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Secret contracts: a thing of the past?

By Ryan LumOpinions Contributor

For the past month or so, the student group Students Mobilize for Action on Campus (SMAC) has been circulating a petition calling for an end to the Dalhousie Student Union’s “secret contracts,” most notably its dealings with Pepsi and Sodexo.
Both of these companies have inked contracts with the Dalhousie Student Union that give them the exclusive rights to sell food and beverages in the Student Union Building, not only denying other companies or individuals the opportunity to sell food or drinks, but also prohibiting the free distribution of food or drinks, unless authorized by the DSU executive.
These contracts are subject to confidentiality agreements – stipulations that forbid anyone other than select members of the DSU governing bodies and those corporate representatives involved in the negotiation from seeing the contents of the contract.
Secret contracts are not a new phenomenon at Dal.
In 1998, the union agreed to a 12-year exclusivity deal for beverage sales in the SUB with Pepsi. Last year, that agreement came to an end, and contract negotiations ensued over the summer.
Pepsi was able to maintain its monopoly on campus for the next seven years by ousting several competitors, including Coke, and once again signed with the DSU under terms of confidentiality.
As negotiations were carried out during a time when the majority of students were absent from campus, student participation was hardly a possibility. Even in the full swing of the semester, the DSU has yet to actively involve its members in a dialogue about why these contracts were signed and whether they serve the best interests of students.
While the DSU is aware of the concerns over confidentiality agreements, they justify their actions by pointing to the funding they receive from Pepsi, money that goes to the benefit of students.
The DSU is caught in a prime example of tied aid, whereby the union receiving funding is contingent upon their achieving a quota of Pepsi sales.
Last year, that quota was not met, and no money was received, although Pepsi retained its right to exclusivity. While Pepsi is in a win-win situation, the DSU promotes a beverage that is concocted at the expense of non-unionized employees in the developing world and the health of its students, not to mention student union autonomy.
For its part, Pepsi cites confidentiality agreements as a tool to protect corporate competitiveness by insuring that trade secrets remain just as they are. While there is no legal measure that subjects Pepsi to full disclosure of its contract details with the DSU, that corporate competitiveness is one of its concerns seems dubious when the many corporations that have inked agreements with Dal are subject to public scrutiny through the Freedom of Information Act.
Even if Pepsi is a generous benefactor of the DSU, which it only seems to be when it suits the company, students deserve to know under what conditions they are receiving food and beverage services and should be given the right to participate in the crafting of those services.
That the DSU – the voice of students in its public, private and administrative encounters – should bind its members to an agreement that was not crafted or agreed upon by students is in violation of the union’s responsibility to serve students’ best interests.
While one may contend that secret contracts are only the merit of student apathy, the first step in promoting an active campus is to promote debate and the proposal of alternatives. The DSU Executive and Council, the bodies that seem to be concerned with the lack of participation in general elections, should be encouraging engagement with the agreements the union signs with service providers, not discourage it. Such conduct seems to suggest that their priority does not rest with students.
Last week, Glenn Blake, a student senator, presented over a petition signed by over 1,500 Dal students who support a future of Dal that doesn’t include secret contracts with the DSU. Councillors will vote on the motion on Wednesday, Dec. 2.
If you believe that secret contracts do not deserve a place in the future of our campus, please contact your DSU representatives and tell them to vote in favour of ending secret contracts.
An end to secret contracts is the first step to a transparent and accountable union, and to a university that represents the will of students.

Ryan Lum is a member of Students Mobilize for Action on Campus.

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