Commentary  Professors’ letter should spark university-wide solidarity

Last October, posters encouraging course lecturers to unionize began to disappear from across campus. The removals followed an internal memo circulated to building directors on behalf of provost Anthony Masi, and resulted in a complaint to the Quebec Labour Board. Course lecturers, who perform many of the same duties as professors, live precariously on course-by-course contracts with no job security, earning $6,000 per course per semester. In what AGSEM claims as a victory for their union drive, salaries will be increasing to $7,200 over the next two years.

Now, 26 retired and current professors from across five McGill faculties and ten departments have signed a letter in solidarity with the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM), which would absorb course lecturers. Too often we think of faculty as having interests that are apart from those of other staff. This letter, then, is a rare example of activism across lines that can at times seem hard to cross and a strong show of support for a cause that desperately needs it.

Even though the University administration tends to ignore the concerns of students and workers when the latter disagree with administration’s vision, professors’ views can carry more weight in institutional governance structures. Though regrettably not unionized, they have higher status within the university community. They’re the people who bring in research dollars, publish articles and books, and represent McGill at international conferences. When they speak out, they are more likely to force the administration into rethinking its actions.

As the letter points out, course lecturers must be allowed to decide whether to form a union for themselves – free of harassment and with all the available information – if McGill is to be a democratic institution. In support of that goal, the leadership of two major teaching unions – the Canadian Association of Univeristy Teachers and the American Association of Univeristy Professors – have written letters urging course lecturers to exercise their right to form a union. Other faculty, students, workers, and members of the community should follow the example of these professors both at McGill and elsewhere, and speak out in encouragement of AGSEM.

As the non-academic staff union, MUNACA, and the support employees union, AMUSE, enter into contract negotiations this year, hopefully academic staff will reach out to their non-academic counterparts just as tenured and tenure-track professors have supported their less permanent colleagues. It’s encouraging that faculty are speaking out for course lecturers, and that solidarity should extend to all university labourers – whether they be payroll clerks, janitors, or book menders – because they are all integral in the University’s functioning. With any luck this will be the start of professors – along with everyone else – speaking out about the direction McGill is heading.