A no longer radical, now reactionary campus: The SFSS CUPE Lockout and SFPIRG eviction

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There’s an almost mythical status to the label that Simon Fraser University used to promote itself in 2005 during its 40th anniversary celebrations: the university was a “radical campus.”  The term comes from student activism that used to flood the campus, once called Berkeley North, student activism that established one of the first Womens’ Studies departments in Canada, student activism and sit ins that created a coop daycare, student activism that resulted in SFU being the first university in Canada to elect students to its senate.

Each of these now-mythical points that gave SFU the ‘radical campus’ label came from student activism: students petitioned and demonstrated to get the right to be on the senate of the university. Students staged a sit-in in the faculty lounge to start the daycare.  Students staged a strike to demand the right to have a say in how the president of the university was chosen.  Student activism was the basis of the label of the radical campus, and student activism was found in the campus student union, the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) and the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group (SFPIRG).

Sadly, today the SFSS seems to have shoved off the more than 4o-year history it could have once proudly claimed as student activists: the Board of Directors of the SFSS, led in “what can only be interpreted as an ideological move” by president Jeff McCann, internal relations officer Jordan Kohn, treasurer Keenan Midgley, and others issued a lockout notice to its unionised staff members, with staff being locked out effective 2:13pm on Sunday.  Late today, a committee of the same board voted to begin the process of terminating the lease of the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group (SFPIRG), a student-driven and student-funded group that conducts research and organizing on student selected issues.

These moves are purely ideological, and they’re incredibly disappointing.  They show a mindset that opposes unions simply because they exist, and a right-wing reactionary current that seeks to kill off ‘progressive’ organizing no matter how they have to do it. The lockout of the union and the beginnings of the SFPIRG eviction show that the issues at play aren’t purely financial, as the SFSS does not pay outright for the space that SFPIRG occupies, and many of the key players in attacking the workers of the SFSS have been central in attacking SFPIRG in the past.

The lockout of the staff union comes after two years of negotiations on a collective agreement and after the SFSS board broke off mediation with the Labour Relations Board.  Right-wing reactionaries claim that the workers of the SFSS are paid too much, or have ridiculous benefits.  Neither of which is overly true – staff are paid fairly for the work that they do, and their benefits are below average.

But the argument that comes from many of the right-wing reactionaries is absurd in its hysterics.  Staff are paid well! They shouldn’t be paid this much!  I used to work for the Simon Fraser Student Society, and while I no longer work there and do not speak for the union or its members, I can tell you it wasn’t a walk in the park.  The last project I worked on was the ill-fated K’Naan concert at SFU, where arts director Kyle Acierno was actively involved in bringing K’Naan to perform at SFU, despite not knowing the costs or infrastructure requirements that would go into such an endeavour, resulting in the eventual collapse of the concert, an embarrassing no-show by the star, and an international media story that saw blame bounced around from the star to the students involved.  My role, while I took up graduate studies mid-way through the planning process and had no direct input into the processes, was to try and limit the exposure of the student society as much as possible, and prevent as much of a disaster as possible.  I was involved in legal discussions, insurance discussions, liaisons with university administrators and RCMP, and on and on and on.  When staff have this kind of responsibility in their job requirements, they should be paid well. I, as a staff person, did my best to keep the organisation running smoothly, and I gave a lot of my time and energy to its projects.

But according to the right-wing reactionaries, this is too much.  Always paid too much.

It’s a strange argument that surfaces here.  Jobs that students apply for and want are too much? How is that possible?  I participated in the hiring of three staff over my time at the SFSS, and we had hundreds of applicants for each position.  Students want jobs like what the SFSS offers when they graduate.  Why are the reactionaries not calling for CEO salaries to be lower? Management salaries to be lower? Politician’s salaries to be lower?

It’s a strange and perverted argument that sees right-wing reactionaries spewing hate against people who work daily to see student events work.  A perverted mindset that hates unions because they get better working conditions for their members.  A strange view that wants to destroy unions because they help people get paid fairly.  A vindictive mindset that wants the SFPIRG shut down because they enable students to work on projects that don’t agree with Stephen Harper’s Conservative mindset.

