The publication of this paper’s ‘Campus News in Brief’ prompted a small but swift online backlash over a graphic which some claimed was alarmist – and perhaps rightly so, regardless of the intention behind its use. Deriding the graphic, which displayed levels of Students’ Union pay in recent years, a few students and past sabbatical officers stepped in to defend the salary received by Union sabbatical officers.
Public conversations about pay in the Union, from shop staff to sabbaticals, have been missing since the Union settled its debt with UCD. The faux-outrage that characterises much of student media coverage, and which gave way to stories of legitimate incompetency, unconstitutional behaviour and in-fighting throughout the last academic year, overshadows the fact that Union officers are, more often than not, genuine and honest people with sincere interests in improving the lives of UCD students. This is no easy feat for a Union which only recently recovered from serious mismanagement and which operates in a sector seemingly devoid of a willingness to make long-term decisions in relation to vital issues such as funding.
It is also no easy task to support oneself on minimum wage, which the Union’s shop staff are expected to do, regardless of how long they have worked there.
It is common knowledge that TCDSU sabbaticals are guaranteed on-campus accommodation, with the exception, this year, of the Editor of the University Times. Unlike their Trinity counterparts, Sabbatical officers in UCDSU cannot take on-campus accommodation as a given, much like many other UCD students. Even if they could, it would likely come at the outrageous cost of anywhere between €6,629 and €11,347, already paid by many vulnerable students. For sabbaticals, that would represent between a third to over half of 2016/2017 pay. For other students, including some employed by the Union, rent costs may represent an even more significant proportion of their income.
Regardless of whether you believe sabbatical pay is bloated or subpar, conversations over wages in the Union still need to happen in public. The conniptions experienced by some in 2013, and again in 2016, over membership fees which supported USI representative pay should be considered puzzling if we are not prepared to demand a decent level of financial transparency within our own Union. And if the student body believed UCDSU could do a better job protecting students’ interests on its own, it would do well to start the fight for a living wage for students on their own doorstep.
The most recently available statutory financial statements, filed in June of this year, apply to the academic year 2016/2017. Currently, pay levels are not openly reported, meaning that the only students ‘in the know’ are those willing to pay for documents from the Companies Registration Office or those with access to online databases of company information. Even then, the information available is out of date and doesn’t necessarily apply to the incumbent Union Officers. Equally, word may make its way around campus that sabbatical pay has risen or fallen – but this could hardly be described as transparent.
There were no debates, before or after the increase to sabbatical pay, over the suitability of the levels of Union pay and it is therefore difficult to gauge whether the sabbatical roles are as accessible as they ought to be. UCDSU have a poor record when it comes to transparency, and the current situation in relation to Union pay levels is no different. The majority of the minutes from meetings of the Executive are missing for 2015/2016 and 2017/2018. Council minutes haven’t been uploaded to the Union’s website since 2014/2015. Council-approved budgets and audited accounts since 2014 are, again, missing from their website.
It is fair to say, however, that outright and unprompted disclosure of information relating to Union pay would be a move towards a more uncommon level of transparency among Students’ Unions. TCDSU advise visitors to their website to contact the Union President for a copy of sabbatical contracts, rather than provide the documents outright, while the Students’ Unions of NUI Galway, DCU and Maynooth seemingly make little of the issue on their own websites.
Students who would argue that Union Officers could do more and better work on less pay would likely be a minority in any reasonable debate on the issue. Most would recognise the inherent and potential value of Union representation, and UCDSU therefore shouldn’t be afraid to be transparent and assert that their work is worth fair pay.