McGill students officially launched their campaign for an undergraduate student workers’ union at SSMU’s Activities Night last Thursday.
The union, tentatively named the Association of McGill Undergraduate Student Employees (or AMUSE), would represent the roughly 2,000 undergraduate students employed across McGill at libraries, the McGill Bookstore, in Athletics, or as research assistants.
Jacob Feygin, U3 Political Science and an AMUSE organizer, said it is important to secure undergraduate workers’ rights by creating a formal association.
“We want to unionize all the undergraduates so we have some form of protection, a layer between us and the people who employ us,” Feygin said.
The campaign is still in its early stages, with organizers working to compile signed union cards from at least 35 per cent of all undergraduates employed by the University. McGill refused to release a list of all such workers to AMUSE organizers who now must search out students working at McGill.
Once the required number of cards are signed, AMUSE will begin a unionization process with the Quebec Labour Board, which will then demand a list from McGill of all undergraduate employees. The Labour Board will organize a referendum in which all students on the list will vote on whether or not to form a union. If workers vote to affiliate, they will meet in a general assembly to decide on collective goals.
Max Silverman, former SSMU VP External Affairs, explained that the union seeks to address problems many undergraduate workers face at McGill. McGill undergraduate workers enjoy few rights, as all are casual workers and most do not sign contracts with the University.
“There’s no delineation of what one is doing for their money. If you’re fired, you can’t point to anything that’s written down,” Silverman said. “If ever there’s a problem, if you’re underpaid, you have no way of showing what you’re supposed to be getting paid.”
He added that McGill research assistants have particularly tenuous working situations, since students are employed by their professors.
“By having a union, it removes the awkward tension of your supervisor being your direct boss. Your contract is negotiated through the University. If ever there’s a problem you have a big shoulder to lean on instead of facing up to big bad McGill,” he said.
However, AMUSE has not declared formal goals, since undergraduates have not yet been asked to express their demands, Feygin explained.
“All we’re saying now is to have contacts so we know exactly what we’re getting into – no more ad hoc [working] agreements,” Feygin said.
The AMUSE campaign is using resources from the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), the umbrella union under which AMUSE would affiliate. PSAC represents 160,000 employees, the majority of which work in the public sector. PSAC also represents a number of student workers’ groups at Quebec universities.
Feygin anticipated that the administration would try to argue that certain groups of students were not unionizable.
“The administration is going to make our lives a living hell, that’s a pretty safe assumption,” said Feygin.
While Feygin noted that the signing process progressed more smoothly than expected, he worried the administration may start to resist unionization efforts as they become aware of the situation.
Morton Mendelson, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning), said he was surprised by the unionization effort.
“I certainly hadn’t heard anything about it,” Mendelson said, further refusing to comment.
According to the Quebec Labour Code, employers are forbidden from making any positive or negative statements about union campaigns.
McGill’s relations with its unions have been tense this year – the teaching assistants union went on strike last spring over wages and other demands, and McGill’s non-academic workers’ union will soon vote on a strike mandate after ten months without a contract.
Even so, Silverman said he hoped McGill administrators would support a new student union on campus.
“My hope is that they embrace this unionized group as part of campus life,” he said. “I hope as well that that they’ve learned from what I’d say are their mistakes.”
– with files from Will Vanderbilt