And it’s infected the radical campus.

It’s time to show solidarity with CUPE 3338, and demand that the SFSS lift its lockout and negotiate fairly with its union, and cease the eviction of SFPIRG.

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Kevin is a cooperator, an always-student, and passionate about the arts. As a principal of the Incipe Cooperative, Kevin works with colleagues in a workers' co-op offering services for advocacy and nonprofit organizations. He's passionate about education policy, having been through twenty some-odd years of schooling and still thinking it changes the world. He also thinks that art changes the world, and he works with Art for Impact to celebrate art's power for social change. A Vancouver born and raised resident who is exiled from Toronto, he constantly loses umbrellas and probably rants too much.

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17 thoughts on “A no longer radical, now reactionary campus: The SFSS CUPE Lockout and SFPIRG eviction”

  1. I was working in a gas station right by City Hall part-time in the fall of ’68 and attending classes once in awhile at UBC when SFU really got cooking. I had to bit my tongue as my co-workers slagged the occupiers of various campus edifices while they simultaneously moaned about poor working conditions and low pay–no connection here, no, sir. I don’t know who is running the universities, but it seems clear that this is part of a pattern of interference, direct or otherwise, on the part of the Campbell (political/economic) Clan, their successors and their friends in organizations like the Smart Tax Alliance and the Fraser Institute. Radical? Heck, the campus can hardly even claim to be middle class, what with the polarizing ravages inflicted on the suffering masses.

    1. Thanks for your comment Dan! I can only imagine what biting your tongue then would be like; I know I do the same now, in Vancouver and in Toronto as people vote for Harper or Ford and complain about wages, working conditions, and civil rights.

      And you’re right about the university too. Education is again and increasingly a privileged affair, with people who can’t afford it locked out in an entirely different way than the staff of the SFSS are right now.

  2. One of the biggest issues at SFU in the last 6 years was the impeachment of relatively progressive SFSS execs, and then the referendum to leave the Canadian Federation of Students. While neither those execs or the CFS is perfect or blameless the narrative and discourse throughout much of it was same used to take down labour unions. Whiffs of “corruption” or “radicalism” were used to ensure SFU students were no longer paying money to what has historically been one of BC’s and Canada’s most active progressive organizations. Many progressives supported the plan to pull out of the CFS because of a litany of smaller scale grievances, many reactionaries saw it for what it was. A chance to damage CFS (perhaps in BC mortally) and to ensure the campus became more insular and dominated by personal politics. Which they can often win.

    1. Dave, I wonder if you were at SFU during any of the six years in question, as your comment shows that either you weren’t on campus as a student or worker or you were and pointedly ignored what had gone on.

      The impeachment of the SFSS board was impeachment of a board that was ruthlessly dedicated to the cult-like goals of the CFS, and impeachment of a board that engaged in anti-union practices to the point where they improperly fired a staff member of the society, slandering this staff member and others the whole way, and then did what they could to destroy the union then. Unless, of course, your definition of ‘progressive’ includes anti-worker and anti-democratic practices simply because they serve a larger organization.

      The defederation referendum with the CFS was an attempt to leave a cult-like organization that has given up actual progressive goals in favour of dedication to organizational maintenance, preserving the organization at all costs, while maintaining a veneer of progressive causes. To argue that the CFS is progressive is absurd. Anyone can say the ‘right things’ but actions need to match words.

      I’m particularly entertained that your comment revolves around ‘paying money’ to the CFS – that was the end-limit of their progressivism and activism; they wanted students to pay them money. When people questioned what they were doing, or made suggestions to change, they were attacked. As was the staff union and students at the SFSS.

