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Discussing labour issues on an unsympathetic campus

Second installment of Labour Week kicks off on November 4

This Monday marks the beginning of the second annual installment of McGill’s Labour Week, a week-long event aimed at exploring the labour movement at McGill and in Quebec. McGill’s Inter Union Council (IUC), a group of labour unions at McGill, has worked to create a variety of workshops, panels, and talks, in hopes of promoting awareness about the function and purpose of the many different McGill unions.

Labour Week was started last spring after some members of the IUC began to see that general knowledge of unions at McGill, even among students who are union members, was low.

“We’ve noticed a lot of our members don’t really talk about or don’t really understand what the purpose is of having a union,” said AGSEM: McGill’s Teaching Union Vice-President for Invigilators and TAs Sunci Avlijas, one of the organizers of Labour Week. “[We] wanted to have some kind of event where the members of the McGill community [could] have a discussion about labour.”

According to Avlijas, last year’s Labour Week received a positive response, though it had a low turn-out because it wasn’t publicized extensively. There has been much more publicity for this year’s event.

A number of changes in the organization of the week have the IUC hoping that this year’s Labour Week will be even ‘bigger and better’ than last year. Workshop proposals came from members of the McGill community, creating more content diversity and leaving the IUC with more time for planning the event itself.

One of the sessions included this year is a panel on current issues in labour, led by Caroline Jacquet and Thomas Lafontaine, representatives of UQAM’s student employees’ association, Syndicat des étudiant-e-s employé-e-s de l’UQAM (SÉTUE), and Jamie Burnett, AGSEM’s Invigilator Grievance Officer. Burnett will be speaking about the different agreements that exist between unions and employers in the United States and Canada, such as the Rand Formula, and the existence of right-to-work policy in the southern U.S., as well as problems that can arise from the various forms of agreements.

Jacquet and Lafontaine will focus on how the legal right to strike has been compromised in many parts of Quebec and Canada. They will speak about the barriers that exist within strike-related legislation that can make union worker strikes difficult to organize. As well, they will compare the situation of the labour movement to that of the student-led strikes of 2012, where strike mobilization was considerably easier, despite a lack of clear policy protecting strikers.

McGill’s treatment of labour issues has left much to be desired in the past, according to Burnett. “The MUNACA [McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association] strike in 2011 was a very clear example of the erosion of the legal right to strike,” he said.

At the time, the University filed injunctions that prevented strikers from holding symbolic picket lines, and was also accused of using casual workers to replace striking MUNACA members. However, McGill was cleared of the charges of using scab workers by the Commission des relations du travail.

“On the one hand, MUNACA is prevented from holding a minimal symbolic picket, which at no point ever prevented anyone from getting onto campus; on the other hand, the Quebec government is not keeping its side of the bargain, effectively giving McGill carte blanche to use its most vulnerable casual workers to undermine others,” Burnett claimed.

McGill’s unions continue to be dissatisfied with the University’s treatment of current labour issues. Sean Cory, President of the Association of McGill University Research Employees (AMURE), listed two potential changes affecting unionized workers: the modification in pay frequency, and the 2.2 per cent raise in employee contributions to the pension plan.

These changes represent a combined loss of $120 to $200 in monthly income for workers, according to an email from Cory sent to AMURE members. “It is an unbelievable cut in pay. We have employees who do not know where this money is going to come from,” he told The Daily.

Cory finds that the proposed changes unfairly target unionized workers. “The pay frequency change is only going to affect unionized employees – they decided not to do it to the non-unionized employees,” he said. “A lot of people are wondering why only the unions are affected by this.”

The unions have already taken action. “MUNACA has filed a complaint to the labour board about being targeted because we’re unionized. We’re going to have a hearing next month about this. So it’s not looking good for being unionized labour at McGill,” Cory added.

According to Burnett, the recent budget cuts do not justify McGill’s attacks on workers. “Almost all of the attacks on workers and unions right now at McGill are said by McGill to be necessary because of the budget cuts. One question is whether or not those budget cuts themselves are necessary: for example, McGill did not accept additional support from the Quebec government which would have mediated the effects of provincial funding cuts, instead electing to take the cuts right away with the hopes of passing the cost onto its employees, especially its unionized employees.”

Burnett is convinced that strong unions are vital to protecting workers’ rights at McGill.

“What is clear is that unions at McGill need to be strong and united to stand up to those attacks. Labour Week has been a great platform for McGill’s unions to work together and to discuss important issues – something we would very much like to see continue.”

Labour Week runs from November 4 to 8. For more information about events, visit