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Who’s afraid of a faculty union?

McGill exceptionalism and its discontents

What are professors? Are they collegians, with administrators as colleagues? Or are they workers, with bosses, like almost everyone else? What say should they have in the way McGill is run in the future?

McGill is the only university in the city of Montreal without a union representing its professors. Concordia, Université de Montréal (UdeM), and Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) all have them. In fact, Concordia has two: one for full-time profs and another for part-timers. The professors at UQAM went on a month-long strike in 2009 in response to internal austerity measures. Three weeks ago, Concordia’s part-time faculty voted 95 per cent to authorize a strike mandate for their union leadership, following several months of strenuous contract negotiations.

It is no secret that the culture of McGill – among students, professors, and administrators – is the most conservative of the Montreal universities. The vast majority of McGill students did not want anything to do with the red squares of the Printemps Érable (and some donned small green squares to prove it). Faculty members here are likewise almost universally unconcerned with forming a labour union. Almost.

Amidst all the collegiality at McGill, there is a small group of professors who are asking some serious questions about their place at this university. Recent changes to professors’ pension plans have left a bad taste in the mouths of many, because of both the changes themselves and the way in which they were introduced.

Last year changed things in Montreal, and here, too. Only time will tell just how much, and in what ways.


The strength of Quebec’s union culture comes from the massive wave of organization during the Quiet Revolution, as the province awoke from the Grande Noirceur of the Duplessis era. McGill was a bit late to the party, but we’re getting there. In the past five years, the support employees (mostly students), research employees, course lecturers, and invigilators have all formed unions or joined existing ones. We’ve had some strikes too – AGSEM (the union of teaching assistants) struck in the spring of 2008, and MUNACA (non-academic staff) was on strike throughout last fall – but they have left campus racked with bitterness, and professors’ responses to these disputes have been far from unanimous. So what is it about McGill’s culture that prevents faculty unionization? And how might it change?

There is a belief that McGill is in some way different and better than the universities that surround it. We are the Harvard of the North. We were founded in the Edenic epoch of the 1820s. We have old stone buildings. Fuck you, bumblebees. Trite as it may sound, it is clear that this mode of thought affects governance and academic labour here. “Upper administration acts as if it’s an honour to be here,” East Asian Studies professor Thomas Lamarre told me. Lamarre no longer finds that notion as compelling as it once was. One retired professor who spent forty years here said that there’s a sense that “unions are for the people who clean the toilets.”

As it stands, McGill’s professors can choose to be part of the McGill Association of University Teachers (MAUT). A lot of them do. According to Alvin Shrier, the association’s president, there are over 900 members, representing between 55 and 60 per cent of the teaching body. A lot of them don’t join, though. Professors can be elected to Senate, but many of them feel, in the words of one pro-union prof on Senate, that the body will never have more than “a weak veto power.”

Observe the McGill website’s organizational chart. Senior administrators and bodies like the Board of Governors are represented by a familiar McGill concept: small bubbles. When you click on a name or a governing body, the people over whom the bubble has power become illuminated, with the chain of authority represented by thin black lines. Senate’s bubble sits to the side, however, unmoored and unconnected with any thin black lines, neither more nor less powerful than any other actor in governance. When clicked, it illuminates nothing.


There are only two seats for academic staff on the McGill Board of Governors, which has the final say on all matters of policy. So MAUT is currently the only game in town for many professors. But MAUT is also not certified as a union, and cannot negotiate collective agreements or contracts for working conditions, as unions do.

Shrier, a professor of Physiology, told me about one of the ways in which he brings faculty concerns to higher ups like Principal Heather Munroe-Blum and Provost Anthony Masi. “We sit down and we have a nice conversation, oftentimes over a lunch, where we can discuss issues of concern from both sides. And it is, I like to say, a collegial conversation.”

Collegiality is a concept and a word of ultimate import to MAUT. It guides everything the organization does. They have a whole committee devoted to it. Shrier used the word repeatedly in our hour-long conversation. In the most recent issue of the MAUT newsletter, then-VP Communications Terry Hébert writes to members with a collegiality-inked pen. MUNACA strike? Shows cracks in collegiality. Changes to the pension plan? Rather uncollegial. The Faculty Club on McTavish? Cheery and collegial.

Several professors I spoke to who favour unionization described MAUT and its devotion to collegiality as an “old-boys’ club,” and a weak body for faculty advocacy.