      What’s at play here is the election by 5% of SFU students of a right-wing reactionary board of directors who have a goal of destroying the union that represents their staff, cutting student wages to $11 an hour, and on and on and on. To claim that the CFS, an organization that seems to focus on suing students that show independent resolve, would somehow prevent this is to either be woefully misdirected on how the campuses of SFU work, or to think that CFS meddling in student society business to the point of putting together supportive election slates and campaigns all in the desire of having a CFS-supporting board would somehow avoid labour strife.

      But given how agents of the CFS had tried to bust this union for some time – going so far as to call me a “scab” and “union buster” in very public situations, I know that their ‘progressivism’ is merely a PR ploy, a thin veneer over a corporatist structure that doesn’t actually give a flying fuck about labour or unions, unless they’re paying into the big CFS machine.

  3. Note: I won’t comment on the SFPIRG issue – I don’t know enough about it to say anything thoughtful.

    Thanks for your comments, Kevin. I agree that working to better the lot of students is difficult but incredibly rewarding work (you and I both know this). I agree that the wages currently paid to SFSS staff don’t seem exorbitant relative to university work. My experience with many of the SFSS staff there has been that they are diligent and committed.
    That said, they are paid much better than most non-profit organizations that do community organizing and/or event planning work (my wife has worked in this space for some time, so I know). Whether they are compensated fairly/at market is all about who your comparator groups are.

    I’m disappointed in your comments because I don’t think you are telling the whole story. The SFSS exec, from what I can see, are not trying to kill the union. This is actually one of those rare situations where the union holds a most of the cards. They are professionals who have negotiated contracts over decades. They have full access to all the financials of the organization, the organizational history, etc. They face a management team with no management experience and only a shallow sense of organizational history. If the union doesn’t like what one set of execs is bargaining, they can stall the negotiations until someone else is elected (I’m not saying they have, but the situation is such that this could be a tactic not present in most areas of union operation).

    There is not one single non-union staff member in the entire organization so all grievances, issues etc have to be dealt with by elected undergrad students, who are largely volunteers. In all other student unions I’ve seen across Canada (admittedly, not a huge sample), there is a non-union, professional executive director or GM to deal with HR, negotiations etc. If effective, these GM’s provide a professional voice of experience to guide exec decisions.

    The rhetoric on both sides is, in my humble opinion, too hot – the SFSS characterizing a decrease in compensation of 12% as “a slight wage reduction” is not going to win them friends at the negotiating table. The union characterizing the SFSS exec as ‘purely ideological’ is not a view grounded in facts that I’ve seen (maybe you’d care to present some evidence?). That said, this isn’t uncommon when strikes/lockouts happen.

    As far as I can see the SFSS offer to staff still provides a living wage and doesn’t include a poison pill that would ‘break’ the union. They aren’t going to contract out all the work, reduce positions or really anything that I can see that would kill the union.

    Instead of ideology, the exec are driven, in my view, by pragmatism. Here is the situation:

    1. Fixed revenue – SFSS student fees are not indexed to inflation, so wage increases are not possible to fund without either a referendum to increase student fees or cuts to other parts of the budget (or outside revenue, but the SFSS hasn’t been able to turn a profit on its business operations in some time).

    2. A contract that guarantees the number of full-time union staff employed by the society. If wages keep increasing and revenue stays the same one option would be to reduce staffing levels. This is not currently possible in the union contract. I’ll leave it to those in the know to say whether a concession on this was asked for and how it was received.

    The SFSS exec are facing a scenario where they are faced with the choice of significantly eroding their programming budget to pay for their staff budget. They have chosen, as is their right as the directors of a non-profit society and as union employers, that it is more prudent to lock their employees out. As regrettable as the situation is, this is not about raving right wingers vs. laudable lefties. This is not about abandoning the ‘radical’ moniker.

    This is about a group of elected officials who are students and largely volunteers (I realize they make a stipend) making a tough decision that they believe is best for the organization they represent.

    The story is also about a union doing what it is designed to do: maximize the benefit for their employees within a given labour negotiation. And that’s fair enough. It doesn’t make them horrible people that they want to protect the good deal they have, and improve their wages – who doesn’t want a raise? What we are seeing is just the process by which parties negotiate labour contracts in a union environment.

