I’m writing this in part because of actions by the McGill administration attempting to prevent efforts by the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) to organize a union for course lecturers. We should know about this – university administrations have learned to mobilize students against campus workers, a trap we can’t afford to fall into.
I’ve also been motivated by recent statements by principal Heather Munroe-Blum. These statements suggest that she and her administration are not primarily concerned with our education, particularly undergraduates’. Munroe-Blum has been quite public with two arguments: First, she has called on Quebec to dramatically raise undergraduate tuition, occasionally employing the world-class academic logic that Harvard is unusually accessible to working-class students. Second, she is calling for the transition of schools with a lot of resources (like McGill) away from undergraduate education, becoming instead elaborate advanced research centres, publicly funded but servicing big business.
It’s important to contradict this narrative, ever more popular in these days of austerity, that the workers who provide public services have interests contradictory to those they provide services to (including students). I think it’s quite the opposite. We see this both on campus – where university administrations often manage to cut costs by turning students and workers against each other, to the detriment of our education – and off, where more generally the narrative of the public-sector-worker-as-enemy is used to attack labour rights for (almost) all of us, and to attack our public services.
Collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) determine the relationship between the employer (here, the university administration) and employees (in this instance, course lecturers). The bargaining process also provides a great opportunity to see what both sides really want. Let’s look at some examples of common things student-worker unions fight for (both within and outside CBAs).
Class sizes. Course lecturers benefit from smaller classes because they’re easier to teach, and both teachers and students benefit from more engaging discussion.
Wages, work hours, and leave. Instructors who are overworked, underpaid, or both, can’t teach as well as those who aren’t totally preoccupied by how to pay the bills. Instructors with good medical leave have a better chance to resolve health problems early, before they have the chance to become major disruptions.
Fair hiring and firing policies. Most CBAs attempt to provide fair, transparent mechanisms for hiring and firing. This helps prevent workplace discrimination, both in terms of race and gender, for example, and on the basis of the employers’ personal or political beliefs. It means getting the right candidate for the job – on the basis of their actual qualifications.
Professional development. Another staple in academic CBAs is the provision for various forms of professional development. Course lecturers have a direct interest in developing their knowledge of their field and developing as teachers – unions help get them the resources to do so. Unions can also help them obtain things like technology grants and office space, helping their members – your instructors – be better organized and more accessible.
Giving workers a say. Decisions in universities are increasingly made by individuals more concerned about their outside business interests, or their reactionary politics, than those of students and education. Course lecturers are well-placed to see what works and what doesn’t in the university. A union would give them a much stronger voice in how the university is run.
There’s a theme here: Your instructors’ working conditions are your learning conditions.
When they win rights at work, they’re winning a better education for us. If we can be turned against that, we all lose.