Shrier has become acquainted with Provost Anthony Masi through their time in Senate, and sees him as a colleague. He has chaired Senate committees that Masi has sat on, and vice versa.* He rejects the categorization, though. “I’m not an ‘old-boy,” he said, stressing that his involvement in MAUT leadership is a relatively new endeavor, having been tapped for leadership only out of a dearth of interest.

Derek Nystrom, a professor in the English department, doesn’t share MAUT’s love of collegiality. For him, collegiality is the Febreze that hides a bad smell, rather than a fresh mountain stream. “The incessant repetition of the word collegiality is a kind of reaction formation to the fact that it’s not a collegial environment, that in fact the decisions of the University are largely top down,” he said.

In 2010, Nystrom had four pro-union posters about course lecturers torn off the door of his office. The posters were ordered torn down by Masi. Nystrom never heard anything about it from MAUT, even after the story was covered in The Daily and the wider Montreal press. Not collegial. Nystrom said that his prior job at a college in the United States was “a genuinely collegial experience of shared governance. And yet never once when I was there did I hear anyone ever say ‘collegiality,’ because we didn’t have to say it.”


During the MUNACA strike last fall, a number of professors got together under the banner (sometimes literally) of the McGill Faculty Labour Action Group (MFLAG) to advocate for the support workers. As the strike got nastier and nastier, MFLAG members penned a series of open letters, some gathering hundreds of signatures. In the spring, MFLAG moved on to advocating for students who were facing disciplinary charges as a result of protest actions.

A professor speaking on condition of anonymity said that MFLAG provided an outlet for “isolated faculty.”

“It was such a relief,” the professor said. Many of the professors who got involved in MFLAG have now begun to talk openly about wanting to start a proper union. Some would like to use MAUT as a starting point to move towards a union, while others would rather reject the association altogether.

The sense of separation between some faculty and the administration has been growing in the past few years. Many professors supported the unionization of course lecturers by AGSEM over the course of 2010, and objected to the way in which McGill treated the efforts of the union to organize them. Last year, the administration threatened the salaries of professors who wanted to take their classes off campus so as not to cross the picket line. At least one professor never crossed the picket line, and wasn’t paid.

A year ago, as MUNACA workers picketed yards away from the James Administration building, McGill initiated broad changes to the faculty pension program. Most pension plans are defined benefit (DB) plans, into which both the employee and employer make contributions. Post-retirement income is guaranteed, and is not tied to the fluctuations in the stock market. This creates something of a cushion for employees, because if the pension tanks in the stock market, the employer is still required to pay out benefits. Professors hired at McGill before January 1, 2009 will stick with the old hybrid pension plan, which combined elements of a DB plan with a defined contribution plan (DC). Professors hired after January 1, 2009 will move to a pure DC plan. The new plan passes the risk on to the employee, but will save McGill money. It is the new risk associated with an increasingly volatile stock market that has some McGill professors worried. Faculty members at all other universities in Montreal have DB plans.

Professors are upset about more than the changes to the plan. The plan was changed with little to no consultation – let alone approval – with professors on any large scale. As a result, we now see MAUT questioning the manner in which decisions are made about professors’ working conditions.

In MAUT’s November 2011 newsletter – its most recent – the association’s Professional and Legal Officer Joseph Varga printed a survey of pension plans at 26 Canadian universities, and reviewed the processes by which pension decisions get made. Only two universities in Canada, the University of British Columbia and the University of Western Ontario, have purely DC plans. Concordia, UdeM, and the UQ system all have DB plans. Of the 26 schools Varga looked at, half required faculty association approval for changes to the pension plan, and more still required at least some form of consultation.

The final paragraph of Varga’s explanation of the survey perhaps best sums up our professors’ concerns with the way the pension issue was handled here: “A minority [of universities surveyed] allow for unilateral Board-approved changes to their pension plans. Approximately 80 per cent of the faculty associations have extensive agreements with their respective institutions concerning access to information, especially useful when negotiating compensation issues, including pensions. McGill is not one of them.”

Shrier acknowledged that if there had been a union, maybe the pension issue would have been resolved differently. Ultimately, for Shrier, the movement toward a DC pension with increased employee contributions was something that needed to happen anyway, because of McGill’s current financial situation. The collegial approach, as opposed to the union/adversarial approach, “is not hurting us,” he said. The defined contribution plan may not be what professors want, but it’s what McGill needs.