    Unfortunately, at this juncture, one can’t maximize the effectiveness of the organization for its constituents (students) and also maximizing the benefit for the employees is not possible. If you can see an alternate solution – propose it! Tell me how you would solve #1 and #2 above.

    Those of us on the sidelines can try to provide balanced opinions, ideas and support that doesn’t unfairly vilify the students and staff involved or confuse the real issues here. This isn’t about Adam Smith or Social Darwinism, Socialism, human rights, Neo-Conservativism, or Stephen Harper. This is about trying to figure out how to address real problems of sustainability in an organization that does some crucial things for students.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Stephen.

      First, you’ll note that this is not a ‘news’ site, it’s an opinions site, and we publish opinions. We have no obligation to tell both sides of the story, though we make it entirely possible for anyone to access alternative views. The SFSS has a website where they’re actually making false claims about union demands, though some people would see that simply as “management’s rights.”

      Second, you’re misstaken when you say that there isn’t a single non-union staff person at the organization: there is a management-level Senior Organizational Advisor who worked for the society for a couple of decades before being made management. She was a union officer for some time, and is now bargaining on the other side of the table. The board also has management consultants, labour lawyers, and more at their disposal. The myth that they are unprepared at what they are doing is one that’s easily spread, and I’m disappointed that it’s being so easily spread. Indeed, the SFSS policy manual requires that the Board have on retainer a management consultant, one, to provide them with resources to avoid grievances, and two, to help them learn very quickly what is a difficult job. Before 2006, the SFSS had gone years without a single grievance. Now, judging by their twitter feed and a really nasty facebook group that directors are participating in that I will not link to, some directors have, as a goal, the busting of the union.

      Regarding your #’s above: #1 has been the topic of many debates, including many strong suggestions to increase the funding of the student society by proposing a referendum many times, each time it has been rejected.

      #2 is incorrect: the Board has every right to layoff and eliminate positions; they must simply follow contractual procedures. There have been 7 positions eliminated so far with the student society – I held one, once, that was eliminated.

      The SFSS offer to staff includes paying their student staff $11 an hour – a 50% decrease in wages. I don’t see how you can think that is a living wage. The students work 8-12 hours a week and must maintain course registration each semester. That’s nowhere near a living wage – the figure, without factoring in tuition costs, for a living wage in Vancouver is closer to $20 an hour.

    2. I’ll also note that your very carefully considered analysis of the SFSS’ fiscal and labour situation includes no discussion of other aspects of the SFSS; the nearly million dollars spent on pub renovations, increased costs from a relatively unfair university space costs formula, and so on.

      The SFSS staff are paid similarly to comparators in the university – indeed, paid lower than comparable APSA staff, if we can judge by the pay scale for a Student Affairs Coordinator position posted in FAS, with very similar job requirements for the job that I did when I worked at the SFSS.

      And while I am hurt that you are ‘disappointed’ in my comments, that’s the nature of an opinions game. I’m disappointed in yours. Five years of experience on-the-ground with the organization reveals significant narratives within specific ideological communities – often identified by membership in political parties – that have a visceral dislike and antipathy towards staff of the organization simply because they are staff. The Peak spent a number of semesters publishing articles in which the “bloated and lazy” staff were castigated, yet no one was there to defend the staff that put considerable amounts of their lives into the organization. The SFSS is publishing false claims about negotiating positions, with no one but the union expressing ‘disappointment’ in them.

      1. Thanks for your replies, Kevin.

        It’s very possible that I am misinformed. I thought my understanding was correct, but you have been much more closely engaged in that organization than I, so I will defer to your experience until I have time examine my understanding more critically.

        Also, I’m sorry my comments were hurtful – my comments were not intended to have that effect, but rather simply to express a desire for more balance in how arguments on both sides are structured.

        I’ll try to further inform myself before commenting further. It’s interesting that the ‘truth’ seems to be so difficult to pin down. Having multiple truths seems to be par for the course in disagreements among two parties. It can be tough for those on the sidelines to decode.

