Commentary, Opinion

Fair labour at SSMU must include employees, not just councillors

Despite years of solidarity with unions, both on campus and beyond McGill, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) has not shown the same grace to its own workers. After almost seven months of collective bargaining with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 5447, better known as the SSMUnion, the collective agreement is nowhere near complete.

Not having a collective agreement means that SSMU employees have not seen pay raises, changes to working conditions, increased benefits, reclassification of salaries, or stability in currently tenuous contractual employment. In sharp contrast, on March 16, voting opened for the SSMU Winter Referendum, in which one of the questions asks if students wish to pay their legislative councillors and senators by raising the SSMU base fee. While the SSMUnion is strongly in favour of paying councillors and senators, this should not come before dues-paying employees receive a collective agreement. 

When the initiative to pay councillors and senators was first announced, there was coordination and collaboration with the SSMUnion to propose the base fee increase as important for labour equity, for both the union and to pay councillors. This necessary augmentation of the base fee would have accommodated the future collective agreement to ensure that wages and benefits of current employees would increase as soon as the Fall 2021 term. Instead, SSMU’s bargaining team, composed of General Manager Daniel Dufour, President Jemark Earle, and Human Resources Director Khatera Noor, has dragged their feet throughout this unusually long bargaining process. 

The initially agreed upon timeline planned to close bargaining by the end of March, with the hopes that we could have estimates for a base fee increase in time for the Winter 2021 Referendum. Yet more than halfway into March, normative clauses, which focus on more operational aspects of working at the SSMU, still have not been closed. Financial clauses, which have to do with wages, benefits, and leave, have not even been discussed yet. These delays made it impossible to have a larger proposed base fee increase in time for the Winter 2021 Referendum. The currently proposed base fee increase is insufficient to cover SSMUnion demands.

While it is expected that the management of a workplace will have trouble seeing eye to eye on many issues in collective bargaining with its union, SSMU’s stubbornness has been exceptional.  They have wasted weeks of time throughout this process, attempting to re-open and entirely change closed and mutually agreed upon articles from months prior. SSMU has also been unwilling to compromise on industry-standard practices, such as providing employees with personal protective equipment or union seats on the Board of Directors and hiring committees.

Instead, they made offensive counter offers to SSMUnion demands, such as offering only one paid day of bereavement leave as opposed to five, and other “compromises” which amount to little more than the minimum requirements which the Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST) set out. If these minimums set out by the CNESST were anywhere near enough, there would be no need for the SSMU’s employees to have formed a union. 

While SSMU advocates for other workers, such as on-campus unions representing McGill employees, it has shown itself entirely unwilling to respect its own employees and their union. SSMU has demonstrated hypocrisy by excluding union involvement in decision-making processes. The importance of union involvement is essential to labour equity at SSMU, something that is often overlooked in viewing it only as a governance structure, rather than also as a workplace. The result of this drawn-out bargaining process is that SSMU legislative councillors may be granted fair wages before the SSMUnion has even been given the chance to demand specific wage reclassifications. 

Although the SSMUnion agrees with the motion to pay councillors, the timing of it is insulting and unjust to the over one hundred dues-paying SSMU employees who are still awaiting a collective agreement. SSMU’s priorities do a disservice to everyone. Students who put hope in organizations that claim to promote social justice deserve better. To do this, management must prioritize the needs and voices of its workers, and all of us, students and employees alike, must hold SSMU to their stated values.

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