A Quebec labour relations commission rejected grievances filed by McGill teaching assistants (TAs) against the University for suspending them from secondary, on-campus employment during last spring’s strike.
The McGill administration fired TAs from secondary campus jobs – positions such as exam invigilators, sessional lecturers, and research assistants – during the TA union’s ten-week strike. Many TAs working in these positions were never informed of their suspension and continued to work.
They are now still waiting for the University to pay them for work they continued during this time.
The ruling, made public September 24, applies to all TAs who were suspended from their jobs, even those who did not join the picket line. One hundred and thirty eight TAs filed grievances with Quebec’s labour relations board.
The Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) counts approximately 2,000 graduate student members.
AGSEM president Richard Hink interpreted the ruling as licensing employers to fire strikers from all their on-campus positions – a provision which many, except for the University, find unjust.
“This ruling means that thousands of on-campus workers do not now enjoy the same protections guaranteed to every other worker who is governed by Quebec labour law,” said Ronald Cameron, president of the Fédération nationale des enseignantes et enseignants du Québec (FNEEQ-CSN), in a press release about the ruling.
According to Hink, McGill is pushing for an arbitration hearing to determine whether the students – regardless of their participation in union activity – should receive their lost wages.
Some of the TAs were also unionized in their secondary positions, and many who did not strike out of concern for their working relationship with supervisors were also suspended.
“TAs are owed hundreds of dollars,” said Hink, “but the University is planning on presenting their case to not pay the TAs – even though a lot of them didn’t strike – to an arbitrator.”
AGSEM’s contract with the University expired on June 30, 2007. The two parties began a series of slow and tense negotiations in October of that year.
On April 8 – just before the final exam schedule began – AGSEM took to the picket lines. Their strike, lasting until June, impeded the marking of final exams and caused the University to cancel many summer courses.
The union’s previous contract negotiations, ending in 2003, also culminated in a strike.
In defense of the suspension, McGill told Quebec labour relations Commissioner André Michaud that the University terminated all TA employment in order to prevent picket-line violence.
The suspension was based on section 109.1 of the Quebec Labour Code, which intends to protect unions from scab labour. The labour commission ruled that McGill was within its rights to suspend all TAs.
Yet McGill has selectively quoted the legislation. In a letter to The Gazette on April 25 Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning) Morton Mendelson, in defense of the University’s actions, wrote that the section states, in part, “For the duration of a strike declared in accordance with this Code or a lock-out, every employer is prohibited from… utilizing, in an establishment where a strike or lock-out has been declared, the services of an employee who is a member of the bargaining unit then on strike or locked out.”
Mendelson cut off the section in mid-sentence. The phrase continues: “unless (i) an agreement has been reached for that purpose between the parties, to the extent that the agreement so provides.”
AGSEM and the University, thus, could have agreed to allow TAs to keep their other jobs.
Hink believes that the commissions ruling was meant to maintain a “balance of power” between the University and the union.
“We’re working to get the law changed,” said Hink referring to the section of the labour code in question, “but it’s not easy to appeal.”
However, the impact could have a much more significant effect on the University as a whole, should AGSEM launch another strike.
“McGill may regret this move,” said Hink. “Should AGSEM strike in the future, the impact on the University will be far more serious, given the number of jobs our members do on this campus.”
Although the TA strike officially ended on June 23, the relationship between the union and the University remains hostile and was only aggravated by the recent decision on the TAs’ grievances.