        One thing I’d note in your comments: I did effectively express disappointment in the SFSS positions too by pointing out that their characterization of a 12% wage cut as ‘slight’ was not helpful to the process. I haven’t been lurking on the FB or Twitter feeds.

        My hope is for balanced consideration of the merits of each side and the treatment of all involved with humanity, respect and dignity. From my experience, those involved on both sides engage from a point of making the institution a better place.

    3. And additionally – to broadly summarize SFSS staff jobs as “organizing and event planning” is to miss the crisis intervention, financial accountability, professional designations, supervisory responsibility, and more that the jobs require. Similar level positions for the permanent staff are Executive Directors, not event planners.

      (note that I’ve edited my comments to remove potentially identifying information, and I apologize that I included it at first. I comment with my full name because I believe that people ought to be allowed to have rights to express opinions outside of work, and I am pleased to see people doing so.)

  4. i found twitter comments about salaries too high to be sadly knee-jerk. 80% of bc’s k12 budget goes to salaries. why? education is a human service with a vast majority of costs being the people who provide services. and they are well trained, effective people.

    a student society is a similar human-intensive sector. there are no massive stocks of products, but service provision to support a variety of essential community building activities on campus.

    the absence of clubs and student unions at sfu would leave the place quite soulless. in fact, having attended there on and off since 1984 it is generally considered to be a commuter campus. imagine how worse it would be without clubs and student unions.

    the two student unions i had been involved with, and the one club i started all received $100s of funding each semester, but by far, it was the talent, guidance and experience of the SFSS staff that ensured the success of the community building activities we pursued.

  5. Thanks Kevin for your passion and your courage to post your thoughts. I have many memories of interacting with you and other SFSS GO staff, and there is very little to criticise with your collective conduct and level of service as office staff.

    Here are my thoughts so far on the presentations of both issues you mention, the CUPE lockout and SFPIRG eviction. I’ve been working to formulate some opinions on which “side” I am on, but I’d like to share some of the values that I generally use to get there.

    What sometimes seems more frightening to me than the systematic crushing of left-wing institutions is that activism can be mobilized and forwarded simply because causes exist. I believe that causes still must be examined for worthiness, whatever attractive label they may already have. I believe that activism should still be employed as a last resort, when working with people to develop real and collaborative solutions fails. It shouldn’t have to be the idolized action like we see from SFU’s past. A factor missing here could be the receptiveness of SFU administration, for example, which removes the necessity to sit outside banging noisemakers and chanting. From my perspective, the SFSS lockout looks like activism to me. It seems that they were forced to choose between an untenable situation and one where they force action in a seemingly violent and callous way. This is not a judgement on the validity of the lockout, but more to draw a parallel between their actions and actions of the groups that they are purportedly “against”. This is my understanding not as someone enmeshed in the SFSS or SFPIRG culture for years, I am simply a relatively engaged SFU student.

    I’m also very uncomfortable with the idea that these changes are all a Stephen Harper-driven plot to extinguish values and ethical worth from the university (here represented by certain unions and organizations). If so, most people I associate with (participants in NGOs, student activists, and socially aware individuals) are unaware that this is where their questioning is coming from. I think both the SFSS and SFPIRG and many other worthy campus groups must do much more to enumerate and publish their short-term and long-term, immediately tangible and unmeasurable abstract value to the campus and to students. With a demonstration of value comes my support, and I for one strongly believe that I am not blind or deaf to an evidence-based argument.

    1. Janine, you deserve considerably more of a nuanced and in-depth response than I can provide at the moment – I’m decidedly short on brain energy at the moment, but I’m going to try to put one together over the weekend, touching on some of the very legitimate questions and concerns that you have amazingly well written above. I’ll try and have it posted by Wednesday on this website – and I can try to remember to email you when it’s ready.

