Commentary | There is power in a union

The collective strength of student and non-student workers at McGill

Do you consider yourself a worker? Will you be a worker when you graduate?

Students rarely reflect on these questions. Universities don’t encourage this line of thinking, preferring its students to be focused on their potential careers in business, law, or medicine. Many students simply assume they will be in positions of power, where they can have a meaningful say in their working conditions. But for most graduates, this is not the case. Instead, they will enter the workforce in positions where their employer is much more powerful than any individual worker.

Many students are workers right now, often part-time or casual, in low-paying positions where they can be easily replaced if they make a fuss about pay, hours, or treatment. Relatively few students can afford to pay their own way or live entirely off of scholarships or money from relatives. Despite this, the public perception of students is, paradoxically, either of rich kids living off of their families, or of poor bohemians living on ramen noodles eaten off of milk-crate tables. These visions often omit student employment, and this contributes to a lack of societal consciousness of students as workers. Jobs for students are seen as a bonus – a way to get beer money, rather than a way to pay rent, buy food, and afford books.

Universities suffer from a related problem of perception of work, in that people rarely picture anyone but students and professors on campus. Many students, and all professors, can be counted as workers, but so too can the thousands of employees who work as administrators, librarians, lecturers, technicians, maintenance staff, and in other positions. Student workers and non-student workers often work side-by-side, in offices and laboratories. But because students rarely think of themselves as workers, they rarely believe their interests align with those of their fellow workers. Students who do not rely solely on their job for income can think of their work as temporary. If the pay is low, if the hours are too long or too short, if the benefits are non-existent, or if the environment is hostile – well, it’s just for a little while, and eventually they’ll graduate. Their co-workers, and students who rely on their jobs for living expenses, often face the same work-related problems, but rarely have the option of leaving.

There is an option for workers, student or otherwise, besides ‘lump it or leave it.’ The main issue faced by workers of any kind is the disparity in power between the employer and the worker. If you encounter one of the problems described above, you have little leverage with your employer, largely because you can be replaced. As an individual, you have very little bargaining power with your employer, and your individual resources count for little compared to the power an institution such as a university can bring to bear.

The solution to this power disparity is unionization. A union, which is a collective body representing a group of workers, has much more bargaining power than any individual member. At McGill, very few individual employees can bargain on their own behalf with the employer. A student working part-time in an office, or as an assistant in a lab, has no such power. If you want to improve conditions in your workplace, you need to ask for them. This is more effective when you represent hundreds of employees, rather than just yourself, and when you have the legal and financial resources of a union backing all of you up.

What prevents McGill, for example, from simply refusing to negotiate? In part, labour law. A legally accredited union represents its members and can bargain on their behalf, and McGill cannot legally bargain with individual union members. But ultimately, the power of a union in forcing negotiation is in its power to strike.

If an individual student worker threatens to walk off the job until their working conditions improve, McGill can simply let them go and hire someone else. But if 500 or 2,000 employees threaten to walk out, and to air their grievances in public, McGill has little choice but to sit down and bargain.

In times past, an employer could simply fire all striking workers and replace them with people willing to work in the same bad conditions, or hire thugs to force its employees back to work. Due to the hard work of union activists in Quebec, this is no longer possible. Walking a picket line for a fraction of your usual pay isn’t fun, but it can be necessary. As recently as 2011, the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA) struck for the entire fall semester over cost-of-living salary increases and pensions and benefit plans, and won concessions over base pay and protection of benefits. In 2008, the Association for Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM, then representing graduate teaching assistants) went on strike for two months over such basic issues as being paid for all hours worked and standardized methods for recording working hours. Their strike resulted in significant improvements in working conditions, though the University has often dragged its feet when it comes to implementation.

There are a number of unions at McGill, some of which represent student workers on campus, and others that represent non-academic staff. Together as the Inter Union Council at McGill, the unions will be hosting a week of workshops on labour. We will be discussing the working conditions of international students, sex workers, and international workers; the effects of online education on academic workers; the right to strike, direct action in the workplace, and important historical strikes; and the interaction of the labour movement with media. We will be bringing together workers – academic and non-academic, on-campus and off-campus, national and international – to learn about each other’s experiences of work, and the ways in which our separate struggles intersect.

Chances are, when you consider it, you’ll find that you are a worker. Come out and join us.


Labour Week will run from November 4 to 8, on McGill campus. You can find out more at interunionvoiceatmcgill.wordpress.com, or by contacting vp12@agsem-aeedem.ca.


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