RSU fires employees Dina Skvirsky and Gilary Massa, right on the heels of hiring general manager Natasha Campagna.
Originally posted Dec. 3 @ 9:09 a.m.
Update: This story has been updated to include details of a confrontation between RSU president Andrea Bartlett and former vice-president equity Pascale Diverlus.
Update 2: Added details from a statement released by the RSU.
Update 3: Added details from board members who question the accuracy of the RSU statement.
Update 4: Added details of an interview with Bartlett.
Update 5: Added additional comments from Bartlett, news of CESAR boycott.
The Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) is embroiled in controversy after it fired two senior staffers: a new mother on parental leave and her temporary replacement.
The former employees say they unjustly lost their jobs as part of a strategy to replace them with a new general manager, who started work one day before they were let go.
The firings have spiralled into a confrontation between RSU executives and a former executive, with accusations of harassment and racism lobbed and students taking sides on social media. Some RSU board members have spoken out against the decision and the Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson (CESAR) announced a boycott of the RSU’s printing service in protest.
In response to the controversy, the RSU published a statement Thursday on its website, which said an “independent external review” found the cut position — the executive director of communications and outreach (EDCO) — was “largely redundant.”
Gilary Massa is one of the employees fired. She received the news Tuesday afternoon — while feeding her three-month-old infant — through a phone call from RSU president Andrea Bartlett, who said her job was no longer part of a restructured staffing plan.
Dina Skvirsky, who had been filling for Massa, was also let go. She was told in a meeting with Bartlett and given the same explanation.
Bartlett told The Ryersonian the staffing changes are also designed to put the student union “back into the hands of the students,” by replacing unionized executive directors with a non-unionized manager who can provide what she says will be impartial advice to executives and staff oversight.
She said there’s a conflict of interest when unionized workers are in the position to advise student executives on labour and human resource decisions.
Natasha Campagna has taken on the new general manager position, leaving a job overseeing the administrative operations of the Ryerson Commerce Society (RCS).
Bartlett is a former RCS executive vice-president and worked with Campagna, leading to accusations on social media the restructuring was an excuse so the executive could hire a friend.
“There is a lot of what I call ‘sweetheart deals’ that have been happening in the students’ union for the last decade,” Bartlett said. “This was not that, but I knew that no matter what kind of process that I go through, that’s the way that it’s going to come out in the media.”
She said the job was advertised through the RSU’s normal channels and Campagna was the only person from Ryerson to apply. “We did everything that we could to make sure that it was the qualifications and not the relationship with the student” that determined the successful candidate, she said.
Massa says she was not offered another position and had no opportunity to apply for general manager because she thought she already had a job. She had been on extended leave since April, using saved vacation time. She started parental leave on Sept. 1, when her daughter was born. Under the Employment Standards Act, she was entitled to another 21 weeks for a total 35 weeks of leave.
Social media has exploded since the news of the firings broke, with many attacking the decision to fire a new mother still on parental leave.
Bartlett said the decision “had nothing to do with the people that were in the role.”
The RSU’s statement says the terminations had the support of the board of directors, but two members say the board never voted on them at all. Board members Angelyn Francis, a fourth-year journalism student, and Zahra Islam, director of community services, also say they don’t know who wrote the RSU statement.
However, Bartlett said the dissenters had expressed their concerns, but the majority of the board was “very strongly in in favor of this decision.”
In an interview with The Ryersonian, Massa said her dismissal was unjust. She had never worked with current RSU executives who took office on May 1. “I was shocked,” she said. “It blindsided me. I had no idea where it came from.”
Under Ontario law, employees returning from parental leave must be reinstated to their former jobs, or a comparable position if their job no longer exists. However, it is legal in Ontario to terminate employees on parental leave, so long as they were not let go specifically for taking leave.
Massa and Skvirsky’s role included advising and assisting the executives, transitioning new executives, implementing policies, co-ordinating communication, outreach and long-term goals. They also supervised several staff, including all the equity service centres and their supervisors.
According to Skvirsky, the general manager will now have about 90 per cent of their former duties, including all staff reporting to her.
Skvirsky said the current executives had been assigning many of her duties to other employees over the last few months to frame her position as obsolete. “The hiring of the general manager who is supposed to be doing the same job as me was kind of, very much, I think a plan,” Skvirsky said.
