Commentary | Invigilators should unionize

On March 8-9 and 17-18, McGill students employed as invigilators in the Fall 2009 term will vote on forming a collective bargaining unit within the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM).

Invigilators face many compelling reasons to vote in favour of unionization. With a union, invigilators will have the opportunity to negotiate collectively for rates of pay comparable to those at other universities across the province. Invigilation wages at McGill have stagnated at $10 per hour for the last 10 years, while colleagues at Laval, Université du Québec à Montréal, and the Université de Montréal receive, on average, $17 per hour.

Unionization is also a means to protect invigilators’ time and work on the job. Presently, many Master’s students report being asked to invigilate without pay. In such situations, students feel compelled to work for fear of negative repercussions. Yet as one student explained to AGSEM’s president Lerona Lewis, working for McGill as unpaid invigilators impedes students’ abilities to take on other jobs, ones that would provide a much-needed source of income.

Invigilation is a central part of the educational process at McGill. Invigilators ensure that exams are properly and professionally conducted, upholding the integrity of faculty teaching as well as protecting students’ rights to fair evaluation. Invigilators are a key part of McGill’s commitment to academic integrity and to the value of the degrees it grants.

Organizing this vitally important sector of McGill’s academic employees began in 2008 when students signed union cards indicating their willingness to join such a bargaining unit. AGSEM has represented McGill’s teaching assistants since 1998, and has a strong track record in advocating for graduate students’ interests. AGSEM’s parent union, the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), has provided invaluable legal and strategic assistance in this new unionization effort, and many dedicated McGill students (including current or former invigilators) are working as a team to organize and publicize this vote.

In university workplaces, voting for union membership often takes place by postal vote. However, McGill successfully argued at the Commission des relations du travail (CRT) that it was in invigilators’ best interest to have this vote in person, claiming it would be difficult to contact students by their postal address. McGill also requested that this vote be scheduled immediately after McGill’s winter study break. This attempt to influence voter turn-out was unsuccessful: the CRT agreed with CSN’s lawyers, who pointed out that many students may choose to prolong their study break and therefore would not be present to vote.

Some students have expressed anxiety about voting in person. During the 2008 teaching assistant strike, McGill summarily fired AGSEM members from other on-campus employment, a tactic that left many students concerned that the current McGill administration will try to monitor voter participation. However, CRT regulations stipulate that the employer may not have access to records of how employees voted. Voting is completely confidential and conducted by the CRT (an agency of the provincial government), not by McGill.

The power to provide secure working conditions invigilators is in our hands. All invigilators who worked in Fall 2009 are urged to claim this power by voting in favour of unionization.

Polling stations will be set up on both the downtown and the Macdonald campuses. Invigilators can vote on the downtown campus from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. each voting day in the Frank Dawson Adams Building (the building that houses the engineering library), room 27. Students on the Macdonald campus can vote in the Macdonald-Stewart Building on March 9 from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. in the Faculty Lounge (MS 022), March 17 from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. in the Centenary room (MS2 022A), and March 18 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Centenary room.

Ashley Burgoyne is AGSEM’s vice-president (external). Write Burgoyne at