On August 19, the labour union representing SSMU employees (SSMUnion) released a press release announcing its intention to present and ratify a collective agreement (CA) on August 29. SSMU management and the union had come to an agreement in principle on May 27, yet according to the press release, SSMU has attempted to reopen negotiations since. As such, SSMUnion will be lodging a formal complaint with the Tribunal administratif du travail against SSMU on the grounds of bargaining in bad faith.
“An agreement in principle is essentially where you say, okay, we’ve gotten through everything we need to negotiate,” explains Mo Rajji Courtney, president of SSMUnion. The bargaining parties reached this agreement through verbal understanding on May 27, and they later followed up via email to discuss ratification by the union’s members.
The agreement was reached after a year and a half of negotiations, which began in summer 2020 when SSMUnion sent SSMU a notice of presentation. That summer, SSMUnion worked toward presenting SSMU with a draft collective agreement. “Typically, you go in with a bunch of demands, and you talk about those demands, and then you draft things afterwards,” explains Courtney. “But we knew that SSMU has a lot of issues with turnover, that they are slow on things, […] so we decided to draft up a collective agreement based on similar collective agreements from similar unions.” SSMUnion management studied other unions in the university sector and student unions. Management worked with their parent union, CUPE, which also represents the Concordia Student Union, which has what Courtney cited as “the Lamborghini of collective agreements” and has been quite successful.
Both Courtney and Tali Ioselevich, Vice-President of SSMUnion, explained that one of SSMUnion’s biggest goals in the CA is to get rid of the casual staff designation on SSMU contracts. Most SSMU employees are currently designated as casual staff – meaning they don’t have access to health insurance, paid time off, and other basic protections. Furthermore, many of these employees have been working for years at SSMU, but the casual position makes it very difficult to accumulate seniority and qualify for EI and other benefits. “All of these problems made for very precarious employment,” says Courtney. They added that there are currently between 100 and 150 employees under the casual staff designation versus about a dozen permanent employees.
When presented with the draft collective agreement, SSMU told SSMUnion management that they wanted their attorneys to look over the draft before they voted on it. “That is okay, that is your right,” comments Courtney, “But the problem is that […] it took us two years to negotiate. In that time the laws have changed.” They explained that, for example, a section of the law or an article cited might now be outdated. “The attorneys on the other side […] might say, this phrasing isn’t quite clear,” they continued, “We can make this better phrasing or we can make this align better with our obligations by doing this.”
Instead of honouring the agreement in principle and recommending it for ratification, SSMU moved to reopen negotiations on July 14. To the knowledge of SSMUnion management, no vote was held on July 14 – the day SSMU said they would hold it – because the organization wanted to send the CA to their attorneys first. Thus, between May 27 and July 14, SSMU never sent the agreement to the attorneys and did not obtain their input until July 14, Courtney says. “They have had 18 months to get the attorneys involved, and they haven’t,” they commented, “And then when they brought back the attorneys’ comments, it was almost entirely renegotiation.”
Ioselevich added that this CA has now seen three separate student executive committees and at least two different HR directors negotiating on SSMU management’s side. “What the failure to consult their legal team on this shows is that no one bothered to do their homework by reading minutes or leaving exit reports, which points to SSMU’s lack of institutional memory,” wrote Ioselevich in an email to the Daily. “Only after the agreement in principle was reached did they think to consult legal counsel, after which point reopening negotiations was no longer on the table.”
Instead of discussing the renegotiated terms in a meeting, on July 21, SSMUnion management received an email from SSMU containing an 11-page document with 50 amendments. Courtney suggested that it was clearly a document that SSMU had received directly from its attorneys. According to them, it was apparent that SSMU management had not reviewed the document, as it was not reformatted to make it more understandable, and there was no indication of which items were of higher priority. “[The attorneys] weren’t in the room when we were negotiating, so we actually disagree with their proposed amendments,” Courtney commented. SSMUnion management responded to the email that they were opposed to reopening negotiations after reaching the agreement in principle, and that in principle the proposed amendments were unacceptable. In response, SSMU management promised they would send back a revised document.
Courtney explained that SSMUnion did not receive the revised document until hours before ratification on August 29. “They had been notified, I believe, three weeks in advance of the collective agreement ratification being when it happened, and they chose until then to finally respond to us,” says Courtney.
Consequently, SSMUnion management intends to file a complaint with the Quebec government, specifically the Tribunal administratif du travail. The complaint will be filed in accordance with Article 53 of the Quebec Labour Code, according to Courtney, on the grounds of bargaining in bad faith.
“The longer SSMU waits to sign this agreement, the longer the workers of SSMU have to go without […] basic protections that we’ve been bargaining for for two years,” writes Ioselevich. “The execs have a responsibility to do their jobs while they’re here and ratify this Collective Agreement.”