Caught in the “crossfire”

How the strike threatens professors’ salaries, casual workers and course lecturers

Correction appended – Wednesday, Sep 21

As the McGill non-academic employees strike enters its third week, battle lines have been drawn and the two sides have dug in. Recent developments have seen professors and student workers caught in the “crossfire,” in the words of one union official.

After the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA) began its strike at 6 a.m. on the first day of classes, Michelle Hartman, an associate professor in the Department of Islamic Studies, spent the days before her first class deciding what to do.

“I did not want to cross the picket line for reasons of moral conscious and political solidarity. But I also feel a really strong moral conscience to teach my students,” she said.

Hartman decided to teach the class off-campus. She taught two seminars off-campus – one at a cafe, and one at her home. The decision was a “compromise,” she said, between two separate duties: to worker solidarity, and to her students.

Christopher Manfredi, Dean of Arts, contacted Hartman soon afterwards through the chair of the Islamic Studies department. After Hartman confirmed that she was teaching off-campus, Manfredi sent a message saying that the practice would not be tolerated, and that, if she continued, Hartman’s salary would be in question.

In an email to The Daily, Manfredi cited a McGill policy document saying that, during a strike, McGill academic staff who do not perform their academic “duties” will not be paid.

Manfredi said that his office had received complaints about students having to take a bus to class, and missing other classes because of the commute.

“If the dictates of a professor’s conscience are so compelling that they cannot cross a picket line, then he or she should be willing to make the same sacrifice as non-academic staff members in the same situation,” Manfredi wrote. Non-academic staff who refuse to cross picket lines are not paid for work that they miss by respecting the line.

Calvin Normore, a professor in the Philosophy department, said that of the ten universities he has taught at, McGill is the first place where the act of “holding your classes off-campus has been regarded as…dereliction of duty.’”

Derek Nystrom – a professor in the English department and member of the McGill Faculty Labour Action Group – wrote in an email to The Daily, “This isn’t about ensuring that classes happen on campus because that is in the best interest of students; it is instead an effort to enforce an imagined ‘business as usual’ environment on a campus where it is not business as usual, where it cannot be business as usual, because essential members of the University community are not at work, because the administration refuses to recognize their true worth to the University.”

In the wake of Manfredi’s directive last week, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson has retracted a statement published in the Daily on September 8, in which he said that professors who opted to teach off-campus would be tolerated. Mendelson apologized, and said that he “spoke out of turn.”

Allegations of scab labour

Government inspectors have been investigating MUNACA’s complaints of scab labor on both the downtown and Macdonald campuses, according to a report in the Montreal Gazette.

According to a McGill Residences employee, who asked not to be named, casual student employees have been used to do the work of striking MUNACA members throughout McGill’s residence system, which would be illegal under the Quebec Labour Code.

The University denied the use of scab labour in a Thursday, September 15th email to students, saying that the Labour Code allows for “certain managers” to do the work of strikers.

Farid Attar, president of the Association of McGill University Support Employees (AMUSE), the union that represents casual workers at McGill, encouraged his members to report scab labour to the union, which is forwarding such complaints to MUNACA leadership.

Jaime Maclean, vice-president of AMUSE and a casual employee at Carrefour Sherbrooke, said that she was asked to fill in for a striking worker. She declined. Management has since denied her hours, she said.

“Since I told them that I wasn’t comfortable working for a MUNACA employee, I haven’t gotten my regular shifts that I normally would be working,” Maclean claimed.

Attar added that sometimes the union doesn’t have a clear legal basis for defining scab work. Casual workers often lack job descriptions, so the administration can get around the legal definition of scabs when they use AMUSE members to fill in for strikers. “Because of the divisive way which McGill has arranged labour… they could be molded to whatever the administration wants,” Attar said.

Furthermore, Attar said that many of the demands MUNACA is making are similar to those of AMUSE, which is currently in bargaining sessions with McGill after being certified last year.

Course lecturer contract ended

Angela Ngaira, a MUNACA member and former course lecturer, had her teaching contract terminated because of the strike.

Ngaira worked in the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies as a thesis and graduation administrator, and was slated to teach a 400-level Swahili course in the African Studies department this fall.
After considering legal action, Ngaira reached an agreement with McGill that will see her paid 20 per cent of what her salary would have been for teaching the class. McGill also sent her a letter apologizing for her “last-minute termination.”

In terminating Ngaira’s contract, McGill cited an area of the Quebec Labour Code, which states that employers cannot utilize “the services of an employee who is a member of the bargaining unit then on strike.”

Officials from the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill, the union that represents course lecturers, teaching assistants, and invigilators, said that the area of the Labour Code is intended to prevent the use of strike breakers, and that McGill is the only employer they know of to use such an interpretation.

Ngaira is still on the picket line for MUNACA, but says that the issue of her course lecturer contract was “handled well” by the administration.

with files from Henry Gass

Due to an editorial error, the printed version of this article (News, Sep 19, pg. 5) stated that Hartman cancelled her first class; rather, her first class was not scheduled until the week following the first day of the Fall semester.