Commentary  Unions: the people who brought you weekends

The McGill administration has been making concerted efforts over the past few years to both restrict the powers of and prevent the existence of organized unions on campus. Provost Anthony Masi recently escalated these efforts by issuing a directive to remove Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) posters in all buildings on campus. The posters called for unionization of McGill course lecturers, some of the lowest paid in Quebec.

Masi’s rationale was that soliciting unionization during work hours violated the Quebec Labour Code. In return, AGSEM’s parent union – the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) – recently served McGill with a notice that the University was in violation of article three of the Quebec Labour Code. Article three states that any employee of an institution has the right to participate in the “activities and management” of a union.

One day after the legal notice was served, the administration announced a $2,000 pay increase for course lecturers, but claimed that since they had received a request for union certification in July, as per the Quebec Labour Code, they were not allowed to publicize the increases during the summer. In conversations with the administration’s media people, they have defended the tearing down of posters by saying that Walmart wouldn’t allow this in their stores. Is Walmart really setting the labour standards McGill wants to follow? Is the University a Walmart?
They have furthermore argued that the posters violate the Labour Code by advertising for a union while workers are on the clock. This is absurd: TAs, as grad students, obviously frequent McGill buildings when they’re not working. Unless TAs have been putting posters up while working – i.e., teaching a class, marking papers, or during – no one has violated the Labour Code. And at least one poster was torn off a professor’s door. Since when have professors abdicated their right to free speech?
The administration also claims that the posters were in violation of rules governing what unions can and can’t do during a certification campaign – referring specifically to the language of the posters describing AGSEM as “McGill’s teaching union” as “misleading.” AGSEM is the only union representing teachers on campus. Their claim amounts to strong-arm tactics at best, and a lie at worst.

The increases will still leave our course lecturers on the lower end of Quebec’s pay scale, and will fail to provide them the other protections that only a union can. The administration has yet to clarify which section of the Labour Code was violated by the postering. It’s moreover suspicious that rather than filing a complaint with the Labour Board, as AGSEM has done, they simply ordered AGSEM’s posters removed.

The administration has consistently antagonized unions with intimidation techniques and treated its workers as expendable. An academic paper Masi co-wrote in 1995 effectively previews current policy on campus unions: “Capitalists are unlikely to risk substantial investments unless they can adjust their costs by shedding and hiring labour as the need arises. In this view labour must, of necessity, be treated as a variable cost.”

During the last AGSEM strike in summer 2008, McGill fired all TAs who were also employed on campus in non-teaching jobs – in the library, for example. Also two years ago, the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA), the non-academic workers’ union, clashed with the administration over their collective bargaining agreement, finally settling March 26, 2009 after 16 months of negotiation. MUNACA accepted the compromise – which stipulated nine per cent pay increases over three years – “without enthusiasm.” Then last school year, MUNACA took roughly $1 million in benefit cuts.

The administration has recently made a big push toward supporting graduate students in its academic and funding priority statements, but is unrepentant in attacking and stifling the only labour union that represents them. They have graduated from the lack of transparency and student consultation evident in their dealings with students and faculty. Now, they’re directly assaulting the student and staff livelihoods they are mandated to support. Such a blatant exercise of censorship and rejection of student employee rights must be contested.