For those in the Toronto area, city councillor Rob Ford is revving up for a probable campaign for mayor. This wouldn’t be especially relevant to student politics, save that Ford’s attitude towards budgeting and reasonable expenses in fulfilling his role as a city councilor has always struck me as symptomatic of a problem in student organizations. Ford is a cost-cutter and a penny-pincher. This is his major claim to fame and the source of his popular appeal. He’s against office budgets and funds used to communicate with constituents and he thinks everyone gets paid too much to run the city. And I’ve got to admit, any time I see money spent in stupid ways or on stupid things or paid to stupid people I feel the tug of his message too. But then I remember where it’s coming from.
Ford, you see, is quite independently well off. Rather than spend taxpayers’ money he’d prefer to spend his own. That’s how he funds events in his riding, and how his official office budget each year is $0, and how he can afford to suggest that everyone running Toronto (including himself) is overpaid. He doesn’t need the money. And while his public spirit is admirable, and sometimes I even like him despite my disagreement with his politics, I also have to wonder where it would lead us if we follow that attitude towards its logical conclusion.
When folks look at students’ unions and see people getting paid to represent their peers they often wonder how it can be justified. This sometimes applies to the student press as well, and other organizations where students may be paid to varying degrees. One common reaction is to think “if they really cared about doing the job, they’d do it for free.” Some even think “hey, I’m willing to do it for free — why would anyone want them instead?” And while these ideas are commendable, in a Rob Ford kind of way, they do circumvent an important question. Who can afford to simply volunteer and to do these jobs for free? Or more importantly — who cannot afford to?
Some positions on campus represent very significant commitments of time and energy. It’s not uncommon for these positions to simply require a reduced course load — either formally in the by-laws of the organization in question or informally due to the demands of the job. And again, while there’s some justice to the notion that these roles are assumed voluntarily and anyone who goes in with their eyes open should be prepared for the demands, this notion necessarily suggests that a certain kind of person need not apply. So the students who are poor and can’t afford to volunteer dozens of hours each week, or cannot possibly afford to extend the duration of their studies without some compensation, they are effectively barred from the jobs entirely. And is that what we want?
Here is where I think there’s a special onus on representative organizations to ensure that it’s possible for anyone (or at least most people) to represent their peers. Much as I may applaud some of Rob Ford’s sentiments, his politics essentially imply that city council should be run by independently wealthy individuals who can afford to pay their own costs and fund their own activities. And this is not representative democracy in any real sense. It can only lead to skewed politics and bad outcomes. Government by the wealthy inevitably becomes government for the wealthy.
Now in a student context, there are obviously two important limits. First, some student groups simply can’t compensate their representatives adequately and so must run on volunteerism. If there’s simply no other choice then so be it — you do what you’ve got to do. Second, there’s no reason that students need to be paid well for their commitments — only adequately. And yes, I have seen some student organizations where executive compensation seems to have got out of control. This too can lead to unfortunate outcomes, so really it’s all about striking a balance.
When there are competing demands for every dollar in an organization — and this is inevitably the case because there’s never enough money — it’s easy to wonder why we’d bother paying students or funding their commitments. But in fact it’s one of the best investments that any organization can make. If the people who run your organization and who represent students are not themselves typical students then your entire mission is skewed. It undermines everything you are hoping to accomplish. There will always be examples of money that isn’t spent well or of people who don’t earn what they’re paid. And it’s useful to have someone around who will keep an eye out for that, even if it’s a Rob Ford type. But that attitude cannot be allowed to deflect the entire mission of a student organization, which is to represent real students. And students, typically, cannot afford to take on full-time jobs for free.