The McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA) commenced a general strike at 6 a.m. this morning, the first day of classes for McGill students. MUNACA represents more than 1,700 workers, including library staff, lab technicians, and registration staff.
Over 200 McGill staff and students attended a rally outside the James Administration building yesterday. Members of MUNACA as well as the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM), SSMU, and the Association of McGill Undergraduate Support Employees (AMUSE) were present.
Some MUNACA members expressed disappointment that there was not a strong faculty presence at the demonstration, as the pension plan cuts against which MUNACA protests affect all employees of McGill.
“[The administration] crossed the line when they started attacking the pension and benefit plans,” said Sean Devlin, a MUNACA member who has worked at the McGill bookstore for 22 years.
Devlin said that he believed the strike would be prolonged because McGill Principal “Heather [Munroe-Blum] is very stubborn…and probably won’t budge an inch.”
McGill and MUNACA have met 23 times since January to negotiate a new collective agreement, but with no progress made on MUNACA’s primary issues, members voted last week to provide their executive with a strike mandate.
MUNACA maintains that the details of their demands are parity with other universities. Currently, McGill’s proposal is an offer of a 1.2 per cent wage increase in reply to a demand for a 3 per cent increase, which MUNACA cites as the rise in cost of living over the past three years.
Another issue for MUNACA workers is the $1 million that McGill University cut from pension plans in January 2010. MUNACA is demanding protection for pensions so the administration cannot unilaterally implement changes to the pension plan, as well as restoration of damages made to pension and benefit plans.
“We just don’t feel we’re being respected,” said Suzanne Larivière, a student affairs coordinator and MUNACA member. Her comment echoed the sentiments of many of the members at the demonstration, some of whom carried faux severed limbs signifying they had sacrificed enough for the University.
In an email sent to McGill students and staff on Tuesday, Michael Di Grappa, VP Administration and Finance, claimed that agreement with MUNACA “can only be achieved within the context of the financial realities that challenge us. As you know, the University is already facing a substantial deficit this year as well as a significant accumulated debt. This financial situation is further aggravated by the recent additional turmoil in economic markets.”
Kevin Whittaker, president of MUNACA, addressed the demonstration and responded to Di Grappa’s argument. “We know that there are financial problems out there,” Whittaker said. “Unfortunately, the administration doesn’t seem to be suffering from them. We’re spending $2.1 million on one floor! If we’re in such dire need, then put that money to better use.”
The $2.1 million figure refers to renovations on the third floor of the James Administration building, a project that includes removal of asbestos and construction of new conference rooms. Slightly over $190,000 was necessary for asbestos tests and removal, according to the budget MUNACA received through an Access to Information request.
Whittaker also addressed the policy of 1 per cent annual automatic progression within respective salary scales. Under this system, it would take 37 years for workers to reach their pay ceiling. “I don’t want to die before I reach my top [salary]. And I don’t want any of you to die before you reach your tops,” Whittaker told the crowd.
Joël Pedneault, SSMU VP External, also spoke to the crowd, telling them that as students fight tuition increases and unions fight for their demands, “Our struggle and your struggle are the same struggle.”
As an affiliate of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), MUNACA has access to the PSAC strike fund, which enables full-time workers to receive compensation of up to $375 per week, provided they participate in strike activities.
According to the Quebec Labour Code, employers are prohibited from utilizing the services of MUNACA members, as well as from utilizing the services of another contractor to discharge the duties of a striking employee. A person or institution that violates this provision “is liable to a fine of not more than $1,000 for every day or part of a day during which the offence continues.”
MUNACA has encouraged members to report to union headquarters if they suspect another worker is completing their duties.
The administration refused to comment further than an email from Morton Mendelson, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning). Mendelson stressed that academic expectations remain unchanged, and assured students that McGill would try to “minimize the strike’s impact” on them. Regular email and website updates from McGill will inform students of reduced hours or services.
AGSEM, which is also in negotiations with the University, wrote a letter declaring that the union is “in support and solidarity” with MUNACA, and encouraged members to avoid crossing picket lines.
“We’re advising members to absolutely not scab. If they’re asked to do any unusual workload or take over any of the duties of MUNACA members, to refuse, and contact us immediately, so we can take immediate action,” said Jonathan Mooney, a member of AGSEM’s bargaining team.
AGSEM also announced yesterday that they now represent McGill’s 1,300 course lecturers. The announcement came after an 18-month “UDrive,” a unionization drive for course lecturers. The addition of course lecturers means that AGSEM is “a bigger union, much more powerful, so we have greater solidarity,” said Lenora Lewis, AGSEM president.
Likewise, AMUSE informed members that, though the union is not on strike, it is supportive of MUNACA.
“Everything that affects MUNACA affects AMUSE and vice versa, because we’re both negotiating on the same campus with the same entity,” said AMUSE Labour Relations Officer David Howden.
AMUSE workers are advised to go to work and complete only tasks that they normally complete, taking care not to complete duties normally assigned to MUNACA members.
Farid Attar Rifai, president of AMUSE, added that “AMUSE workers have the choice not to cross the picket line at all.”
McGill cancelled a negotiation session with AMUSE on Wednesday, though the parties are scheduled to meet again September 6.
—with files from Erin Hudson and Jessica Lukawiecki