The University of Manitoba has 20,000 full-time undergraduate students who are all members of the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU). In the last election, 16.8 per cent of UMSU members voted for the union’s five executive positions. Although this turnout is normal for Canadian university student governments, it is safe to say that most of our members are not very interested in UMSU, and many that are interested were displeased.
In the 2016 UMSU general election, we witnessed the largest number of candidates in U of M history. This year, the number one goal of the executive team you elected is to make you – UMSU’s members – more interested in what your union is doing for you.
High-profile events, lofty campaigns, and splashy projects can be important, but they can also be distractions from our union’s mandate. One must ask whether their practical benefits to the day-to-day lives of students are proportionate to their cost.
Cost can be calculated both in terms of dollars – for example, Frosh Fests running annual deficits of over $100,000 for more than a decade – and in terms of opportunity – all the things we could have been doing but are not as a result of burning energy and money. In short, UMSU’s members, and members of most student governments across the country have good reason to not be interested in their unions: they too often waste time, energy and money on things that do not necessarily help their members in meaningful ways. To make your union worth your interest we are changing the game plan.
Goals for a new executive
For my part, I came to university to receive an education and what I want from my student union is support in achieving that goal. “Support” comes in many ways. To an individual member of UMSU, what constitutes support in a post-secondary education (PSE) setting depends on a combination of present circumstance and personal situation.
We must work to relieve acute distress as a result of financial, legal, health (emotional or physical), familial, living, immigration, social, or academic situations. We must also strive to aid students in achieving their goals, accessing basic services, enhancing the PSE experience through social enrichment and engagement, and providing safe spaces for self-expression, identification, and discovery. Finally, we will work to get students to participate more broadly in efforts to enrich the student condition and our society at large.
All of these types of support and engagement have evolved into the responsibilities of your student union. This will build the lived experiences of our union’s members as a collective. Support for your experience, whatever it may be, is what your union is meant to provide.
The individuals that comprise your executive team do not match every profile of our union’s members. We are a diverse group, but it is not reasonable to expect five people to directly relate to each UMSU member’s lived experiences. This can be a problem, as the direction and tone of our union is largely set by the executive team. Executives have the greatest ability to command the union’s resources and shape the union’s discourse.
Furthermore, student politics are notoriously politically charged, and executives have the most “skin in the game,” having gone through the ordeal of a general election, which involves substantial personal investment. In theory, however, our union is not beholden to the individuals on the executive team – it should be much more broadly accountable.
So, we must ask the question: how does the executive team ensure that the focus of the union is directed on the greater collective of our membership, while endeavouring to provide meaningful support for the individual needs of its membership, all while not getting caught up in petty student political nonsense that alienates the membership and distracts from the union’s mandate?
We, your UMSU executive team, believe that the first step in providing a lasting and satisfactory answer to that question for our members lies in the democratic structures, governance, and communication practices of our union. A solid foundation constructed of those elements can precipitate a cultural shift so badly needed at UMSU that will ensure that our union is responsive to the real needs of our members.
To accomplish this, your executive team will endeavour to make sure that our union engages in a few fundamental activities and follows some basic principle, which include:
- Regularly and clearly informing our membership of what the union is doing, what it is considering, and what it is planning.
- Providing robust and varied feedback mechanisms so members can provide input of whatever kind on union operations and activities.
- Ensuring that governance structures fairly and appropriately represent our highly heterogeneous membership and its varied voices.
- Ensuring that services are responsive to our members’ needs.
- Ensuring that advocacy, outreach, and lobbying activities, both internal and external, are efficient and effective.
- Ensuring that funds collected from our members are not being used wastefully, that spending is accurately and clearly reported, and that the union stays on budget.
- Ensuring that business activities are aimed at satisfying members’ needs so that they support the union’s primary objective of providing meaningful support to our members.
- Ensuring that union operations in all regards have the broad support of an informed membership.
- Not becoming embroiled in petty student politics and managing interpersonal conflicts within the union so neither of these detract from the union’s responsibilities to its members.
This list may seem obvious because it is what UMSU should have always been focused on. More than a decade’s worth of history demonstrates that this is not the case. We are going to change that so that your union takes meaningful steps to serve you in the ways you need, and that doing so becomes an enduring feature of UMSU’s culture.
To put things on a practical footing, here is some of what your executive team will be concentrating on as part of, or in addition to, our usual portfolio tasks.
Wilfred Sam-King will be working on our union’s communications strategy. Jessica Smith will be working on the retooling of our union’s services. I, Tanjit Nagra, will be working on phase three of our governing documents overhaul. Adam Pawlak will be working on reforming our financial accounting and reporting procedures. Dara Hallock will be working on restructuring our internal advocacy and lobbying procedures.
Additionally, we will be providing UMSU council with detailed work plans setting out what you should expect from your executive team. These will include motivation as well as the timelines and resource allocations required for each matter. UMSU Council is the highest governing body of our union.
UMSU council is comprised of representatives from every faculty (appointed by their respective faculty associations), as well as representatives from a number of UMSU stakeholders including residences, colleges, and community groups. Although you, as members, can always contact us directly, we encourage you to provide your input about UMSU to those who have the highest authority over its operations: your faculty councillors, and the councillors representing stakeholder groups with whom you identify.
For your executive team’s part, we look forward to finding the best ways to communicate with you and to serve you in ways that are meaningful and important to students. Although we might not be as splashy and fun as previous teams, we think that by refocusing on the fundamental principles of a union, we will do a job you will be proud of and want to support for the benefit of our entire membership.
Tanjit Nagra is the current president of the University of Manitoba Students’ Union.