This past fiscal year $385,000 was estimated for memberships in the federal and provincial branches of the CFS. The money is levied by the university as an RSU fee and then turned over to the union which must remit it to the CFS.
Ryerson students joined the CFS after a referendum in 1981 and the organization represents over 600,000 students from colleges and universities across Canada.
It lobbies governments to drop tuition fees and provides resources like the ISIC card for its members in addition to helping promote various campaigns across its membership.
Proponents of the CFS point out the advantage of strength in numbers for lobbying. They also say students reap benefits from their services and benefit from campaigns that might otherwise remain at the local level.
For example, the health and dental coverage provided through the RSU is actually a service offered via an affiliate of the CFS. Flip open your free day planner and you’ll see that the CFS is involved in its production too — this is said to keep costs down by buying in bulk. This past year the RSU budgeted $29,000 on the planners which feature colour stickers and ad space for CUPE 3904.
The RSU is also able to take advantage of a website service provided through the CFS that provides them with a site template but allows the union to control the content.
Participating in the CFS also means that RSU executives and staff occasionally will travel to CFS national and provincial meetings — at an estimated cost of $17,000 for delegate fees and travel, according to the 2012-13 budget.
The understanding is that, through uniting under the CFS banner, students have more influence and gain access to politicians in a way they would not otherwise achieve as individual unions.
“We’ve seen a number of different sectors, and specifically in Ontario, be impacted by funding cuts over the last decade and education has actually been largely spared from that in a lot of ways,” said CFS national chair, Adam Awad.
Yet its opponents question how successful its lobbying efforts are and believe that students are not getting the best value for their money.
One of them says that CFS even interferes in campus elections.
“Last year when I ran for executive, the CFS had people come in from all over,” says Carleton University Students Association vice-president of Finance, Michael De Luca. “We had people from U Ottawa, campaigning with the (pro) CFS slate … we had people coming up from like U of T and stuff as well.”
According to a Maclean’s On Campus article, a referendum petition on continued CFS membership will be circulating at Carleton University where students pay the CFS close to $500,000 each year. De Luca argues there are ways to cut fees without involving the CFS.
“Paying them half a million dollars isn’t justified on the services that we (receive) or the quality of the services if we do use any of them,” said De Luca. He says they’ve found a better deal on the day planners and have ditched the CFS-affiliated health insurance for a more economical plan elsewhere that he claims will save students $2 million over two years.
“They’re very left-wing, militant on the one hand, but they’re very corporate on the other. Where they’re … marking up prices on materials, providing services and materials to students’ unions that are at a much higher price than if you were to go to market on it yourself.”
But Awad says the services operate at, or below cost and involve ethical sourcing. “None of the services that we run are designed to profit and so when costs go up it’s because costs for operating the program have gone up,” said Awad. “All of the members of the federation actually own these services.”
Regardless, de-federating from the CFS has proved to be rather like a stay in the Hotel California – you can check in any time you like, but it’s rather tricky to leave. The referendum process for leaving is bureaucratically complex and there are concerns that outside pro-CFS individuals will campaign at the university in an attempt to influence the results of a referendum in favour of the CFS.
In 2010 the Concordia Student Union voted successfully to leave, but the CFS refused to accept that vote. Concordia then had to take the CFS to court in order to have the results recognized, according to Maclean’s On Campus. The CFS claims the union owes $1.8 million in outstanding membership fees. Other students associations have also fought legal battles with the CFS.
But Awad says: “Probably the biggest victory that we’ve had over the long term is keeping post-secondary education in the public eye.”
RSU president Rodney Diverlus says there are a lot of misconceptions about the CFS. He points out that they are a democratic organization and that if people have an issue with CFS bylaws they can try to resolve it through the democratic process.
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on April 3, 2013.