Students and board members stand off at Co-op AGM5 April 2017
Behind a facade of tacky logos, overpriced textbooks and shelves overflowing with Doctor Who merchandise, a power struggle is unfolding in the University Co-op bookshop (the Co-op) between the Board of Directors and students campaigning to make the organisation more accountable to its members.
Last Friday, 27 students attended the Co-op’s AGM to expel the board but were foiled when National Secretary, Talal Yassine declared over two dozen of the students’ proxy votes “invalid” without providing a reason. The board banned students from filming the meeting, but footage obtained by Farrago shows students demanding answers.
The board held the AGM in Kooindah Waters, Wyong, more than 100km from their head office in Surrey Hills. Members were not directly notified. Leading the “Take Back Our Co-op” campaign, General Secretary of University of Sydney’s Student Representative Council (SRC), Daniel Ergas submitted resolutions to vacate the board and reduce board members’ salaries to $0.
According to the Co-op’s annual financial reports, directors receive $330,000 in total remuneration per annum. Student campaigners, argue that this is grossly out of self interest as directors are required to do little more than attend six annual meetings. The Co-op, which effectively has a monopoly on University textbooks, has also been consistently under-performing financially.
The Co-op ran at a loss of $1.4 million in 2016 and $3.7 million in 2017. “That $330,000 includes the travel and accommodation costs and other expenses associated with director’s responsibilities,” Yassine clarified at the AGM.
Students entered the AGM confident because although a number of managers and other staff from Queensland, Western Australia and other states had flown to New South Wales to attend, students outnumbered those in support of the board by three people. Students who did not attend the AGM had submitted over two-dozen proxies in support of Ergas’ motions.
However, it was clear the house had won when Yassine declared that there were 109 proxies in support of the board’s motions, with Ergas’ motions now “invalid”.
Yassine shut down students who repeated requests to specify how students’ proxies violated the Co-op’s rules and to prove motions in support of the board were genuine.
“You’re not here to ask questions. This isn’t Q&A. We are entitled to say no, whether or not you accept that answer,” he said.
Ergas says this is just another example of the Co-op evading its responsibility to its members.
“Holding the AGM in Wyong and declaring students’ proxies invalid without justification is astonishingly telling of the lengths that people running the Co-op will go to in order to avoid scrutiny and protect their $330 000 pay package,” he told Farrago. “Their refusal to accept our proxies means we have an avenue to pursue legal action.”
Students also questioned the ability of the Co-op to make decisions on behalf of members when a large portion of members – students – are not represented. The Co-op’s rules require that board members have participated in the management of a medium to large business for at least five years and have completed a tertiary degree, which excludes that vast majority of students.
The campaigners argue that this is contrary to the ideals of the co-operative movement, which have traditionally dispersed decision-making power equally among their members.
In an interview with Farrago last year, CEO Thorsten Wichtendahl declared his support of this policy.
“Quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to be reporting to a 21-year-old, first-year uni student. I take my guidance, strategic direction, coaching and mentoring from our board of directors – experienced company directors,” he said.
On Friday, Yassine reinforced the CEO’s position stating that it was not in the Co-op’s members to be lead by students who lacked the “necessary experience”.
Students highlighted the irony of suggesting students lack the experience to manage the organisation. An investigation by Farrago last year unveiled that since the academics on the Co-op’s board lost control to a team of accountants, who substantially increased directors’ salaries, in the early 90s its history has been rife with branch stacking, factionalism and legal disputes.
In an interview with Farrago, Former Board Director and professor of Political Law, Graeme Orr explained that Talal Yassine, an emerging NSW Labor right powerbroker and prolific donor to Labor branches and candidates, had wrested control of the organisation in 1999.
Since, board has been constantly occupied by individuals employed by his investment bank, Crescent Wealth, and connected to the Labor Party. It was also unveiled that the Western Australian Labor MP, Anne Aly was a director until late last year and appears not have declared her directorship to the parliamentary register of interests.