Universities are incubators for diverse views and heady debates as we learn, mature, and stretch our intellectual capabilities. Since its creation, student governance has been the campus infrastructure through which ideologies clash and students engage in competing political narratives. At our university, this particular vehicle for discourse is called the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU).
UMSU has existed since 1914 and has undergone many transformations since that time. Given that the union is a political entity, with undergraduate student executives elected each year, it is understandable that the objectives and efficacy of the organization have often fluctuated. As the dust settles from this year’s UMSU election, it is important to take stock of the past and look to what the future may hold.
The union is governed by five documents: the UMSU Act, a bylaw manual, a governance and operations manual, an election and referendum manual, and a position statement book. The importance and rigidity of these documents roughly follows in the aforementioned order. Most important is the UMSU Act, which outlines the authority of the union through an act of legislature, last amended in 1990.
This document declares that the organization’s objectives are to “promote the welfare and interests of students of the University of Manitoba … in all matters of common interest; act as the official representative of the members of the corporation; promote and maintain responsible student government at the university; promote and encourage participation in cultural, athletic, intellectual, and social activities; and maintain communication between the student body and the various authorities of the university, and to assist in the maintaining of good conduct of the students of the university.”
These responsibilities outline a general course of direction for the union, subject to the interpretation of the generally elected UMSU council and executive committee members who govern the day-to-day affairs of the organization. While there will be changes in policy and direction determined by election cycles, there are several core organizational tenets that have stood the test of time: mainly, that UMSU is responsible for student advocacy, programming, and capital management.
Each incoming UMSU executive does their best to create a meaningful student experience. The challenging aspect of this mandate arises in the fact that the student experience is subjective – it means different things to different students. A student who is passionate about social justice may be concerned primarily with advocacy on behalf of marginalized groups. In contrast, another student might be focused on meeting new friends at the campus pub or attending faculty socials to enjoy a more social aspect of their university experience. There are countless paths to participating in student life and everyone does it in their own unique way.
This diversity of opinion is further complicated in that UMSU is structurally different from other unions. Firstly, it is highly atypical for a union to represent its members for only three- to five-year periods, on average. Employees usually engage with a union for the duration of their career and the relationship is more long-term than the time it takes to complete an undergraduate university degree. Secondly, most unions undergo collective bargaining and have mechanisms at their disposal to aid in this process. UMSU, for a variety of reasons, does not participate in any such process in regards to tuition and has no recourse other than lobbying and protest in combatting undesirable changes. Thirdly, unlike most unions, UMSU does not exist purely as a means of advancing employee benefits, salaries, job security, and advocacy. UMSU owns and operates multi-million dollar businesses, hosts social programming, engages in capital projects, and operates a charitable foundation.
Irrespective of the difficult political terrain, strong action should be expected of the incoming UMSU executive. President Tanjit Nagra and vice-president external Wilfred Sam-King have been re-elected, providing valuable institutional knowledge to the organization. The three new executive members also have significant student governance knowledge. This election demonstrated once more that students consistently elect slates that appeal to a moderate approach. Moreover, the team received a strong mandate from students, with most members of the team receiving roughly 65 per cent of the ballots cast. This should give them the confidence to act boldly and assuredly in representing the student body.
A frustrating, oft-advanced narrative is that UMSU executives and councillors do not have a mandate due to low voter turnout. Seemingly, this argument implies that if a high enough threshold of students does not show up at the polls, government is illegitimate. This is, of course, not how democracy works and does not make sense from a practical standpoint. While low engagement in UMSU elections should not be applauded, it is certainly not dissimilar from most other campuses throughout Canada. Moreover, what is the supposed magical threshold for ‘enough’ voters? Democratic processes cannot be invalidated simply because they do not evoke a response from the public.
Ranked by election year in descending order, Winnipeg municipal elections have seen voter turnout rates at 50.2%, 47.1%, 38.3%, and 48.7%. Appropriately, no one is arguing that the municipal government should be dismantled or invalidated because half or more of the population of the city is not voting. Those who make pointed comments from the sidelines seem to believe that it is easy to engage the entire student body and inspire widespread, unanimous participation; this is because often they have never tried to do it themselves and are unaware of just how gargantuan a task this is. In public service, one should always strive to encourage as much engagement as possible. This should not be done, however, at an expense great enough to impact ordinary union activities or lobbying efforts.
A strong mandate from the student body is necessary given the looming challenges ahead. There is no question that external relations and advocacy efforts will dominate UMSU’s agenda for the upcoming year. The traditional balance between advocacy, programming, and capital management must be upended in the face of changes to the broader political environment. Students will expect that a priority is given to lobbying efforts and collective action to make sure that the student voice is heard.
Bargaining is set to resume between the administration and the faculty association while the Pallister government has signalled that they will likely allow tuition to rise above the rate of inflation. These events may not be directly related, but will become conflated through the university and community stakeholders such as progressives and the campus unions who will be actively engaged in resisting changes to policy and fee increases. While there is certainly a financial case to be made for the necessity of increasing university revenues, this will be a politically untenable position for the new executive. Even a neutral stance would be seen as a resounding failure to take action in what could be seen as a pivotal moment in the university’s history.
While it is unlikely that the Progressive Conservative government or university administration will alter financial plans based on grassroots student organization, UMSU nevertheless must organize effectively and do everything they can to combat these impending changes. A full-scale campaign must be launched that mobilizes the collective power of the union. Given these tumultuous external events, it is possible that this upcoming year will be recognized as a particularly significant confluence of events in UMSU’s storied history. The battles to come will occur at the intersection of competing political ideologies and visions for the future – moments that have the propensity to divide our campus. UMSU council and the incoming executive team will be evaluated on their ability to create a common vision, unite the student body, and respond to the challenges ahead.