News  Negotiations continue on Thomson House lease

PGSS executive, University keeping negotiations confidential

The Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) and the McGill administration are still negotiating over the terms of the Thomson House building lease. The current lease agreement is set to expire on May 31, having been extended by one year to accommodate the negotiations.

Under the present arrangement, PGSS pays $24,000 a year in rent to McGill for Thomson House. According to former PGSS Secretary-General Jonathan Mooney, the current lease does not require PGSS to pay any of the building’s annual utility costs, which total $50,000.

The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) rents the Shatner building at $130,000 per year, and pays $100,000 per year in utility fees. Although SSMU and the administration concluded lease negotiations in the signing of a lease agreement in March 2014, the controversial student fee increases that resulted from the deal were only approved by undergraduates in the Fall 2014 referendum on October 1. A similar fee failed to pass in the Winter 2014 referendum period.

Mooney told The Daily that he thought PGSS’s financial situation would differ from SSMU’s after negotiations conclude, pointing out that Thomson House is smaller than the Shatner building and costs less to heat.

PGSS Financial Affairs Officer Nikki Meadows agreed. “I think that you’re talking about two very different entities.”

However, Lorenzo Daieff, a former McGill Graduate Association of Political Studies Students representative told The Daily in an email, “It is my understanding that we will definitely be paying for utilities […] which will up the price we pay substantially.”

“It seems counterintuitive that McGill could just raise fees by that much and we’d be happy,” he added.

Transparency of negotiations

At present, both PGSS and the University have agreed not to discuss the terms of the lease negotiations with the public.

Mooney, who initiated the lease negotiations when he was in office in 2013, said there is no need to hold negotiations in secret, but that the reason that PGSS and the University observe confidentiality is because of “an implicit agreement between the parties […] to respect the fact that negotiations will continue, that they’re ongoing.”

However, he explained that confidentiality is often not observed when other organizations negotiate with the University. “I know in other cases, for example when different unions negotiate with McGill, they will often publicize […] exactly what happened in each negotiation – and that’s a valid strategy,” he said.

SSMU VP University Affairs Claire Stewart-Kanigan expressed concern over the opaque nature of negotiations with McGill. “My primary concern with the SSMU lease is the pressure from the McGill administration to keep negotiations private throughout,” she told The Daily in an email. “The demand for private negotiations further skewed the power balance between the administration and SSMU in McGill’s favour.”

“The PGSS lease provides the administration with an opportunity to adopt a higher standard of transparency in negotiations with student associations,” she continued. “Students deserve to be aware of, [and] provide input to, ongoing negotiations that directly affect them.”

Members of the PGSS executive gave no indication that the administration was pressuring them to maintain confidentiality, however. “It’s not good practice, seriously. […] It’s just the principle of how negotiation works,” said Meadows. “In poker, you’re not going to reveal your hand before you have to, are you?”

Student response

The fee increases that resulted from SSMU’s lease agreement with the University generated significant backlash among undergraduates.

“PGSS will [be] facing similar issues to SSMU with regards to the University’s aim for them eventually to take on paying utilities in Thomson House,” predicted Stewart-Kanigan, who added that transparency makes a difference to how students perceive lease negotiations.

“It’s possible that [PGSS] will ask for a fee increase and then people will debate whether that’s a good idea,” added Mooney, referring to the possibility of an unfavourable reaction of PGSS members to the lease. “But I think the magnitude [of the reaction] would be less.”

“I very much hope that there’s not a huge backlash […] I very much hope that whatever lease comes out of this [is] something that our members can see and understand and it’s something that makes sense to them,” said Meadows.

McGill’s representative in the PGSS negotiations, Vilma Campbell, declined to comment.