What’s the deal with the UTSU?
The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) is an organization that represents roughly 50,000 undergraduate students (the number is so high because non-grad school, advanced degree students in programs such as medicine and law are included) at the University of Toronto’s St. George and Mississauga campuses. It is often described as a student government and serves two broad functions: advocacy work and service provision.
The UTSU does not have the same legal rights as labor unions. Regardless, at least some left-wing UTSU members tend to present it as one. The UTSU, like labor unions, is stylized as a local (98) of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). Legally, the UTSU is a not-for-profit corporation, and both its corporate status and union identity are relevant to understanding the struggles the organization faces.
The UTSU is governed by a six-member executive team, which is accountable to a board of directors that currently contains representatives from colleges and professional faculties. Directors and executives are elected annually, with candidates often running as parts of “slates.” Slates are somewhat resemblant of political parties, but due to the fact that slates cannot publically campaign outside of a brief campaign period, they aren’t always entirely ideologically consistent and often are created fresh every year with new, albeit predictable, apolitical names like “Change” and “Unite.”
For the past several years there has reliably been one slate colloquially referred to as the incumbent slate, due to its running some current executives looking for second terms or new positions. The “incumbents” were also regularly described as the “pro-CFS slate” due to their support for the organization itself and its left-social-democratic political leanings. This year, however, the “incumbent” Change slate lost to another slate called Brighter, though Change holds a few board seats.
Prior to Brighter’s victory, the UTSU was subject to sharp political tension. The union’s left-leaning politics led to arguments at UTSU events spearheaded by, amongst others, campus Liberals and Conservatives. For example, at a 2010 general meeting, Liberal Trinity student Michael Scott denounced the UTSU’s disorientation week for “taking a blatantly one-sided stance against capitalism and neoliberalism.” Attacks explicitly from the UTSU’s right tended to take two forms: attacks on the UTSU for taking political positions on what were deemed “non-student issues” and attacks on the UTSU for being too militant in its tactics (e.g., protesting for lower tuition rather than politely lobbying).
Many of the UTSU’s political opponents turned to college and faculty governments for political power. Since then, the UTSU’s opponents have built a bigger political tent by framing their causes as being about holes in the UTSU political process and the empowerment of colleges. In early 2013, the opposition rallied around a call for the UTSU to adopt online voting in its elections. When online voting was not instantly implemented (it was planned to be, and indeed was, introduced in fall 2013), Trinity (TCM), Victoria (VUSAC) and St. Michael's (SMSU) colleges and the Engineering student societies threatened to hold referendums to withdraw their members’ fees from the UTSU. The TCM and ENGSOC, arguably the most conservative student societies on campus, won successful fee diversion mandates, but have not, at least until now, been able to capitalize on those votes, as the UTSU is not a federation of student societies, thus rendering the votes invalid.
Opposition to the UTSU incumbents seemingly reached new heights in spring 2014, however, when it was announced that the UTSU was considering a motion to change the structure of its board of directors so that it represented a broad range of demographics (racialized students, women, LGBT students, etc.) as opposed to colleges and faculties. The motion was initially met with sensationalist backlash when student-union-critical National Post columnist Robyn Urback wrote a piece belittling the idea of equity representation as “harrowingly stupid.”
It soon became understood that that motion was introduced, at least in part, because the UTSU’s existing board structures’ college-and-faculty-based voting divisions were no longer allowed by Canadian corporate law (thus the aforementioned relevance of UTSU being a corporation). However, rather than diminishing tensions, this information simply transformed heated arguments about the necessity of board reform into heated arguments about what the reform should look like. Ultimately, the controversial reform proposal received a majority at the 2014 annual general meeting, but not the two-thirds majority it needed to be implemented
Brighter was elected after running a distinct campaign in which, unlike past opposition slates, they painted themselves as fairly ideologically similar to the “incumbent” slate, though they still managed to throw in some subtle remarks about being realistic in their policy goals (which could be read as a critique of some of the UTSU’s more radical stances).
The Brighter executives includes President Ben Coleman, VP Internal and Services Ryan Gomes, VP External Jasmine Denike, VP University Affairs Vere Marie Khan and VP Equity Sania Khan (VP Campus life Akshan Bansal was hired separately from the electoral process). Of that group, only Gomes, then an Engineering director and Engineering Society executive, had a particularly partisan reputation going into the election, and even he was seen as coming from the more progressive end of the Engineering Society’s political spectrum. Nonetheless, typical partisan rifts were still present in the 2015 UTSU election, as Brighter still garnered support from the anti-UTSU right, a group which included some of Brighter’s successful board of directors candidates.
Thus far the 2014-15 UTSU board has debated at least two heated issues, those being forming a committee on BDS (a campaign to economically isolate Israel in solidarity with Palestinians) and forming a committee to discuss the UTSU’s relationship with the CFS. VP Equity Sania Khan has championed the cause of the UTSU joining the BDS campaign, leading to clashes with Zionists and UTSU board members who still hold the view that the UTSU should not get involved with political issues. Meanwhile, Ryan Gomes has began making the case for the UTSU to leave the CFS, suggesting in a recent Varsity Op-Ed that the UTSU does not need to be part of a larger union.
At a July 28 emergency meeting, the UTSU board voted in favor of creating a CFS committee and against creating a BDS committee (by a 17-7 margin), meaning that a BDS motion still likely will be raised at a general meeting, but not with official UTSU backing. These votes were stories in themselves, because both were made complicated by the fact that the CFS vote was done by out-loud roll call, and the BDS vote by secret ballot. In other words, the CFS vote was made more public, and the BDS vote more private, than the standard hand-raising voting procedure.
No matter how mundane it may seem to outsiders, every year the UTSU generates numerous polarizing on-campus stories. This year the executive team may be a little different, but expect the tension to stay exactly where it’s been.
Zach Morgenstern is a recent University of Toronto graduate who studied Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies. He represented Victoria College on the University of Toronto Students Union (UTSU) Board of Directors for the Fall 2014 and Winter 2015 semesters.