News  Grad students vote to support striking workers

McGill representatives absent at Council debate

McGill University Post Graduate Student Society (PGSS) councillors voted yesterday at their first council meeting this year in favour of a motion to support striking non-academic workers’ negotiations with McGill.

The motion stated that PGSS “support the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA) in their ongoing negotiations with McGill for fair and equitable working conditions and parity with the working conditions in other Quebec universities.”

The motion was passed with 20 councillors for, 11 against, and 4 abstentions.

Before the vote, MUNACA President Kevin Whittaker opened discussion with a brief overview of negotiations leading up to and following the union’s declaration of strike on September 1. Whittaker reiterated MUNACA’s four main demands toward McGill, which include recognition of seniority during the hiring process, and the reinstatement of benefits that union members held before changes were made in January 2010.

Debate over the motion persisted for nearly an hour between the speaking gallery, PGSS councillors and Whittaker. Discussion centered around whether supporting MUNACA was in the best interest of the graduate students PGSS represents.

Mechanical Engineering Councillor Timotei Centea was the first to voice concerns.

“I would think the interest of PGSS as a representative of the students is to make sure the strike ends as soon as possible and not to support either side. What I’m asking is, what is the rationale of us entering a labour debate?”

PGSS President Roland Nassim defended the motion, stating, “We are not necessarily entering a labour dispute by taking one side or the other – that is why the motion does not specifically say what in MUNACA’s demands we support and we don’t. We want them to continue negotiating until they reach an agreement.”

“When McGill says, ‘We also want fair and equitable working conditions, then we would add McGill on there,” he continued.

VP University and Academic Affairs Lily Han also expressed support of the motion, stating that it was not only in support of McGill’s workers, but also the students.

“Yes, it is about MUNACA, but it is also about us students as employees of McGill. Many of us are TAs, many of us are course lecturers, and right now the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) is at the bargaining table, course lecturers are going to the bargaining table, and I think that this is setting a trend. So for us to support this kind of bargaining and push for fair conditions for all employees at McGill is supporting all students at McGill,” Han said.

The executive’s statements were met with disagreement from some council members. Postdoctoral studies councilor Hatem Dokainish voiced his opposition to the motion.

“I think that is the wrong direction for us to be going in. I think it is fair to say we support a quick resolution that is fair to both parties. That in itself is a fair enough statement. To take sides – I don’t think that is our position,” he said.

VP Administration and Finance Michael Di Grappa declined PGSS executives’ request that an administration representative be present at Council. The University is directing the public to their website for further information on the strike.

McGill wants to retain the right to select the best candidate for a position regardless of seniority. The university maintains that MUNACA is only one group out of many that are covered by the benefits plan, though there is an offer to administer MUNACA’s group benefits as a defined contribution model, separate from the all-employee coverage plan.

Before the council meeting, PGSS had not issued an official statement on the strike because their pre-existing policy regarding union support covers only AGSEM, which is also currently in negotiation with McGill.

Lerona Lewis, president of AGSEM, was present during Council to give an update on the union’s different bargaining units across campus. She explained that AGSEM’s demands include minimum hours for teaching assistants and a 3 per cent increase in pay for AGSEM workers.

“AGSEM will only go on strike if the membership gives the mandate to go on strike,” Lewis explained. “We as the executive cannot say we are going on strike.”