Commentary | The union makes us strong

To combat substandard pay, lecturers should collectively organize

CORRECTION APPENDED

McGill ranks as one of the top 25 universities in the world. To be more exact, it sits in 19th place. However, it pays its course lecturers – there are around 1,500 of them – much less than most other Quebec universities, by almost 30 per cent. Course lecturers at McGill receive $5,000 per course that they teach. Concordia pays them $7,770, UQAM $7,563, Laval $7,737, and – get this – at Chicoutimi, they’re paid $8,257.

How do we reconcile these two facts: that McGill is one of the best schools in the world, yet pays its lecturers a pittance? In an ideal world, a prestigious university – a title McGill likes to claim for itself – would pay its teachers a handsome salary, or at least one on par with other universities. But we don’t live in an ideal world. In our society, if an employer can get away with paying their workers pennies while extracting the maximum amount of surplus value, they will. It is only through the vigilance of workers and their unions that we have prevented employers from bringing us back to a Dickensian way of doing things.

Course lecturers in all Quebec universities – except McGill – are unionized, and thus they can bargain for not only a better salary, but also better working conditions. That situation should be a slap in the face of people opposed to unionization. Facts are concrete – they have a way of smacking one in the face rather hard.

With such a disturbingly low salary for course lecturers, a union for them is long overdue. As I write, there is a unionization campaign underway. This movement will be the biggest concern for the administration – far more important than the 400 students who protested the closure of the Arch Café. Imagine this: 1,500 course lecturers, if they get paid on par with those at Concordia, will cost the University at least $4 million a semester. This is assuming that each course lecturer only teach one course. Furthermore, that figure only accounts for their base salary.

McGill has been able to get away with underpaying course lecturers for more than a decade because they lack a union. One course lecturer I met confided to me that a decade or so ago, he and a group of course lecturers did think about unionizing. However, they decided not to – at that time, they weren’t doing so badly, compared to their counterparts at other universities. This is a classic case of not having your umbrella before it rains.

Politically, this would also be another big blow to an administration known to be rabidly anti-union. More than 3,000 casual workers and 150 invigilators have recently been unionized. Once the part-time teachers are too, there might be a chance that the full-time teachers will demand the same thing. A unionized workforce will mean that the administration cannot do whatever its heart desires without engaging in real discussion – not sham ones, like Town Hall meetings – with its workers. The administration, therefore, will resort to any means to stop the campaign and neutralize the union behind it – the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill.

For anyone who has been seriously involved in the union movement, we know all too well how far an employer will go to stop the workers from exercising their rights. They will resort to intimidation, openly or behind closed doors, and they will attempt to bend the law with their army of lawyers. They will capitalize on the workers’ instincts to preserve their jobs and keep their heads down: “I don’t want to cause trouble.” “I don’t want to jeopardize my career.” “I don’t want to lose my job.”

It is at this very moment that the course lecturers need the utmost solidarity from students. A simple gesture of support from us will go a long way in convincing course lecturers that their cause is just and worth fighting for – that they are not alone. At the end of the day, both students and teachers are facing the same cuts in education, resulting in ever-increasing tuition fees and worsening working conditions.

Ted Sprague is the pseudonym of a Masters II Chemical Engineering student. He can be reached at ted_sprague@yahoo.com.

CORRECTION
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of recently unionized casual workers at McGill as 300.


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