For Lamarre, the new pension plan is somewhat grim. “The logic is that if you can’t succeed in the stock market then probably you should die.”  If the anonymous pro-union professor who joined MAUT is trying to change the thing from within, then Lamarre – who has a pair of doctorates in fields ranging from oceanology to Japanese poetry – is the bomb-thrower on the outside wanting to tear down its walls. (Bomb-throwing aside, Shrier and Lamarre were equally collegial during our interviews, both offering me tea.)

The process of asking the administration for concessions in the MAUT context is degrading, in Lamarre’s mind. “Not a kind of abuse we should accept,” he said.

Speaking at a CKUT-sponsored lunch at Community Square in front of James Administration on November 16, Lamarre told the assembled crowd that activists at McGill need to adopt a distinctly administration-style tactic: preemption. “We have to act preemptively. Let’s all just unionize now, we don’t need permission. We don’t have to beg for leniency,” he said into a scratchy microphone after holding a banner reading “McGill Feminist Anarchist Bloc.”


The current agitations surrounding unionization are not the first attempts at starting a faculty union. For that, we have to go back to the 1970s.

Sam Noumoff was a Political Science professor from 1967 until 2006, and was one of the original handful of professors who worked on an early unionization campaign in the 1970s. He and others gathered as many as 120 professors into a fledgling McGill Faculty Union (MFU), but the effort never made it to certification. Noumoff said that some of the difficulties in attracting membership were the MFU’s ties to the Confédération des syndicats nationaux, which was seen as “too francophone, and too radical.”

An October 1973 MFU letter of support for striking support workers asks colleagues not to cross picket lines. “We believe that no employer has the moral right to ask employees to cross a picket line to come to work,” the unsigned letter reads.

The MFU sued the McGill administration and MAUT for engaging in collective bargaining without the mandate to do so. MAUT said it was merely “consulting.” Noumoff and his fellow unionists lost in court, and that was that – no faculty union. The difficulty in organizing, however, was deeper than the courts, and had something to do with that old McGill exceptionalism. The sense was, Noumoff said, that “the McGill tradition, whatever that is, would be trumped by a collective agreement.”

While some are advocating for the abandonment of MAUT in favour of something new, there are several professors who are actively working on the democratization of university governance from within.

Greg Mikkelson is one of them. Mikkelson was among the many McGillians beaten by riot police while walking across campus during the November 10 festivities. But his work on changing university governance started long before then. He began advocating for a more ethical pension plan in 2003, which eventually became available in 2008. The new ethical option, it turned out, wasn’t so ethical, with stocks in mining companies and other nasties. Mikkelson ran for MAUT Council last year, and was elected to a two-year term. In his biographical statement from the candidacy he wrote, “Over 10 years of experience have convinced me that we need to democratize McGill from top to bottom. First the teaching assistants, then the non-academic staff, and finally students have risen up against un-collegial, authoritarian administration. It is time for us to join these other McGill constituencies in exercising our freedom and responsibility to govern.” (Collegiality, Mikkelson said, should really be a synonym for democracy.)

Mikkelson is hesitant to say what his specific plans are for the MAUT council, but said he is “agnostic” about unionization. Unions for him are “second best to worker control.” “In the context of a university, it would be worker and student control,” he told me.

As to what effect worker control would have on a place like McGill? After thinking for a long moment, Mikkelson responded with a question of his own.

“Ultimately, who knows? I believe it would transform teaching and research at McGill in all kinds of beneficial ways.”

Though he now lives in Châteauguay on Montreal’s South Shore, Noumoff – the union advocate from the attempt in the 1970s – has kept abreast of recent developments at McGill through an email list he called the McGill Wildcats. I asked him if he thought the events of last year and the pension issue would be enough to spur faculty here toward unionization, and his answer was a short, and definitive “Nope.” He echoed Nystrom, saying that if the pension issue didn’t provoke a union drive, “god knows what will.” Noumoff, however, has placed the blame for the current state of affairs at McGill at the feet of an interesting set of culprits: himself and his colleagues.

“It’s natural for an administrator to aggregate as much power as they can. That’s just the way a large bureaucratic institution will function, and the question is, is somebody going to push back? And we didn’t push back.”


*Editor’s note: The committees that Shier sat on with Masi were non-Senate committees.