The Students’ Union recently went public with their two-and-a-half year dispute over the ownership of MacHall, effectively halting their closed-door negotiations with the university. The two organizations have been negotiating over who owns MacHall for the better part of the last three years, with the SU recently making new information regarding the building’s ownership public.
And while it all sounds very dramatic, this is exactly what these negotiations need. Students have no business doing closed-door bargaining with any type of powerful governing body.
When it comes to the sheer amount of money and time these two organizations have, the university will come out on top every time.
Like most student organizations, the SU experiences yearly student-staff turnover. If the university doesn’t like negotiating with an SU president, all they have to do is stall for one more year. University administrators come to these jobs at the peak of their careers, with decades of experience in their fields and salaries to match. And while the SU does have full-time staff, it’s difficult for them to match the university’s resources.
Students have a bad habit of convincing ourselves that if we play by the rules, these powerful organizations will suddenly respect us and give us what we want. But there’s no benefit to entering closed-door negotiations with people and organizations more powerful than us.
We don’t want tuition to increase, so we enter into lengthy consultation processes with the provincial government. We want secondary suites legalized, so we sign petitions and meet with city councillors. We want a detailed operating agreement for MacHall, so we start negotiating with university administration.
Spoiler alert: none of those have worked out well for students. The state of MacHall is in flux, city council is debating secondary suites for the millionth time and we had to elect a new provincial government to stop tuition hikes. That’s because students — through no fault of our own — aren’t on a level playing field with those in power.
So what do we do? We can’t just throw our hands in the air and resign ourselves to getting fucked over every time someone tries something we don’t like.
Students need to start embracing the conflicting nature of our relationships with powerful institutions, and we need to start using the tactics and skills we have at our disposal.
As organizations, the SU and the university are almost always going to be at odds with each other. That’s fine. It doesn’t mean the SU shouldn’t be polite and professional in its dealings with the university, but it does mean we should stop lying to ourselves about university administration just wanting what’s best for students.
The SU also has advantages that the university doesn’t. They’re much more involved in the day-to-day lives of students than the university, they have a larger support base and they’re a far more sympathetic player in any power struggle than the high-paid staff of a heavily-corporatized university administration.
These are all advantages the SU loses in closed-door negotiations. They are also advantages any student organization loses the moment we enter negotiations “in good faith,” as if powerful institutions have the same vested interest in these issues that we do.
Negotiations are a fight. They’re a fight that should be professional and courteous, but everyone at the negotiating table is ultimately trying to get what’s best for them. The SU should treat their ongoing dispute with MacHall like the conflict that it is.
Now that students know the details of the SU’s dispute with university administration, we can feel a lot more comfortable taking sides. And that’s one of the advantages the SU is going to need if they want to stay in control of MacHall.
Kate Jacobson, Gauntlet Editorial Board