Commentary | Casuals of McGill, unite!

Why syndicalist culture is important at McGill

When I started working for McGill in September 2009, I made minimum wage and had zero job security. My job was fine, my supervisors were pleasant, and all in all it was not a terrible experience. I soon came to realize, however, that McGill basically had no policy regarding their temporary employees, and working conditions varied widely among those of us they called casual employees. Many people worked for less than minimum wage; many did complex tasks and were very clearly underpaid. Some were constantly on standby. Some were laid off without warning. This may seem like standard policy for ‘casual’ work done mostly part-time and by undergraduate students, but for many people who depend on these jobs, students and non-students alike, such practices make their lives much more difficult. Some of the practices are actually illegal, and many of them are simply unjust. There can be no excuse for underpaying and generally mismanaging the lowest paid workers in an organization that commands as much wealth and respect as McGill.

Based on these facts, a number of employees conducted a union drive in 2009 and ‘casual’ employees at McGill voted, and decided that the best way to address these grievances en masse was to form a union. This began a long bargaining process that ended in conciliation and the signing of our first Collective Agreement (CA) on April 20, 2012.

The Association of McGill University Support Employees (AMUSE) is the labour union that now represents part-time and full-time non-academic, ‘casual’ positions at McGill. Our CA guarantees all ‘casual’ employees a written contract, minimum wages based on difficulties of tasks, annual salary increases, and more.

Since the CA is new however, and represents a drastic change in the labour practices governing our members at McGill, our trickiest and most important task now is to ensure that it is implemented. There are a few things that make this task particularly difficult for AMUSE.

Labour unions usually represent people who work in the same place and do similar tasks. AMUSE is an awkward collection of employees who work in different buildings and have radically different tasks. AMUSE represents the people who tend the livestock at Mac Campus, bookstore employees, administrative clerks, timekeepers, full-time MUNACA replacements – and the list goes on. This means that everything we do takes longer, and must be done with the particularities of each ‘casual’ position in mind.

Another problem intrinsic to a part-time university sector union is high turnover of membership, and by extension, of union executives and staff. Labour relations are complicated, and involve lots of specialized knowledge that can only be gained by experience. Therefore it is critical for us to keep our members involved as long as possible, and to ensure that  new generations of AMUSE members are involved early.

We need to make sure the standards in the CA are respected. Nobody working even for one hour at McGill should be without a written contract. Nobody should be making less than $10 an hour, and nobody should be laid off by surprise come the end of semester without proper notice because ‘there’s not much to do around here anymore.’ This will continue to happen, even though it’s illegal, until we build a culture of looking out for one another and communicating grievances with each other, the supervisor, and, if necessary, an AMUSE representative.

AMUSE will only be effective if its membership is involved. On October 10 at 5 p.m. in Leacock 232, AMUSE will hold a general assembly to vote on a motion regarding the dues rate. There will be refreshments, but most importantly it is an opportunity to get to know your co-workers and union representatives. If you can’t make it, why not check out our website or drop by our office (2015 Drummond, #901).

AMUSE can be a skeleton organization with little bargaining power, poor communication with its membership, and no institutional memory, or it can be a powerful tool in making our working experience at McGill better. It’s up to the membership to decide.

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