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QPIRG-McGill’s panel on labour exploitation at McGill discusses ongoing contract negotiations and unionization efforts

The annual Social Justice Days event series, organized by the Quebec Public Interest Research Group at McGill University (QPIRG-McGill) and the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), was held from March 7 to 12. Centred on themes of harm reduction and sustainability, the series featured interactive workshops and panel discussions such as “Building care into anti-violence advocacy that sustains us” and “Supporting prisoners and parolees in their transition as returning citizens” with the purpose of engaging McGill students in community activism.

The labour crisis at McGill” panel on March 9 underscored key issues that McGill’s labour unions have faced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel brought together Evan Fox-Decent, McGill law professor and interim president of the Association of McGill Professors of Law (AMPL); Simon Deverson, chair of the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA) solidarity committee; and Christian Tonnesen, U4 Science and vice-president (VP) for the floor fellows at the Association for McGill University Support Employees (AMUSE) Unit B. The featured guests each gave 10-minute speeches highlighting the changes their respective organizations are rallying toward, among them contract negotiations and unionization.

Fox-Decent kicked off the event with a presentation detailing the ongoing effort of many law faculty professors to unionize. He traced the origins of the movement to the memo Provost and VP (Academic) Christopher Manfredi sent to faculty deans and department heads on Aug. 29 requesting the names of professors who did not want to return to in-person teaching. The memo came after a group of law professors penned an open letter demanding that the university implement a campus-wide vaccination mandate soon before the Fall 2021 semester. After receiving the memo, law professors agreed that they wanted a union to represent them in their relations with the administration moving forward—which would be a more specific unit than the broader, non-unionized McGill Association of University Teachers (MAUT) currently representing them.

“The most difficult part of this for us so far has been that unfortunately, McGill is fighting us tooth-and-nail,” Fox-Decent said. “They’re challenging our bargaining unit, saying with a straight face that it should be all professors who unionize at McGill […] and that it should not be a single faculty, the Faculty of Law.” 

Quebec’s Tribunal administratif du travail (TAT) will determine whether the union will include all professors at McGill or solely law professors, with two days of hearings already completed and two more hearings dates set for this coming May.

Following Fox-Decent’s presentation, Deverson spoke about MUNACA’s contract negotiation standstill with McGill. MUNACA is a union that represents non-academic workers, such as clerical workers, librarians, and technicians. Deverson explained that the union’s contract expired in Nov. 2018, and that since Sept. 2019, MUNACA has met with McGill representatives a total of 48 times, which Deverson noted was “a large number” for such negotiations.

Some changes MUNACA would like to see in the new collective agreement include a retroactive wage increase—since employees are still being paid the salary scales stipulated in the expired 2018 agreement—pay increases that keep pace with inflation, and the maintenance of the top of workers’ salary scales. 

Deverson also mentioned that McGill did not provide MUNACA workers with a COVID-19 bonus, despite the gesture becoming commonplace in Quebec throughout lockdown periods.

“Given the labour crisis that exists in Quebec, wouldn’t it be better to have a fair and just collective agreement for its workers?” Deverson asked. “Wouldn’t that retain staff? I mean, we have people at McGill whose job title is talent acquisition advisor, wouldn’t it make their lives easier if we had good working conditions?” 

The panel then turned to Tonnesen for his presentation on AMUSE. Tonnesen explained that AMUSE comprises two units: Unit A, which represents front desk staff workers, library workers, and other similar positions, and Unit B, which represents floor fellows. While Unit A’s new collective agreement is set to be signed soon, it has been 18 months since Unit B’s previous collective agreement with McGill expired. Tonnesen explained that the money floor fellows make is insufficient as a living wage, so among other requests, AMUSE is bargaining for a pay increase. 

“As it currently stands, the money we make is not enough to cover the rent in taxes, so floor fellows are essentially working for free,” Tonnesen said. “So, the next steps as we go are to attempt to get some sort of a better pay and get our collective agreement hopefully signed such that we have full retroactivity […] and also to bring in hazard pay for those that worked during covid.” 

During the question and answer period, when asked about how McGill students can support the workers in the various ongoing campaigns, Tonnesen suggested that speaking to those with financial influence to induce change.

“McGill very much loves money,” Tonnesen said. “So, if you are dissatisfied with the way things are running, talk to someone who is paying the bill and McGill will […] respond to you [much faster].”

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