      In the meantime, I’ll share with you a response I wrote to a former director calling the SFSS staff “victims” and calling on CUPE to cease their campaign seeking “public attention.” I think it hints towards some of what you’re looking for.

      Mehdi, I don’t know how much you know about the demands the SFSS has made in their offer, but asking students to be paid $11 an hour isn’t exactly something that I think anyone would be willing to acquiesce to.

      The board is demanding some pretty reprehensible things in their bargaining package and bragging about how little they want to pay student staff through Twitter, equating ‘savings’ to jugs of beer. The staff of the SFSS – and I was one until September 2010 – are professionals who work every day in pretty demanding situations to make sure that the services, functions, and events of the SFSS happen properly. They implement decisions of the board. They are professionals with decades of experience in working in nonprofit and PSE sectors, liaising with university officials, provincial government officials, students, and the public. Day to day work can involve hundreds of demanding projects, including fixing planning problems created by students who don’t know better – it’s the role of staff in a nonprofit organization like this to fix errors in planning and keep the organization going.

      The staff of the SFSS have professional financial designations, they have journeyman printers’ licenses, they have years and years of experience in planning student events properly, helping students who don’t know the difference between full accrual expensing and a double-entry ledger book apply for grants, fundraise, cook food for sale, obtain liquor permits, order equipment to be delivered, sort out power outages and dispatch repair staff, swing room bookings and AV bookings with less than 12 hours notice, and respond to daily changing needs and demands in the structure of the student society. They have training in crisis prevention, suicide intervention, helping students with unplanned pregnancies, abusive partners, broken hearts, and the personal and family issues that can come from declaring to family and friends that a student is LGBTQ.

      Staff who are professional in the face of students – and students’ parents – yelling at them because of a health plan that was implemented without on-campus staff support deserve respect. Staff who are professional in the face of students who need crisis counselling and intervention – often sitting with them until medical professionals can arrive – deserve respect. Student staff who must be registered in classes each semester, work only 8-12 hours a week, and deal with the ups and downs of elected directors who have suddenly changing projects deserve respect. Staff who have physically put into place every campaign of the student society that the board of directors have dreamt up and put into action deserve respect. Staff who worked on researching the Goldcorp funding decision in at the request of some directors in the face of rather vicious criticism from other directors deserve respect.

      Asking these professionals to take 12.5 – 50% pay cuts while calling them victims, demeaning their work as unskilled, and equating their wages to jugs of beer and free food is not the respect that these staff deserve.

      And unless you’re seriously suggesting that university students should only be paid $11 an hour, I would strongly suggest you reconsidering your statement above.

      And unless you haven’t had the same experience with labour relations that I have, and you may not have, you should know that the power in a lockout situation does not rest with the employees locked out. Here, the SFSS as an employer has exercised the ultimate power – they’ve told their staff to go away.

      The *only* power CUPE would have in the situation here, if it could even be called power, is to accept tremendous cuts to wages, cuts to staffing levels, and to accept the attacks by the Board on the professionalism and the work of the very staff you argue are not victims.

      While you’re categorizing the staff of the SFSS as people seeking out victim status, I would suggest to you a more proper analogy is kicking someone when they’re down. The staff have been locked out, the Board is telling them they’re worthless, and you’re telling them to stop being victims.

  6. The recent expensive renovation to the pub approved by the past SFSS executive is a failure. Design flaws left ceiling fans unable to work due to hanging sprinkler heads. The table layout is far to cluttered.

    What has the student society executive done to market the pub through social media? To the new home owners and renters in Univercity? Hardly anything, if anything at all. As an alumni, they have not marketed to me in the slightest, not even trying to tug on some nostalgia to get me back on top of the mountain for a beer.

    Many students at SFU today have money to burn, I see them driving SUV’s or fancy mercedes. Why hasn’t the society directed marketing towards these rich kids?

    Wages aren’t the problem. Its a failure to market the pub properly to anyone over the past 5 years, coupled with a poorly designed renovation.
    Hang that on the hats of the employer, along with the epic K’naan failure.

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