The state of the Union

On the structural issues which underpin the USU.

Campaigning for the University of Sydney Union (USU) Board is officially underway. Yet, away from all the bright campaign colours and flashy text videos, the Union is in turmoil. With the coronavirus pandemic forcing a campus closure, the USU’s revenue has taken a considerable hit. Controversially, the organisation has reacted to this by implementing austerity measures. First came staff layoffs as the USU closed most campus outlets. Then in a dramatic move last week, the organisation announced wage cuts of 40% across the organisation by reducing staff hours to 60% of what they were originally. Apart from a bizarre buy fruit to save the Union scheme, it remains unclear to us and the rest of the student body, Union membership and staff, what alternatives were considered, if any, prior to these decisions.

The USU is undoubtedly in a precarious financial situation, certainly not helped by operating in an era of voluntary student unionism (VSU). That being said, the University of Sydney Union has been much luckier compared to student unions across the country and the University’s help, when VSU was introduced, combined with USyd’s renowned political and student culture, helped keep the USU and other student organisations afloat. Last year, the Union was a $31 million organisation, and was set to make an operating contribution at the end of the year. 

With the end of compulsory student unionism came the cessation of an uninterrupted revenue stream, and ultimately ushered the Union towards a more corporate turn, with a focus on sponsorship and marketing initiatives. This is perhaps no more confronting than at Welcome Week, wherein the USU, in collaboration with corporations tries to sell us a commodified vision of student life. VSU also brought with it a political shift: pre-VSU the Left was stronger on board, with less Indies and Liberals. 

However issues with the USU run much deeper, and aren’t relegated to funding concerns in a VSU world. Indeed, former progressive USU president Anastasia Polites reflected on these very issues in an Honi article from the late 90s where she laid out the difficulty of reform via nine lessons: 1) board directors are powerless, 2) one Senate vote does not equal one vote, 3) having the numbers does not make you control the organisation, 4) the president has no control, 5) management is opposed to change, 6) conservatives equal the status quo, 7) there is a great divide between workers and management, 8) the organisation hides behind “in camera” sessions and 9) the structure is at fault.

That so much of what Polites wrote still rings true is indicative that issues of student control and transparency are systemic and have long plagued the organisation. Of course some board candidates — including this year’s — running for directorship have noble or benign intentions. They have benefited greatly from the positive aspects of student life from revues to clubs and societies to outlets, and wish to give back. Yet, why does everything seemingly change once these candidates become directors? Can it just be put down to sycophantic student politicking? Surely it’s not so simple.

It is an obvious (but necessary) point to make that most board directors are around twenty years old when elected. With limited financial knowledge, pages of technical readings, an honorarium of $4994 (for non executive board directors pre COVID-19) combined with study and often other work, knowledge hierarchies dictate the organisation, and board directors often defer to the advice of Heads of Departments (HoDs). Importantly, whilst the HoDs are “staff”, they operate more as managers, and board directors themselves have very little engagement with the vast majority of the USU staff (the bartenders, the chefs, the cleaners) who actually keep the organisation running, and whose pay they just voted to cut.

Additionally, power is not distributed evenly amongst the board. Most power lies within the Human Resources and Remuneration Committee and the Executive. Of course, getting oneself into those positions also requires an additional level of politicking. In addition, with two Senate appointed directors (SADs) making up the 13-member board, the University’s influence is ever-present in the board’s decision making processes. Indeed, with voting rights in the Executive elections, candidates seeking office may neuter their politics so as to sway the SADs. The University also has a more sinister link insofar as the Senate has powers to audit the USU over the nebulously phrased “alleged financial, electoral or other governance irregularities.” The USU in this instance must hand over all information and documentation.

More broadly, that the USU is unincorporated makes all board directors liable for its decisions. Honi believes that board directors remain liable for their decisions on board for approximately ten years after their directorship ends.

