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Arthur Journalist smashes pumpkins at the TCSA's Burnout Bonfire Bash on November 18th, 2018. Photo credit: Evan Robins

Is There Power in a (Student) Union?

Written by
Evan Robins
and
and
November 24, 2022
Is There Power in a (Student) Union?
Arthur Journalist smashes pumpkins at the TCSA's Burnout Bonfire Bash on November 18th, 2018. Photo credit: Evan Robins

On Saturday, October 15, voting concluded for the Trent Central Student Association’s Fall 2022 By-Elections to elect Board members for the 2022/23 Academic Year. Two candidates were nominated—one running for Racialized Students Commissioner, and the other for Disabled Students Commissioner, while the rest of the seats would remain unfilled. Each candidate ran unopposed. Unsurprisingly, both were elected with more than 90% of the vote. The next day, October , the various members of the TCSA Board congregated for one of their monthly, public-facing board meetings, in which they would ratify the election of the candidates in question.

Just one small problem presented itself: Not enough people turned up.

With less than half the board in attendance, the TCSA did not meet quorum, and thus was unable to vote on the numerous motions and items on the agenda, including the confirmation of the elected candidates and raises for the Executive and staff. Not only did this serve to grind the meeting to a screeching halt, but also to waste the valuable time of all those involved. I need not point out how embarrassing it is that the student union—an organization which is responsible for overseeing myriad aspects of undergraduate life at Trent—failed to meet quorum amongst their own members at a meeting they themselves had scheduled. The fact that multiple board members arrived more than a half-hour late, at least one of them with a Starbucks cup in one hand, only serves to add insult to injury. How, one must ask, can a student union be said to be working and advocating for its constituents, if those who represent them can’t even be bothered to assemble in sufficient numbers to vote on motions? 

This specific board meeting is just one particularly frustrating example which illustrates what I believe to be the true issue at hand: a systemic failure on the part of the TCSA to properly engage its membership. If nothing else, the miserable showing this election serves as confirmation that the TCSA has long been unable to sufficiently motivate its constituency to participate in their affairs—a pattern that will no doubt become more pronounced should such a failure to meet quorum become a regular occurrence at board meetings. 

To express this mathematically for those so inclined: of the students who comprise the body politic of the TCSA, 1196 cast their ballot over the week-long online voting period, a number which represents a measly 12.6% of the more-than-9000 undergraduate students who currently attend Trent University. Most people, when asked as to whether that could be called a “successful” turnout, would no doubt point out that such a number cannot possibly claim to represent the general will of the undergraduate populous when it comprises far fewer than even half of them. I fear a majority turnout is decidedly off the table, given these numbers are not outliers for the TCSA. If anything, they’re more-or-less the norm.

The TCSA’s Spring 2022 election drew 18.63% of the student population, a monumental rise from the previous year’s 9.67%. However, no spring election has exceeded 20% voter turnout since 2016, and not one has seen a turnout of 25% or higher since their incorporation in 1995. Despite quorum for referendum questions being a paltry 10% of the student body, the TCSA has failed to meet that margin on multiple occasions, meaning all the referenda proposed for the entirety of that year are left dead in the water. While the Spring 2022 Election saw a high voter turnout relative to many of the prior years, there’s a strong argument to be made that it was only as a result of the publicity surrounding both the highly contentious referendum question proposing an off-campus housing levy, as well as Arthur’s own levy increase campaign. 

The problem doesn’t start and end with voter turnout, however. Beyond the stagnant ballot counts, the TCSA seems to have difficulty producing candidates for those students who do bother to vote to actually vote for. Traditionally, the fall by-elections have been used to supplement positions, though with students seemingly unwilling to run for the TCSA, they now play a crucial role in filling the increasingly thin roster. As it stands, seven board positions remain vacant, five of which are elected positions. Despite eliminating or consolidating several existing positions at their Spring 2022 SAGM, the TCSA remains unable to produce a full roster.

Over time, this disengagement has ossified in the form of apathy. The TCSA of today is an organization of much talk and little action—saying all the right things, if only while electioneering. As highlighted in Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay’s opening editorial, the TCSA has failed to meaningfully foster support for the recent CUPE strikes, just as they’ve failed to bolster material support for the Amalgamated Transit Union throughout the course of their ongoing labour disputes (save for a “gratitude” campaign, which, while nice, does little to actually foster support for transit workers). Nothing could be simpler for the TCSA to organize, with all the heavy lifting having already been done by other, more engaged unions. All it would really take for them is to show up, and yet when push comes to shove, they’ve proven unable to do even that. While the TCSA’s Excaliburnt Out initiative postures to address issues which are of admittedly urgent concern to students, and has made real efforts to reach out to other unions on campus, it remains to be seen what (if anything) will materially come of the so-called “Burnout Bonfire Bash.”

To most, Trent’s undergraduate students’ union would seem to exist mostly as an organization dedicated to organizing banal events like pumpkin patch visits, or enabling consumerist ventures such as poster sales, Holiday markets, and vendor’s fairs. They issue bus passes and provide health benefits to some, but the average Trent student would be forgiven for having relatively little to do with our union in their day-to-day. It’s not as if the TCSA themselves seem particularly bothered with making their presence known to students, save for the periodic bombardment of paid partnerships and merch drops which regularly plague their Instagram page. Ask not what your student union can do for you, but rather what you can buy from your student union, as it were.

When you consider the consequences of this schism forming between students and the union they supposedly comprise, this indictment of the TCSA’s modus operandi becomes all the more damning. Despite holding less than a fifth of the student body’s collective approval, the current TCSA board is granted considerable power to make decisions that affect the entire undergraduate population, with little in the way of oversight. Further, given that referenda remain one of the few ways for students to engage directly in union affairs and the allocation of the levy fees they pay, the perpetually stagnant election engagement threatens to take away one of their last venues for meaningful participation. All it takes is for voter turnout to dip below 10% once more, and all that is erased.

These factors conspire to produce an organization more closely resembling an overbearing government than a union comprised of students united in mutual solidarity. The TCSA does as it sees most fit, not always acting in the express interests of students but rather making decisions on their behalf. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that the name under which the TCSA applied to be incorporated back in 1995 was that of “Trent Central Student Government.” This presents a stark contrast to its predecessor, the Trent Student Union, which served the undergraduate population from 1974–94. It was only after TCSA were refused the “government” moniker that they became the “Association” we know today. This speaks volumes about the intentions and ideological frameworks which have since dictated their structure and operations. The qualifier of “Central” in the TCSA acronym speaks to the ongoing consolidation and bureaucratizing of power within the organization itself. In failing to remember that they are not overseers of the students, but rather, comprised of the student body itself, the TCSA drifts ever further from their mandate, while continuing to disincentivize the already-dwindling student engagement they manage to scrape together. It may not be too late to turn it around, but for the moment the course seems set full steam for status quo.

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