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Centre-right student associations are hiring bogus, expensive audit firms and then firing unionized workers

It appears that regressive, centre-right student associations across Ontario have adopted a brand new tactic to pursue their agenda on university campuses.

Over the past month, the Ryerson Students' Union (RSU), the University of Toronto Students' Union (UTSU) and the Carleton University Students' Association (CUSA) have all hired consultation firms to produce internal audits and other services in order to evaluate and reform the practices and strategies of their unions.

In all three cases, the companies hired to conduct the audits are being run by individuals with suspicious personal or political ties, either to the executives in power or to more regressive provincial organizations like the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) and its national counterpart the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA). In two cases, the consulting firms do not appear to be legitimate at all, but rather shell companies set up for the specific purpose of conducting the audits.

What these students' unions have in common is that they are all large undergraduate unions in Ontario under the leadership of more regressive, centre-right executive slates who are all actively trying to defederate from the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). It would appear that these questionable audits are being used to justify defederation and the firing of full-time, generally unionized staff.

Political opposition to the CFS is not new. The existence of groups like CASA is reflective of fundamental disagreement on the aims and tactics of a national student body. CASA was formed in the early to mid-nineties to act as a lobby group on issues of post-secondary education, often advocating for piecemeal reforms such as inflation indexation or tax benefits for students, rather than a transformative vision for post-secondary education and society.

CUSA and the "Sarkany Group"

In early April 2017, CUSA revealed a new report that it had commissioned from a little-known consulting firm, the Sarkany Group, which included an assessment of CUSA's business practices. The report is full of incoherent business-student jargon and is based on several focus groups and "value canvas mapping sessions" that were apparently conducted during the summer of 2016. The report's methodology is questionable at best: with focus groups totalling 49 individuals in an organization of 25,000, it is hardly representative.

Apart from the price tag -- CUSA spent a whopping $22,000 on the report -- the most shocking aspect of this story is that the Sarkany Group does not actually appear to be a legitimate company: its website and LinkedIn page contain little more than a generic email address and a note that the company was founded in 2016.

The report's two authors, Michael Cacho and Alejandro Barreto, appear to be the Sarkany Group's only employees. Cacho is a former employee of CUSA (the first director of "Hatch," CUSA's entrepreneurship incubator), and his LinkedIn page notes he is also a former campaign manager for CUSA's current President, Fahd Alhattab. Barreto, for his part, says he served as "Co-Founder and Chief Strategist" for Sarkany Group from May 2016 to September 2016.

According to Barreto's own account, the Sarkany Group could only have been founded in May 2016, the same month the company began performing work for CUSA. There is no evidence that it had any other clients or that it was formed for any other purpose than performing CUSA's audit.

RSU and UTSU

There are strong parallels between CUSA's relationship to the Sarkany Group and the RSU's reliance on a firm called the Appian Way Group, which was commissioned in 2015 to conduct an "efficiency audit." The Appian Way Group was paid $3,955 for the audit.

As the Eyeopener reports, the mysterious company was only registered in November 2015, which is after the audit would have been complete, and then it disappeared months later -- almost as if it had been formed for the single purpose of the RSU audit. What we do know about the company is that it was run by individuals with strong connections to the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA).

Taking a slightly different approach, the UTSU recently hired the non-profit consulting firm Kokobi to advise them on the Student Commons building, for which Kokobi was paid $7,113. Unlike the Sarkany Group or the Appian Way Group, Kokobi is clearly a legitimate organization. Nonetheless, its founder and Operations Director is a former anti-CFS campaigner from Quebec, and Kokobi is being assisted in its work by a former UTSU staff person.

Firing Workers

This new tendency of regressive, anti-Federation student associations to utilize politically affiliated (or hastily assembled) consulting firms does seem to have a very specific purpose: creating a technocratic cover for firing workers.

Immediately in the wake of the Appian Way Group's audit, the RSU fired Gilary Massa and Dina Skvirsky, unionized employees under CUPE 1281. The UTSU is following suit, moving to fire two employees who are also CUPE 1281 members.

As Vajdaan Tanveer noted in a blog, "it's a little weird that these external consulting groups are popping up around our students' unions and suddenly people are losing their jobs." It's worth mentioning that virtually all staff fired at these locals recently have been women.

The Sarkany Group's report to CUSA may not specifically recommend any changes to staff, but it would not come as a surprise if attempts at staffing changes were on the way. The report observes that "in a perfect world other benefits could have been drawn out for CUSA, [but] the restrictions from a political stance, and from being a unionized organization did not permit that" [sic].

The degree to which these efforts are actively coordinated by students' unions is unclear, but there is no question that centre-right student leaders have a lot to gain by hiring their friends and allies to "audit" their unions, thereby creating the justification for restructuring in a way that erodes workers' rights.

Students and workers need to hold their unions to a higher standard and keep them accountable. In this instance, it means getting to the bottom of whether these costly and questionable audits have aims beyond simply financially supporting their friends.

Michael Bueckert is a PhD candidate in Sociology and Political Economy at Carleton University. He has been active as an organizer in the student movement, previously serving as the President of the Graduate Students' Association at Carleton University and as the Chairperson of the Ontario Graduate Caucus of the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario.

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