UMSU is withholding more than $1 million in outstanding fees to the Canadian Federation of Students—Manitoba over a dispute regarding the union’s membership in the federation.
Although the board voted against maintaining membership in the federation in 2020, the federation requires a referendum of students to leave and requests by UMSU to allow online voting during the pandemic have been denied.
UMSU president Brendan Scott said the federation will not “even allow [us to leave] under these current […] conditions.”
“We’ve twice now come to [the national federation] with a motion to allow for online voting so we would be able to [hold] the referendum and carry out what our board had voted to do, which was not remain a member of [the federation],” he said.
“It was shot down immediately by the national [executive], it was not considered, even […] Obviously students aren’t on campus, [so] for the past two years we haven’t been able to leave.”
He said UMSU informed the federation in August they would not be paying fees until the union is “able to carry out the process of [defederation].”
Manitoba federation branch chairperson Alexandra Koslock said students may leave the federation if they wish, but they must hold a referendum and the decision is not up to “the executive at large.”
“For the last two years prior to the pandemic, UMSU indicated that they might be hosting a referendum, but they never actually consulted the membership on the ground or brought this decision to students at large,” she said. “This has been explained in great detail to the UMSU executive team over the years.”
According to Koslock, the federation has voted nationally to “honour our existing referendum processes” and online voting is “not something we’re looking into at this time.”
Scott said the UMSU board will follow its own bylaws, which do not require a referendum to leave external organizations.
“According to our board, we are no longer members of [the federation], so [paying] fees is unnecessary,” he argued.
“We haven’t been able to leave […] due to their bylaws not allowing us to leave, with no online voting […] But according to our bylaws, we don’t [need a referendum], so in our eyes, we are removed, we are not members. We voted and that’s where the [issue] gets hazy, [because] why would their bylaws supersede ours?”
Koslock said “the notion that it’s impossible to leave the federation is not true.”
“It’s not up to Brendan Scott or the executive at large to make these decisions on behalf of thousands of students on the ground, that’s why it’s important to consult the membership to allow them to decide,” she explained.
“This is really the basis of union structure, so I feel that Brendan Scott should be honouring the union’s structure that they also work within.”
Long-standing tensions between UMSU and the federation have spurred several attempts to defederate since 2013.
The UMSU board has disapproved of the federation’s advocacy on issues the union deems less relevant to students, including pipelines and minimum wage. In 2018 and 2019, UMSU criticized the federation for endorsing boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel, calling the move “divisive” and “ill considered.”
UMSU voted against maintaining membership in the federation in November 2020, marking the beginning of its second attempt to defederate since 2018.
The unsuccessful attempt in 2018 occurred despite then-UMSU president Jakob Sanderson’s promise as president-elect that UMSU would not attempt to leave the federation.
A non-binding plebiscite held that year, the most recent vote of UMSU membership on the issue, showed that 64 per cent of UMSU members opposed defederation.
Scott said these results are “irrelevant” because they are four years old and pointed to cases like the recent University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) strike, arguing that despite many students opposing the strike, UMSU’s board of directors passed a motion to support UMFA.
“I am bound to carry out the duties the board gives me and so I did just that to the displeasure of many students,” he said.
Koslock said the federation has “continued to advocate for, support and work with” its members at University of Manitoba despite UMSU withholding fees.
UMSU has been sued by the federation for withholding fees before, being forced to pay almost $1 million in 2016. Additionally, the union settled with the Canadian Alliance of Students (CASA) for an undisclosed sum in 2007 over unpaid fees after UMSU left the alliance in 2005. In recent years, UMSU has made attempts to rejoin CASA.