The coronavirus-induced financial crisis exposes underlying problems with a lack of transparency on the Board. Despite consistent calls for greater transparency from candidates of a wide variety of political backgrounds (including this year),  the Board’s most controversial decisions are increasingly made out of the watchful eye of members. Three of the most controversial decisions passed by the Board in recent years — the 2017 refusal to close outlets in solidarity with staff strikes, the 2019 decision to close Manning Bar, and the 2020 decisions to cut staff numbers and staff pay — occurred in-camera. Indeed, it appears that the USU has become more opaque over time: a similar debate over closing outlets in solidarity with staff strikes occurred publicly in 2013.

The current in-camera policy of the Board requires that discussions and votes on staff, negotiations with the University, legal matters, and “sensitive financial matters or those that may impact upon commercial relationships” occur confidentially. When asked at last week’s Special Meeting as to the motivation behind holding decisions on staff in-camera, president Connor Wherrett stated that Honi would have to ask the policy’s drafter. We did.

Kade Denton, a 2013-15 board director who drafted the policy, said it was intended to give “transparency” for observers about the reasons underpinning Board decisions to move in-camera. For discussions on staff pay, for example, Denton said: “it’s important for the Board to be able to communicate that to the number one stake-holder, staff, in a considered way, rather than them just finding out through an Honi tweet.” But as Denton clarified, despite the policy, the decision to move in-camera remains one for the Board.

Hiding behind the policy to justify secrecy is not particularly persuasive where it would be quite easy for the Board to pass a motion to change it. “I think it’s the role of the USU president to represent the policies of the USU, not to shaft it to a Board director from seven years ago,” a former director told Honi. We also understand that Wherrett expressed a desire to a Pulp editor to reform the policy, but was unable to because the COVID-19 crisis had been too time consuming.

Despite the policy, it appears board directors may use the cover of secrecy for other, less popular debates. In the most recent special meeting, for example, it appeared that board directors had used the cover of in-camera to raise concerns about directors Maya Eswaran and Decheng Sun supporting the “Defend Our Education” campaign. Eswaran stated that she’d moved a motion to make the discussion public, and that board directors who had been happy to make criticisms when the meeting was closed were suddenly quiet.

Not only are in-camera policies a way of removing board directors’ opinions from the public eye, but they are a useful way of maintaining a veneer of Board unity. Though Wherrett was happy to tell Honi that all board directors had voted in favour of closing Manning Bar, he would not reveal the breakdown of the decision to cut staff pay where it had passed by only a “majority.”

But in-camera policies are not the USU’s only tool in remaining opaque. Members seeking to ask questions to their elected representatives are likely to be disappointed: when Honi attended last week’s meeting CEO Alexis Roitman and Wherrett said that questions should only be directed to the CEO or president. When other directors were asked via email about whether they would support reforms to the in-camera policy, all board directors refused to provide an answer. Most cited section 8.2(a) of the USU constitution, which states that it is the president’s duty to represent the Board, though does not prohibit other members from speaking out decisions or policies they are considering. On this (unpersuasive) view of the provision, board directors would be barred from speaking about the policies they campaigned on as soon as they’re elected.

Honi spoke to a former board director who stated that it “sounds like there are a lot of directors who just don’t want to give their decisions. It’s definitely OK for board directors to say that they support [for example] more reviews into transparency, or sexual harassment in the USU.” “If they’re not sure where the line is,” they argued, “they should be using the resources available to them: the USU staff and former board directors.”

But the difficulty for board directors is that in large part the obligations of directors are up to their own interpretation. The Board can vote to punish any director it deems to have spoken out in contravention of their duty to act in the “best interests of USU members”. Unless a board director is prepared to risk censure, expulsion, or mount a legal challenge to the Board — bearing the risk of a loss and heavy penalties — they are likely to err on the side of secrecy. Maya Eswaran, one of the few directors to respond to Honi’s questions about the secret vote to cut staff pay, indicated this cautiousness. “I am unsure if I am able to answer how I voted without breaching my fiduciary duties in relation to confidential information during an in camera vote, which could expose me to risk of censure or legal action,” she told Honi.

Whilst COVID-19 has both exacerbated and exposed problems within the Union, these issues existed long before the pandemic hit.