Commentary  Workers, keep the administration’s feet to the fire

The news is in. Ninety-four per cent of voting invigilators have just approved of forming a union. This is another blow to the McGill administration, which has done everything in its power to prevent workers from organizing. Just four months ago, more than 1,000 non-academic casual workers won their union. Now we have more than 200 invigilators unionized.

And the wave of unionization is not stopping here. Word on the ground is that research assistants and course lecturers (or sessional lecturers) are now moving to form their own unions. After 18 years of inactivity on the union front, McGill has now has two new ones – formed within a year – and two more on the way. This trend is evidence, the kind that abounds in history, that events do not always move in a straight line – that they can move in leaps and bounds.

The rapidity of unionization at McGill does not mean that the process itself was easy. It was a long, arduous process that took countless hours. However, without playing down the sacrifice made by volunteers, the main factor in this rapid unionization was the pent-up anger and dissatisfaction of McGill workers over their working conditions. Invigilators, for example, have been making $10 an hour for the past nine years. McGill course lecturers only make $5,500 per course, while their counterparts at UQAM and Laval earn $7,500. This doesn’t even include the benefits the McGill course lecturers lack.

Therefore it is no wonder that the workers want to form unions. It is not a communist conspiracy. The reason is simple: McGill’s administration, like any other employer, has failed to take care of its workers. And it is not due to some oversight on their part, where all we need to do is to sit down with the employers, notify them of their mistakes, and cross our fingers that they will listen to us. The conduct of the employers, in the last analysis, is governed by one and only force: the profit motive. To make greater profits, the employers have to keep the workers’ wages down. This is the ABC of capitalist economy.

Formation of unions, in and of itself, is not enough. The union, once formed, has to be strengthened by the active participation of its members. At the end of the day, the union is only as good as its members. The union is not an end: it is a means to an end. It is a tool for the workers to fight for their interests and realize their own strength. Thus, the next step is clear: strengthen the union and move forward to collective bargaining with full force.

As for the administration, their pants – and skirts – are on fire now. They are restless and desperate. They will try to pit the students against the workers with the same old argument: better working conditions for the workers mean tuition fee increases for the students. We should reject this argument by saying: the wealth is there; show it to us! In 2008, the Canadian government handed out $75 billion to bail the banks and credit market out. In that same year, it gave $50 billion in tax cuts to the wealthiest corporations. This is what has created the chronic underfunding in our education. Heather Munroe-Blum and Tony Masi seem to be quiet about this.

So workers of McGill, don’t sulk over your working condition. You have an individual responsibility to take collective action with your fellow workers. Look around you! You are not alone.

Ted Sprague is a Master’s I Chemical Engineering student’s pseudonym. Write him at