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Tensions between McGill, union over campaign-related communications

Email contact during working hours can violate labour code, University says

The McGill administration is challenging student associations’ right to freely promote AGSEM – McGill’s Teaching Union’s ongoing unionization campaign to their members, The Daily has learned. AGSEM’s campaign, which seeks to unionize undergraduate teaching support staff, including teaching assistants, course graders, and note-takers, has been endorsed by both the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) and the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS), with SSMU having been further mandated to “assist in distributing information about the union drive to its members.”

According to AGSEM Grievance Officer (Invigilators) and Interim Union Drive Coordinator Jamie Burnett, McGill’s interpretation of Article 5 of the Quebec Labour Code, which prohibits any person acting “in the name or on behalf of an association of employees” from “solicit[ing] an employee to join an association” during working hours, would interfere with SSMU and PGSS’s ability to promote the campaign to their members via email.

“McGill indicated to us that their interpretation of the Quebec Labour Code was such that it was not possible for anyone to communicate about a unionization campaign – such as the campaign that we’re currently engaged in to unionize teaching support workers – that it’s not possible for anyone to use McGill emails to communicate about that campaign,” Burnett said in an interview with The Daily.

“We think that the interpretation McGill is putting forward has no basis, and we think it’s really troubling that they’re using this interpretation to try to prevent the free association of students who have independent student associations [that] are free to adopt the position they’re willing to adopt,” added Burnett.

McGill’s Director of Labour and Employee Relations Robert Comeau did not entirely dispute this interpretation, but clarified that contacting employees via email to promote a unionization campaign was only prohibited during working hours.

“You’re not allowed to contact the employees during the time they’re at work,” Comeau told The Daily. “Contact means physically, or [sending] them an email, or [calling] them if you want to recruit them to form a new union. That’s the labour code.”

Comeau also confirmed that, in the University’s view, the prohibition applied to individuals and organizations that are not part of a union, such as a student association.

“If you’re contacting somebody to invite them to form a union, the labour code does apply, whether or not you’re a member of the [union],” said Comeau.

Burnett argued that McGill’s interpretation of the code was not in the spirit of the law, and distinguished between interfering with an employee’s work and merely sending them an email during working hours.

“I don’t think that’s a reasonable interpretation of how email works. People send emails at any time, people receive emails at any time; the employees that we’re unionizing are people who can be working at all hours of the day,” said Burnett.

“The question is really about when does the activity involve the employee – and I think that it’s really not reasonable to claim that someone who’s a grader, who’s working maybe twenty hours during the semester, can’t use their email because they might be working.”

Comeau noted that it would ultimately be up to the Commission des normes du travail, Quebec’s labour board, to decide whether the union drive was conducted legally.

“If somebody doesn’t respect the labour code when they’re trying to unionize a group, that could mean that their motion, if ever they file one, could be rejected,” said Comeau. “Of course, the board would have to make that decision.”

Echoing Burnett’s concerns, SSMU VP External Amina Moustaqim-Barrette expressed unease with the fact the the University would attempt to interfere with SSMU’s communications to its members.

“I think that it is a bit disturbing that McGill is trying to limit the communications that [SSMU] is having with its constituents,” Moustaqim-Barrette told The Daily. “[SSMU] is just mandated to distribute this information so that people are aware, and we are held to high standards of accountability and transparency. I find that it is frustrating that McGill is trying to limit the Society’s ability to do that.”