Negotiation between representatives of the McGill administration and the Floor Fellows’ unit of the Association of McGill University Support Employees (AMUSE) have finally produced a tentative collective agreement which suits both parties involved. This agreement would defend Floor Fellows’ collective values, workers’ rights, and guarantee them payment for their work – all of which have been lacking in recent years. This represents a major achievement for students and union organizers who have been working for more equitable working conditions for nearly three years.
A history of exploitation
Floor fellows are upper-year students who live in McGill residences, offering support and guidance to first-year students making the transition to university life. In recent years, the precarity of floor fellows’ position has come to light, as decisions about their working conditions, duties, and rights have repeatedly been made without their input.
This represents a major achievement for students and union organizers who have been working for more equitable working conditions for nearly three years.
The most notable cases of this include the 2008-2009 Director of Residences’ attempt to change the residence alcohol policy from harm-reduction to zero-tolerance, which directly contradicts floor fellows’ collective values. In the 2012 winter semester, two floor fellows were dismissed for taking part in 6party, an occupation of the then-Deputy Provost’s office in opposition to the McGill administration’s attempt to override the student referenda defending the existence of CKUT and the Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG). In the fall of 2013, the residence leadership structure was reorganized to the detriment of floor fellow support systems, with no input from floor fellows themselves.
Furthermore, while floor fellows receive room and board as part of their position, they are not paid for the extensive and highly taxing work.
Negotiations with McGill
Motivated by these factors, and seeking a voice in negotiating their labour and living conditions, floor fellows voted to unionize in May 2014, forming “Unit B” of AMUSE. Since then, they have been in constant negotiations with McGill’s administration to develop a collective agreement defining their rights and responsibilities as university employees.
In recent years, the precarity of floor fellows’ position has come to light, as decisions about their working conditions, duties, and rights have repeatedly been made without their input.
In December 2016, the two parties reached a consensus on the terms of the collective agreement, and planned to formalize it after confirming the decision with their respective constituents. However, come January, the McGill administration backed out of the agreement. This was frustrating for floor fellows, who had been working towards a collective agreement for years. Alex Levesque, a floor fellow of two years and the Building Steward at New Rez, described his experience of this incident in an interview with The Daily.
“I was definitely very excited when I heard that something had been agreed upon,” said Levesque, “especially because, normally, when something’s agreed upon at bargaining, it’s pretty set. I was starting to get a little wary in January, when I hadn’t heard anything, but was definitely very disappointed, very frustrated, when we found out in January that they had backed out. It was so ridiculous and unheard of.”
In response to the administration’s actions, the floor fellows filed an injunction against McGill demanding immediate payment for those floor fellows who wished to be involved, in accordance with Quebec labour laws.
“I was starting to get a little wary in January, when I hadn’t heard anything, but was definitely very disappointed, very frustrated, when we found out in January that they had backed out. It was so ridiculous and unheard of.”
For the past three years, many floor fellows have been keeping time sheets of their active work hours, and filing for “back pay” through the Quebec Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST). If the injunction were successful, McGill would be required to pay floor fellows for their documented hours of work.
A tentative agreement
This month, with the court date approaching, the McGill administration offered to settle the injunction, meaning that the two parties would agree on a compromise rather than bring the case to a judge. Informal negotiations took place last week on March 22 and 23, and resulted in a tentative agreement between representatives of the floor fellow union and McGill.
Isabelle Oke, current Vice President of floor fellows at AMUSE, was part of the recent settlement negotiations. She explained that, according to the tentative agreement, former floor fellows will be partially compensated for the work which they filed for back pay. This year’s floor fellows would be paid a “lump sum” for their hours this year, and in the new collective agreement, McGill is offering a $13.15/hour wage.
“Floor fellows have a base of 13 hours per week that they’re compensated for without having to provide time sheets,” explained Oke. “Any hour above that, they have a time sheet system.”
This year’s floor fellows would be paid a “lump sum” for their hours this year, and in the new collective agreement, McGill is offering a $13.15/hour wage.
The major difference between the collective agreement that was rejected in January and the one currently on the table is that floor fellows will now be required to pay McGill for their food and housing. However, as Oke explained, “the Quebec Ministry of Labour sets the maximum amount that employees can be asked to pay for these things if they live where they work. So that would be $54.16 a week that Floor Fellows would have to pay back to the university.”
Thus, they will be paid more for their work than they pay for food and housing.
Preserving core values
However, despite the focus on equitable pay, however, many floor fellows told The Daily that monetary compensation is not the issue at the core of their collective bargaining initiative. Graham Kasper, a floor fellow at La Citadelle and a member of the Unit B Grievance Committee, explained that “a lot of people I’ve mentioned it to […] immediately jump to ‘We want money!’ And that’s really not why we unionized. It was to protect our core values, to protect our working space, and the things that floor fellows have, over the years, gradually built into their culture.”
“The Quebec Ministry of Labour sets the maximum amount that employees can be asked to pay for these things if they live where they work. So that would be $54.16 a week that Floor Fellows would have to pay back to the university.”
These values have been further challenged in the bargaining process, as former floorfellow and current Bargaining Committee member Vithushon Thayalan said: “Working with the others to preserve the core ideas that make the job what it is has proven to be surprisingly difficult in the bargaining room […] It was really disheartening to be told in training and throughout the year the importance of the work we were doing and how we were doing it, and then to go to bargaining with McGill where that same importance did not carry over, or at least that was the way it felt.”
In April, all current floor fellows, as well as former floor fellows who filed back pay claims, will have the opportunity to vote on the official adoption of the collective agreement. This time, the McGill administration will not have the opportunity to vote it down at the last minute. If the agreement is passed, this will certainly be an important step forward for Unit B; however, the implementation of this agreement remains uncertain.
“It was to protect our core values, to protect our working space, and the things that floor fellows have, over the years, gradually built into their culture.”
As AMUSE President Claire Michela said, “We don’t know how this is going to work, going forward. What are the problems going to be with the collective agreement? What are the things we like about it, what are the things […] that we’ll want to see changed next time? So it’s totally new territory […] but it’s definitely exciting!”
Phoebe Colby, a floorfellow at New Rez and a member of the union’s Grievance Committee, also expressed optimism. She hopes that observing the bargaining process “is encouraging to people – that you can create new structures within communities, and community action has pretty tangible, real effects sometimes.”