Constitutional Crisis Arises in SU Worker Disputes

Thomas Seal and Toby Fuller

Our Students’ Union has reached a new depth of structural uncertainty, a newly-leaked report confirms, adding to ongoing tensions between student-staff and Commercial Services.

Details of an internal report investigating the accountability of the Commercial Services arm of SURHUL have been acquired by The Founder. The summary of the findings noted the Commercial Services staff’s ‘failure[s] to uphold constitutional processes and requirements’ and their ‘inappropriate attempts…to influence the strategic directions chosen and decisions made by Sabbatical and Executive Officers.’

A redacted version of the report had previously been posted on the SURHUL website, but was removed due to the possibility of identifying individual members of staff and the possible infringement of employment law.

The ‘internal fact-finding exercise’ states its areas of interest as the reasons for SURHUL’s continued annual deficit and the extent to which the union remains ‘transparent and accountable.’

The report goes on to assert that ‘[d]uring the academic/sabbatical year 2011-2012, and potentially previous to that also, the Students’ Union of Royal Holloway University of London was fundamentally not a student-led organisation and did not fulfil its function as a union led by the students, for the students.’

Attempts were made earlier in the academic year to release the document, however, requests were denied by the Executive Committee on grounds of protecting the identities and rights of individuals involved in the investigation.

The revelation of this report comes at a time when SURHUL’s commercial management have faced widespread criticism for their treatment of student-staff, both through this publication and in the most recent General Meeting. General Manager, Sean O’Donnell, sent an internal memo to staff on 20th February describing The Founder’s article last issue (‘Student Blinded Working at SU’, Volume 7 Issue 7) as ‘misleading’, reassuring ‘staff and other stakeholders that the Students’ Union takes Health and Safety within the workplace very seriously indeed.’

This is reassuring news, though the memo did nothing to address the concerns over the apparent gag-order effect of the SU’s ‘Social Networking Sites Guidance’ raised by The Founder later in the same article.

However, within a week, frictions between SU student-staff and their employers arose again. The General Meeting of 26th February saw two motions, proposed by Jordan Schiller, pass almost unanimously, to applause from the floor. They called for better working conditions of student-staff (the Student Staff Benefit Package) and their empowerment through right to gain trade union status.

But these motions have already been stalled. On 1st March another internal memo was sent to SU staff from O’Donnell. It tells staff that, despite the successful motions, ‘the Students’ Union continues to operate to the current staffing policies and procedures’, and that ‘this will continue until ‘further guidance/advice’ has been received.

To justify overruling the implementation of the motions, O’Donnell correctly cites the SU Constitution 13.2, which reads: ‘Matters regarding permanent, part‐time, temporary or casual staff and their employment shall under no circumstances be brought to a General Meeting, for reasons of confidentiality, but shall be dealt with in accordance with the regulations set down by the Union Staffing Policies.’

However, Point 13.2 of the Constitution had already been cited and dismissed in this debate. SU President Doug German raised it as an objection at the time of the original motion in the GM, and it was swiftly overruled by a popular vote called by the acting chair, the floor agreeing that the Constitution implies jurisdiction over matters regarding individual staff, and not the student-staff body as a whole.

The SU General Meeting is, according to the SU itself, the ‘highest decision making body of the Students’ Union’, and therefore a clear conflict of authority at the highest level of SURHUL has emerged, resulting in a temporary stalemate.

It now seems apparent that this impasse between Commercial Services and the student body stems from the Constitution’s relationship to management itself.

O’Donnell’s memo confirms that the management of the Students’ Union, including Sabbaticals, are in private talks over the deadlock right now.

The structural uncertainty of the SU evidenced in recent events, further vindicated by these leaked reports and memos, will also no doubt impact this week’s election campaigns for the positions of next year’s Executive Committee, and many will be expecting answers from candidates regarding their intentions to address the imbalance of power at SURHUL and the accountability of the commercial services management.

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