Ontario universities must respect the autonomy of democratically governed students’ unions

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At universities and colleges across Ontario, democratically elected students’ unions are a vital part of the campus community. They provide numerous services to their members, including access to vibrant student clubs, inclusive spaces, event programming, and important resources that support marginalized students on campus.

Students’ unions also engage in advocacy work that gives their members a voice with which to hold university administrations and governments accountable. As the Ontario Divisional Court noted in its recent ruling against the Student Choice Initiative, students’ unions are essential to collegial governance structures at Ontario universities.

Faculty respect and value the contributions students’ unions make towards our shared goals of fostering vibrant universities that provide accessible, quality education and innovative, groundbreaking research.

These students’ unions, founded by and for students, are fully autonomous not-for-profit corporations governed by democratically elected boards and executives. They are membership-driven organizations funded by their members through dues.

As not-for-profit corporations, students’ unions are required to follow the same rules and regulations as all not-for-profit corporations in Ontario, including holding open and democratic elections, annual general meetings, and having annual audits approved by their members.

Further, it is common for university administrations to agree to collect and remit membership dues on behalf of the students’ union and its members. This arrangement is similar to how university administrations collect and remit membership dues to labour unions on campus. Therefore, it is important to emphasize that this money belongs to the students’ union, not the university.

It is understandable that, from time to time, certain actions of a students’ union, its leadership, or its staff might be of concern to a university administration – just as certain actions of the university administration, its leadership, or its staff might be of concern to students or faculty.

Ultimately, it is students’ union members who are responsible for holding their union and its leadership accountable. As democratic organizations, when the leadership of a students’ union takes an action their members disagree with, students are able to exercise their democratic rights and hold their leadership accountable. Time and again we have seen this democratic engagement in action. New executives are elected and new transparency and accountability measures are put into force.

It is members of the students’ union, not the university administration, who have the authority to decide the appropriate next steps. If students wish to impeach and replace their union’s president or other executive members, that is their right. If students want to change the bylaws that govern the operations of their students’ union, that is their right. If students want to organize a referendum to dissolve their students’ union and replace it with another, that is their right.

University administrations, however, do not have the authority or justification to violate the legal autonomy of students’ unions or any other campus unions. Regardless of their motives for doing so, university administrations have no right to:

  • withhold students’ union membership dues;
  • interfere in students’ union elections or operations; or
  • attempt to shut down students’ unions (or any other legally autonomous organization).

Engaging in any of the activities listed above actively undermines the democratic rights of students and threatens the autonomy of a students’ union and its ability to represent and support its members.

It is vital that university administrations understand the limits of their authority. As concerned as a university administration might be, they have no right to withhold students’ union membership dues, interfere in a students’ union operations, or dictate the terms by which democratic students’ unions operate on campus.

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