On Thursday, October 20, the Association of McGill University Support Employees (AMUSE) held a special general assembly (GA) where attendees discussed the state of the union, ongoing negotiations with McGill regarding its collective agreement, and to vote on a strike mandate.
AMUSE, accredited in 2010, is the main union representing a network of casual or temporary employees at McGill University, 85 per cent of whose membership consists of student employees on campus. The union has been working since May 2015 to negotiate its second collective agreement with the University.
In an email to The Daily, Maxim Baru, AMUSE Communications and Outreach Officer, clarified the problems with AMUSE’s current collective agreement. “Unions negotiating their first collective agreements are forbidden from striking, thus severely limiting their ability to bargain collectively,” he explained.
“Unions negotiating their first collective agreements are forbidden from striking, thus severely limiting their ability to bargain collectively.”
Baru further claimed that another issue is “McGill University’s apparent commitment to creating greater worker insecurity on campus with the aim to pay people less both directly in terms of low wages, as well as denying us any benefits whatsoever.”
Negotiations have taken place in closed sessions between the elected bargaining team representing AMUSE, McGill’s negotiation team, and a conciliator.
So far, according to Baru, AMUSE has negotiated “further definitions about what psychological harassment looks like and how the complaint procedure will work,” defined clear rest and meal periods provided to employees, further defined employees’ rights under Quebec law, and that an employee will get paid within thirty days of beginning their contract.
However, “while we’ve made progress on some items,” Baru wrote, “McGill University’s position remains opposed to many items of our basic proposal which aims to bring us up to par with our permanent employee counterparts.”
“McGill University [has an] apparent commitment to creating greater worker insecurity on campus with the aim to pay people less both directly in terms of low wages, as well as denying us any benefits whatsoever.”
During the special general assembly, AMUSE members discussed collective agreement priorities and the status of ongoing negotiations, and passed a strike mandate with a majority vote of 82 per cent of those who were present.
Prior to entering negotiations with McGill, AMUSE members voted on bargaining priorities, which included recognition of the contribution of casual employees, increased wages for casual workers, improved job security for those in the Work Study program, and permanency.
The union is particularly dissatisfied with the University’s Work Study program regarding its hiring process and posting system.
“McGill University’s position remains opposed to many items of our basic proposal which aims to bring us up to par with our permanent employee counterparts.”
AMUSE argues that equal treatment of casual workers entails benefits for casual workers, or indemnity for those who cannot receive benefits, contract renewal before contracts are terminated, distinct job titles that accurately reflect the work that is done, and a $15 per hour minimum wage with regular pay increases.
“As a member of the board of representatives […] we’ve been working really hard to mobilize for this GA. It was obviously very important for me, as someone who is active in the union, to be here,” said Kirsten Whelan, a student on the mobilization committee.
Whelan expressed her feelings regarding the state of the bargaining process with the university. “Negotiations have been ongoing on for a year and a half and we haven’t been getting where we need to be. […] In a lot of ways it hasn’t been meeting the needs of our membership.”
“Negotiations have been ongoing on for a year and a half and we haven’t been getting where we need to be. […] In a lot of ways it hasn’t been meeting the needs of our membership.”
AMUSE will be asking for improved posting requirements and hiring priority by seniority for the work study program, as well as ID cards for non-student casual workers. The subsequent bargaining session, on October 24, will focus on the priorities above and call for communication with the union through a committee.
The strike mandate is part of the union’s pressure tactics to move forward on the collective agreement with the University. Previous pressure tactics included putting posters up on campus and handing out pamphlets to McGill Senators before Senate meetings.
To date, the parties discussed “articles on grievance procedure, on the conditions governing access to an employee’s personnel file and on the payment of salaries.”
However the University and the union have not been able to reach an agreement on issues like job posting and granting of other privileges such as McGill ID cards for casual students.
In an interview with The Daily, Claire Michela, President of AMUSE, said, “We’ve reached […] an impasse in bargaining and we’re not going to be able to move forward and support our priorities without the vote of the membership in this way.”
“We’ve reached […] an impasse in bargaining and we’re not going to be able to move forward and support our priorities without the vote of the membership in this way.”
“The vote would give us a strike mandate,” she continued. “So it doesn’t mean we will be going on strike tomorrow, what it means is that the members would have the power, [so] they hold the bargaining priorities and […] the power to call the strike should it be necessary in the coming weeks.”
Michela described the strike mandate as “the most significant moment in AMUSE’s history since its inception,” because “a casual union is very rare in a university campus or anywhere else.”
She added that “the labour movement started because workers were dissatisfied with their conditions and they realized that by organizing collectively, they could have the power to change some things about their workplace and get rid of the harmful aspects of working […], make their conditions safer, more fair, share the fruits of their labour better, […] to end exploitation in the workplace. To show our collective will as a casual union would be […] pretty incredible.”
“To show our collective will as a casual union would be […] pretty incredible.”
Implications of the mandate
During the question period, AMUSE clarified that the strike mandate would allow the bargaining team to call for a strike at any point during the negotiations; however, a strike will only be used when necessary.
The votes were calculated with ballots, available to all members of AMUSE present at the assembly. If a strike is declared, AMUSE members are protected by the legal right to be absent from work under Quebec law.
After the strike mandate was passed by the members, Heather Holdsworth, the elected Vice President of Labour Relations, spoke about the implications of the mandate.
“Our next bargaining session is this coming Monday morning, and now that McGill will know that we have voted to strike should the bargaining team call for a strike, it means that at this bargaining table, we will actually have leverage and power,” she said in an interview with The Daily. “So it’s their turn to present something.”
“[The strike mandate] means that at this bargaining table, we will actually have leverage and power.”
“[The University has] been saying no, they’ve been saying no to everything and for the first time we will really feel empowered walking in there,” Holdsworth continued. “It’s a threat. I mean, a strike mandate is a very serious implication that we have the capability to hold the way that McGill will function for an amount of time.”
Holdsworth concluded by saying, “I’m really hopeful that come Monday, the bargaining tone will be different, now that we have the strike mandate and we can move forward on some of our priorities.”
Whelan also shared her sentiments regarding the majority vote, saying that “this strike mandate that we’ve gotten [from the membership will] be really important going forward in order to ensure that our next collective agreement is stronger than our first one.”
“[The University has] been saying no, they’ve been saying no to everything and for the first time we will really feel empowered walking in there.”
Whelan added that “it’s really exciting to know that we have a […] strong mandate from our membership with such a high percentage of support for a strike mandate. […] I’m really hopeful that this will be productive moving forward in improving our collective agreement.”