U of M students union hit with lawsuit

·4 min read

A national student advocacy organization is suing the University of Manitoba Students’ Union for more than $1 million in outstanding fees and damages — the latest development in a years-long stalemate between the two parties over the latter’s membership status.

The Canadian Federation of Students represents approximately 65 university and college students’ unions across Canada. Its mandate is to connect student leaders from different schools and lobby governments to introduce learner-friendly policies.

In the early 2000s, when UMSU joined the federation, local leaders agreed to start collecting dues from every student every semester to support the collective’s work.

The value of UMSU’s affiliation with both the national organization and its Manitoba chapter has come into question in recent years. Since 2018-2019, the students’ union board has formally voted to support defederation on multiple occasions and stopped paying the federation its fees, even though it has continued to collect them.

“The (federation) has made formal demands to UMSU for payment of all unremitted fees. These demands have been to no avail,” states an excerpt from a statement of claim that was filed in Manitoba court last week.

The national organization alleges the students’ union remains an active member and has benefited from such status since 2018. The federation has repeatedly attempted to discuss the situation with UMSU and “amicably resolve (it),” but the local union has refused to participate, according to the statement of claim.

The plaintiff is seeking annual payments on a per student, per semester basis, at the following rates: $7.61 in 2018-19; $7.78 in 2019-20; $7.93 in 2020-21; and $7.99 in 2021-22. The organization is also suing for the interest accrued on those fees, damages to recognize UMSU breached its contractual obligations, and legal fees.

“Tuition continues to skyrocket, the cost of living for students is climbing, and students are forced to foot the bill. Every year, the provincial government continues to reduce funding for post-secondary education while raising tuition: only a united student movement can take on these challenges, and we invite UMSU to the table to do this work,” said Marie Dolcetti-Koros, national chairwoman of the federation, in an emailed statement.

Dolcetti-Koros said the organization engages with thousands of students in Manitoba to advocate for accessible education, increased grants and public funding for post-secondary education, and other benefits and services.

UMSU president Jaron Rykiss declined to comment on the matter. Rykiss said the union, which represents upwards of 26,000 undergraduate students, has yet to review the statement of claim.

Brendan Scott, who is entering his seventh year as a student at U of M, has long been involved in fraught federation-UMSU relations.

When Scott was the UMSU president in 2021-22, and in the several years prior when he was involved in student politics, the union operated internally as if it was no longer a member of the federation, he said.

Local student leaders have long been concerned the federation largely represents Ontario schools, the annual fees do not justify the benefits, and membership makes more sense for smaller associations who do not have the same resources that large unions like UMSU have to advocate for their populations.

Scott said UMSU’s bylaws, enshrined in provincial law via the University of Manitoba Students’ Union Act, make clear the union’s board simply has to hold an internal vote to cut ties with an external organization.

The federation’s rules around defederation are much more complex. It requires a member to initiate a petition, obtain signatures from 15 per cent of its student population, and hold a referendum.

During his tenure, Scott said he attempted to appease the federation, but the executive was “unreasonable.” The organization refused to allow UMSU to hold a virtual referendum amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when in-person voting was not possible because students were learning at home, he said.

Scott said UMSU has been collecting the federation’s fees and putting them aside, with every intent to pay them when the two parties have officially cut ties.

“We’ve been withholding fees, waiting for (the federation) to acknowledge we aren’t members anymore,” he added.

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press