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Look to Labor Law to Solve Student Association Conflicts

A few years ago, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that the University of Windsor was withholding the health and dental insurance money that it collects on behalf of the University of Windsor Student Alliance. Allegedly, the university was fretting about the governance of the student association.

The story sounds similar to incidents that have occurred at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, McMaster University, and Carleton University over the past decade. In each of those cases, the university administrators collected student fees owed to their respective student associations, but did not pay them out, citing governance and fiscal transparency issues. The administrators presented themselves as protecting students’ money from unaccountable organizations, but the student associations countered that the universities had no business interfering in their internal affairs. The students also pointed out that the administrators were in a conflict of interest: they were depriving the student associations of the resources that they needed to fulfill their mandate, which can include representing their student members to the university bosses themselves, who are not always sympathetic to the wishes of students.

I have not heard a story about student fees like this for some time, either in Canada or the United States, but another one is bound to come up sooner or later. They feed the media’s desire for campus controversy.

Student associations are supposed to be democratic and representative of their members, and they usually are. The larger associations are independent, non-profit corporations that add great value to the university experience. Though they rely on their colleges and universities to collect their fees for them, they are not subdivisions of those institutions. University and college administrators therefore have no right to interfere with them.

On the other hand… what happens when the student associations are not, in fact, democratic and representative? As with any other organization, things can go wrong and lead to governance crises. Surely, when these crises do emerge (however rare they may be), administrators are right to step in and protect students from an organization that they have lost control over?

There is a better solution that both sustains the independence of student associations and offers recourse to their members who feel that they are not being properly represented. This solution borrows from a model that has worked for over a century: labor relations.

There are many similarities between student associations and labor unions. They are both governed democratically by their members, they both host social events and offer services to their members, they both represent their members to powerful people (respectively, administrators and employers), and they both (mostly) rely on those powerful people to collect their dues for them. There are differences too, and the most significant of these differences is that labor unions operate under a clear and rigorous legislative framework. Unions have the legal right to fulfill their mandate without interference from employers, but they also have the legal responsibility to represent their members properly and to take good care of their money. Good labor law grants unions and employers the opportunity to resolve their differences amongst themselves, while offering a Labor Board to mediate between them.

Having a labor board or some sort of equivalent mediate and, if necessary, judge between administrators and student associations would eliminate the threat of conflict of interest. The presence of such a board would also protect students from rogue student associations: just as any union member can complain to the labor board if their union is not fulfilling its mandate, so disgruntled students could petition to this third party without relying on administrators.

A labor board model could also help with some of the conflicts between local student associations and umbrella organizations like the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). The CFS bylaws state that student associations may begin the process to disaffiliate from the federation if members of the association in question deliver a petition requesting that a referendum be held on the issue. Various associations have successfully petitioned to leave the CFS, but others (including, recently, the Laurentian and McGill graduate student societies) have sent in petitions and claimed that the CFS refused to accept them. The CFS, for its part, maintains that it simply never received the packages in the mail. The truth lies in the eye of the beholder — and that should not be the case. In the world of labor relations, disputes like this are handled by a neutral third party. It does not make sense that an organization like the CFS is responsible for documents that are arguably against its interest.

British Columbia and Quebec have legislation that enshrines protections for student associations while laying out minimum standards of governance. In Ontario, the MPP for Ottawa-Centre, Yasir Naqvi, tabled a bill (then titled Bill 184) in April 2011 that would have done the same thing, but the bill did not survive the election that year. A specific law like that suggested by Naqvi could fix the problems associated with student association governance and independence, but another option would be to create a new bill based on labor law, or even expand labor law to include students and their organizations.

Student associations (or as some call them, student unions) are a part of life at North America’s post-secondary institutions, and they deserve the legal recognition to do their job and to be protected from university administrators and from conflicts with fellow student unions. After all, it’s a deal that labor unions already have.

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I have a Ph.D. in English, specializing in Medieval Literature. I teach critical thinking and literature here and there. I drink too much tea.

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