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BURNABY—Midway through the summer, life got turned upside down for campus and community groups on SFU's Burnaby Campus.
On July 7, the members of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3338 were given notice that after two years of contract negotiations they would be locked out of their offices. The move by the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) impacts 15 permanent staff and five student employees who work for the society. The lockout took effect Sunday, July 10, and picket lines went up in front of the SFU Women's Centre and Out on Campus (OoC) spaces Monday morning where some of the locked-out employees work. At the time of print, the lock-out was ongoing.
The day after the Student Society walked away from contract talks, its Space Oversight Committee recommended terminating the lease of the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group's (SFPIRG) space in the Rotunda, an area popular with students. SFPIRG has been in the Rotunda for 30 years, but the recommendation, which still needs approval before it goes into force, came as a complete surprise to SFPIRG members.
Following the lock-out, there was a flurry of activity on campus as supporters of the Women's Centre, Out on Campus, and SFPIRG held a demonstration and march against the Student Society's actions. Later, they got to work making buttons, preparing leaflets and exchanging notes on resisting what many are calling a targeted political attack on campus organizations that don't fit the "old boys' club" mold.
SFSS student board members are currently staffing Out on Campus and the Women's Centre. Posters all over campus put up by the SFSS student board declare, "Funding! Food! Spaces! Come in, we're open!" and claim CUPE workers' wages are too high.
"I'm operating as if I'm at work," said Samonte Cruz, the coordinator of Out on Campus and a CUPE 3338 member. Out on Campus runs a library and a lounge where staff and volunteers work hard to create an inclusive, accessible environment for queer students, faculty, staff and their allies. But in a strange role reversal, since the start of the lock-out Cruz and other OoC volunteers have been asking students not to enter the student lounge. "As far as I'm concerned, the lounge is outside right now," said Cruz, as he bit into a sandwich and tried to make himself comfortable on a hard plastic chair surrounded by picket signs.
"The problem with the SFSS board saying the space is open is that it's not open in the same capacity it was established to be open as," said Darren Ho, a second-year linguistics student and Out on Campus volunteer. Ho was busy pressing buttons in support of SFSS staff. Referring to the SFSS student board members who have been operating the space, he said, "It is a trespass of safe space, in that we don't know if they even know what safe space means."
Ho expressed concern that community members who call or email for advice or referrals might not know that the qualified staff has been replaced by untrained SFSS board members.
The Women's Centre lounge is open 24 hours as a safe space for self-identified women, providing, for example, a place to rest for someone who misses the last bus home, or a shelf to refrigerate breast milk for a new mom rushing between classes. The centre also offers peer support, referrals, a work experience program, a library, and a comfortable environment for folks who might not otherwise find a space on campus where they feel at home.
"Their rhetoric is that it is just a space—that no staff hours are needed," said Nadine Chambers, who serves as the coordinator of the Women's Centre. "But every day we have teaching opportunities around the complexity of gender."
Chambers was walking me through the multitude of ways the Women's Centre supports students and community members when Jeff McCann, President of the SFSS, walked into the SFPIRG office. With the air of an impatient manager, he interrupted our interview, demanding to know when the Women's Centre collective was to meet.
McCann is a business student and former football player who previously served as SFSS treasurer. He was elected president in March, and began his term in May, promising to "increase efficiencies." He has since led the SFSS into what CUPE 3338 calls an "ideological move against the union" and put the Student Society on a collision course with SFPIRG.
At the afternoon rally, there was no shortage of people whose university experience has been enriched by the resource groups in the Rotunda. "I felt that these spaces, the people here, and the staff in particular, helped me get through my economics degree," said Amber Louie, the Student Convocation Speaker of the class of 2003. Louie made the trip up Burnaby Mountain specifically to show solidarity with the locked-out workers. "They really supported me in getting to where I am today," she explained.
This isn't the first time the SFSS has tried to undermine the work of progressive groups on campus.
"In 2006, the rhetorical justification was fiduciary responsibility to the society," wrote Joel Block, chief steward of SFU's Teaching Support Staff Union. "This summer, it’s financial responsibility to the student members."
The other poster posted by the SFSS student board this week claims that $748,911 paid out to SFSS staff is inflated compared to the $115,908 transferred to clubs and student union funding. The SFSS directors' Twitter account is replete with claims of how much the Student Union is saving by locking out its staff. Not mentioned is the $831,000 the SFSS spent last year renovating the pub. Then again, that is where the old boys are more likely to hang out.
Dawn Paley is a Vancouver-based journalist.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.