Last Friday around 50 McGill students and faculty joined a rally of hundreds of unionized Quebec workers on McGill College, a few feet from Roddick Gates.
Some of the students staged a walkout from classes before gathering in front of the Shatner building and marching across campus, through the Leacock and Arts buildings, and down through Roddick Gates to join the rally. The walk out and campus march were organized by McGill’s Mobilization Committee (Mob Squad).
The rally, marked by speeches from representatives from various McGill and provincial unions, was held in support of the ongoing strike of the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA). The union represents more than 1,700 workers, including library staff, lab technicians, and registration staff.
MUNACA president Kevin Whittaker said he was “amazed” by the show of support.
“I’m overwhelmed; very happy to see the people out here [and] the support that we’re receiving. It has been a great day,” he said.
McGill has been negotiating with the union since January, and MUNACA has not budged on demands for what they consider to be working conditions comparable to those at other Quebec universities.
“We are not going anywhere until this university understands that they need us. We deserve better. We deserve what all the other universities have, and we will be here until we get that,” said Whittaker addressing the crowd at the rally.
To date, negotiations are scheduled to continue until October 26.
Ann Jack, who has been working at McGill for 21 years – the last six as an undergraduate secretary for the School of Computer Science – is part of MUNACA. She said she felt “rejuvenated” by the rally.
“I feel like there’s hope. Everyone’s here,” Jack said. “I was a little naive. I thought [the strike] wouldn’t go beyond a week. We’re now two weeks and I don’t know if we’re further ahead. We’re tired; physically tired, spiritually tired, but once you get here and you start that picket line, you sort of get motivated again,” she continued.
Federal and provincial politicians show solidarity
The rally was punctuated by speeches from senior Quebec politicians Thomas Mulcair, NDP MP for Outremont, and Amir Khadir, Quebec Solidaire (QS) member of the National Assembly of Quebec for Mercier riding, addressed the crowd with QS spokesperson Francoise David.
Mulcair, who graduated from McGill in 1977 with degrees in common and civil law is scheduled to deliver the closing address at a conference at McGill on September 23. He told The Daily he plans to inform the University he will not cross picket lines to attend the conference.
“As a McGill Grad, it’s important for people to understand that this is a large employer in the Montreal area. To have this job action is an indication that there is something wrong,” he said in an interview with The Daily.
“I did my two degrees at McGill. I know how important the workers are to our student life. They deserve to be treated fairly,” he continued.
Khadir and David addressed the crowd together. In his speech, Khadir referred to last week’s lockout of Couche-Tard workers – in response to pressure tactics from workers as they negotiate their first-ever collective agreement with the company – in his criticisms of McGill’s negotiating strategies.
“We’re in a particular context where corporate business everywhere attacks union rights,” he said in an interview with The Daily. “I hope that the university will realize that it has also a social responsibility. The university is not big corporate business so their attitude towards their employees has to reflect that social responsibility.”
“I implore the direction of the University to treat their employees with respect with good faith and go back to the table of negotiations and consider the fact that the services to the students are given by these [workers],” Khadir continued. “They have to be respected; they have to have a dignified job.”
McGill unions unite in common struggle
Other campus unions are currently negotiating collective agreements with McGill: the Association of McGill University Support Employees (AMUSE) and Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM). The Association of McGill University Research Employees (AMURE) are preparing to enter their first bargaining process. All three workers’ unions have released statements supporting MUNACA.
AGSEM President Lerona Lewis spoke at the rally before joining the TA bargaining committee to meet with McGill concerning the ongoing negotiations for the TAs’ new contract that afternoon.
As Lewis left the rally she spoke to The Daily about her take on the rally.
“I think it’s really impressive and it shows that the McGill community really cares about what workers are getting from the administration,” she said. “It’s about one McGill.”
Lewis noted that the rally and solidarity action has significance for AGSEM.
“It’s not just for MUNACA, but it’s also for us. Our demands are serious, and they are not unrealistic,” she said. “We hope McGill will treat us fairly in the negotiations, and we hope that they will see that the unions on campus are a force to be reckoned with and that they have to take us seriously at the bargaining table.”
When The Daily went to press, AGSEM released an update from Friday’s meeting with McGill saying that the TA bargaining committee is “cautiously optimistic that progress continues to be made.”
Farid Attar, president of AMUSE, walked out of class before attending the rally.
“We’re going to plan an action every single week. We have to let them know that they’re not alone, and that people in the McGill community are supporting them,” he said. “I think we owe them this because [MUNACA workers] are the front-line service. We meet them every day. They deserve better from McGill.”
Matthew Annis, president of the Association of McGill University Research Employees (AMURE), affirmed his union’s support of the strike, saying MUNACA and AMURE workers face many of the same problems.
“Many of our employees are researching assistants and associates – they work hand-in-hand with MUNACA members every day,” he said. “We miss them. We want them to come back to work. We want McGill to negotiate a fair contract with them so they will come back to work.”
A group of McGill Law students also attested to the effect the strike was having on University operations. Amanda Gibeault, a U2 Law student, said many of their faculty’s services were dependent on direct contact with MUNACA workers.
“Students are having trouble registering for courses, having trouble turning assignments in, receiving assignments,” she said.
“It’s been putting a lot of people in the very difficult position of not being able to meet the academic expectations of professors.”
The same day as the rally, the University posted an announcement titled: “MUNACA strike and impact on Faculty of Law activities.” The announcement states that, despite the strike, classes and other Faculty events are proceeding as scheduled.
“However, the strike will have an impact on the Faculty’s services, as a number of employees are members of MUNACA,” the announcement continues. The announcement then gives pertinent contact information for both current and prospective students.
The rally was also the first to feature the vocal support of the new McGill Faculty Labour Association Group (MFLAG). English professor Alanna Thain and East Asian Studies assistant professor Adrienne Hurely spoke at the rally.
“Every day the cracks in the university are getting larger. Every day we arrive to notices of more services cut,” said Thain.
“A gradual but steady erosion of staff benefits and pensions concern us all. The burden of what we’re repeatedly told is a financial deficit must not be placed on the shoulders of those least able to bear it,” she continued.
East Asian Studies professor Thomas Lamarre gave a personal example of how the strike has affected his courses. He described enrollment issues with his Introduction to Manga course, describing it as a “rollercoaster enrollment.”
“Students from sciences ended up banned pretty much. Like, only a handful of them could get into Art History classes because there’s caps on numbers from other faculties, and we would have switched it but we weren’t able,” he said.
Some students were underwhelmed by the student presence at the rally, however. Lauren Pearce, a U3 Religious Studies student, said she “did expect it to be bigger, but I’m happy we’re here.”
Bianca Giulione and Sinead Petrasek, both U3 Art History students who walked out of the same Feminism in Art and Art History class with several other students.
“More students should be aware and should support the MUNACA strike,” said Petrasek.
“They deserve to be treated just as well as [Principal] Heather Munroe-Blum is treated. Like, I think, she could take a little bit of a cut from her $350,000 a year salary, and stop renovating stupid conference rooms,” Giulione said, referring to the controversial $2.1 million renovation on the third floor of the James Administration building.
SSMU VP External Joël Pedneault, who organized the action with Mob Squad, said future actions would focus more on outreach.
“I think definitely we need to reach out to the people who aren’t here today,” he said. “At this rate there are going to be more actions if McGill doesn’t back down.”
Matthew Crawford, a student Arts Senator who walked out of his Philosophy 375 class to attend the rally, said student senators were planning on posing a question about the impact of the strike on student services at the first Senate meeting this Thursday.
– With files from Erin Hudson and Michael Lee-Murphy