“Just seeing someone on maternity leave getting fired from their workplace is obviously pretty upsetting and makes me feel like no workplace is safe.”
Saphi Subendran, former RSU vice-president student life and events, worked alongside Massa last year. “I’m pretty shocked,” Subendran said. “She was the go to person if I needed clarification or assistance while working at the RSU.”
Skvirsky and Massa are unionized workers under CUPE 1281 Unit 2. Massa says she was sent a termination letter electronically Wednesday morning. They both said they hadn’t received any severance pay, and hadn’t been informed if they would be. As well, they said they’re still due payment for overtime hours worked.
Contradicting the former employees, Bartlett sent an email to The Ryersonian saying both Massa and Skvirsky had “received all notice, pay in lieu of notice or severance to which they were entitled under the collective agreement and the ESA.”
Skvirsky said she and Massa will be working with CUPE to explore their options.
CUPE had not sent a response to The Ryersonian’s inquiries at the time of publication.
Massa started working for the RSU in 2007 as the equity and campaigns organizer. She was key in forming the Racialized Students’ Collective.
She was her family’s primary breadwinner and the loss of her job means she has to cancel plans to visit her ill grandmother in Panama, she says.
“I want my daughter to meet her great-grandmother. Hopefully she doesn’t pass soon, but we don’t know.
“I loved my time at Ryerson, (and I am) saddened that it’s gone down this way,” Massa said. “I’m not quite sure what to do right now … I’m putting my family first and foremost.”
CESAR announced Friday it will boycott the RSU’s printing service, CopyRITE, to protest the firings. In a statement, it said the action was to ensure “CESAR is not financially contributing to this irresponsible and anti-union student executive.”
Massa’s firing upset former vice-president equity and RSU presidential candidate Pascale Diverlus, who was involved in a confrontation with Bartlett that has sparked further controversy.
Bartlett posted on Facebook on Wednesday night to report she had called security after Diverlus and another student confronted her in her office. “I repeatedly asked them to leave because I was not comfortable, and we didn’t have an appointment (many other hurtful things were said) until it escalated to the point that I had to call security,” Bartlett wrote. “At this point, our offices no longer feel like safe spaces.”
Diverlus posted on Facebook a 41-second video, which recorded at least part of the incident, in an attempt to refute accusations of harassment.
The recording at no time shows the faces of Bartlett, Diverlus or the student, but they can be heard speaking.
“I’m just going to ask my question,” Diverlus says, before chiding Bartlett for firing Massa.
“You should really think about people’s lives before you try to ruin them, first of all,” she says. “And think about what you as a white woman is doing to a black Muslim woman by ruining her position and saying it is reconstructing. You should really think about that. You should really ask your VP equity who stands for this and really think about what this means for someone like,” at which point the next word is difficult to make out.
Diverlus, who considers Massa a close friend, told The Ryersonian she approached Bartlett as a concerned student. “I have been very emotional about the fact that a black Muslim woman’s job has been removed,” Diverlus said. “I went to talk to the executives the same way people used to talk to me to me all the time when I was VP equity.”
There is no indication the firings were based on race or religion.
Diverlus said security never confronted her about the incident, and said she did not harass Bartlett. She remained in the building from 5:30 p.m. until 9:15 p.m., serving on a panel in the Thomas Lounge, which started near the time the confrontation occurred.
Those sharing Diverlus’s video — which has been viewed more than 8,000 times — have used the hashtag #IStandWithGilary.
Bartlett’s post has since been shared by other RSU executives and students, several adding the hashtag #IStandWithMyPresident.
Diverlus said the RSU executives’ Facebook posts are an attempt to vilify her.
“I think it’s very easy to label certain people as angry, as harassment or anything like that, but rarely are we ever talking about why a person is actually angry,” Diverlus said.
“It is so easy to divert attention away from what is actually at hand, but let’s look at why I’m so emotional about this, what’s actually going on inside that building. This is something that’s happening to a person’s entire family, and I really want folks to think about that.”
With files from Latifa Abdin and Steven Goetz
Watch the RyersonianTV’s Friday special broadcast on the issue below.
Watch the full interview with Pascale Diverlus.
Watch the full interview with Andrea Bartlett.