby Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Immigration Wayne Ewasko to amend Bill 33 to exclude student fees from being controlled by the provincial government. However, one has to ask why our union played the game rather than join the chorus of voices that fully opposed the legislation.
While advocacy efforts may be effective in some ways, restricting union political activity to different forms of lobbying is extremely limited in regard to what it can achieve beyond raising the profiles of our executive committee.
What happens if you ask the minister nicely to consider alternatives to whatever the issue of the day is and they simply say no? Disregarding pearl clutching over hurting relationships with those in power, the obvious answer is to mobilize students to protest, disrupt and to actually wield the power that comes from our numbers — the power our leaders are supposed to represent.
But right from the outset, this possibility is closed off by the fact that the union has been reduced to the lowest common denominator, that many students likely view it simply as a combination of an event promoter and service provider.
I suspect the union is not only standing apart from and above its membership — now it seems it is doing its best to stand apart from and above its own board.
The smaller board size may give more room for members to spread out at meetings and allow for faster decision-making, but this will only entrench the bureaucratic and technocratic character of the union, further reducing engagement.
Instead of reforming the board, the union should take measures to facilitate grassroots-level engagement. Executives and board members should foster ties to members through participation.
Such measures could include workshops to train students in organizing, provision of funds for materials and activities, creating space for more direct input into ongoing advocacy efforts and placing more emphasis on engagement with students rather than waiting for students to engage with the union.
Over time, if successful, it is likely groups will arise that have opposing interests. However, this should not be a concern seeing as, if anything, it would likely render visible already existing tensions on campus and provide an avenue for change driven by UMSU’s internal struggles.
It is critical the union pursues goals beyond what is immediately facing them. It is one thing to react to developments from the government or to policy changes within the university and another to be concretely building toward goals such as free tuition.
U of M students have seen inspiring examples of grassroots organizing and the potential to mobilize students this academic year. For example, Students Supporting UMFA — now the Student Solidarity Collective — put invaluable pressure on the administration and government amid the longest strike in U of M history. Further, the informal coalition of Palestinian students and their allies fought and won a statement of solidarity on a campus that’s been historically hostile to pro-Palestinian organizing. Beyond this, they created space — in a traditionally repetitive student discourse — to examine the internal biases of the union.
Kudos to those who have dared to struggle and triumphed this year.
UMSU has a lot of potential to not only revitalize itself through its own politicization, but it has the opportunity to create an institutional environment from which students will go out into society armed with concrete experience in organizing for their interests.