CFS Versus RSU: Which Side Are You On?

I’ve been following the Canadian Federation of Students/Ryerson Students’ Union drama for the past year or so with wavering interest. That interest was shaken back into place by the release of the CFS report and subsequent maneuvering.

Things are getting serious now and taking a side is getting tougher.

The Toronto Star notes that “Ryerson University’s student union says the national organization its members pay to advocate on their behalf no longer benefits them, but the organization’s bylaws make it too difficult for them to leave.”

Previously, I’d brushed off the divide as being between the soft-left CFS and two-consecutive centre-right RSU slates, starting with Transform RU. Most of that remains intact, but new details have blurred it. For example, the CFS pushes for a tuition freeze with rallies, but the RSU thinks it’s unrealistic and counterproductive, suggesting that we cozy up to Kathleen Wynne and university admins instead.

Those seem to be pretty clear left/right splits. As a student who feels that tuition is too damn high and that the Liberals have no immediate plans to change that, I’m inclined to throw my lot in (reluctantly) with the soft-left.

The RSU’s CFS report complicated that slightly, as many of its critiques of the CFS seem pretty spot-on.

Based on the evidence presented, I recognize that the CFS’ operating fees may be a bit high at about $15 per student (split between provincial and federal bodies). It appears to have worked quite hard to keep certain schools from de-federating and I’m not cool with it allegedly skewing elections. The RSU, whatever its motives, is right to critique these things, be they true. Though for the sake of fairness, I should point out that the CFS has responded to the report, with CFS-Ontario spokesperson Rajean Hoilett telling the Ryersonian that while he “welcomes this review of the federation’s services,” the report is riddled with “gross inconsistencies” and inaccuracies.

Regardless, the RSU doesn’t seem to be alone in its criticism, as seen when it co-signed a letter demanding reform with nine other student unions. The Eyeopener lists the letter’s demands as “better minute taking, more access to financial information and bylaws, increased ease of leaving the CFS for member locals, a change to the ‘closed exclusive nature’ of general meetings and a change to ‘dominance of the voices of staff over those of students.’”

That last point is where the left/right divide rears its very ugly head again.

In addition to rightly critiquing the CFS for holding rallies attended almost exclusively by CFS staff and declaring them enormous successes, the RSU’s report seemingly critiqued the CFS for trying to have a voice at all. That is, for alienating university administrators and government by, among other things, protesting, rallying and being disruptive. The report says that “for the last several years, the RSU has used demonstrations and rallies as their main way of pushing against tuition increases and engaging with the government. However, the 2015/2016 VP Education for the RSU, Cormac McGee, specifically denounced these activities as ineffective and harmful to the relationship between student unions’, universities, and the government. He decided to change the approach of the RSU to be one where he tried to directly access decision-makers to try and get them to change policy.” As evidence of success, the report cites a shout-out during the Finance Minister’s throne speech and data it co-compiled being cited in provincial government reports. This was shortly before the provincial government did basically the same thing it always does, with different words.

The message here is clear and it’s very ugly: sit down and shut up, because administrators and politicians know best. Except, I don’t trust the university administrators or the Liberals to make decisions in our favour over their own. They’ve repeatedly demonstrated their disinterest (or perhaps, contrary-interest) in this respect and will continue to do so.

For the sake of fairness, the open letter the RSU signed does say state that signatories “are committed to the principles of the Federation, and to the existence of a progressive student movement that advances the interests of all students.” That downplays some of the ugliness but it clashes with the report. It is unclear what the source is, and the definition of “progressive” is up for debate.

The message here is clear and it’s very ugly: sit down and shut up, because administrators and politicians know best.

Further, the reality is that without militancy, students don’t have much. Unlike a labour union, a student union doesn’t have much collective power (a student strike doesn’t cost anyone anything) but an organized and socially-minded national student union can link up (more firmly) with labour in a common fight for adequate social programs and basic economic rights.

This happened, with some success, in Quebec in 2012. The CFS didn’t help very much but as a national organ it has considerable power that, with reforms, could achieve a lot with similar tactics. Though the RSU has some just critiques, its alternative is pretty lackluster.

For these reasons, my lot cautiously remains with the soft-left, while calling for it to be reformed.