Commentary, Opinion

McGill is a union campus

Alongside the consistent mobilization of students across university campuses, union activity at McGill regularly demanded the community’s attention this semester. The newly formed Association of McGill Law Professors had a one-day strike in February. McGill Arts Professors announced their successful unionization last week. Most prominently, the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) has been on strike since March 25.  Despite the attention toward labour organizing at McGill, the quiet organizing drive of the university’s undergraduate and graduate graders, tutors, course assistants, and other Academic Casuals is often passed over. While it can be easy to overlook, the unionization of these Academic Casuals is instrumental to building labour power at McGill. 

Academic Casuals are short-term, part-time workers who help develop and deliver teaching programs. Often, this work involves grading, developing course materials, and leading tutorials. Why does McGill choose to employ academic casuals to do work that appears to be best suited for Teaching Assistants (TAs)? It is not because Casuals are uniquely qualified for the position, but rather because McGill pays academic casuals less than half what TAs earn. Currently, McGill TAs make an abysmal $33.03 an hour, yet, despite their comparatively low wage, McGill wants to limit their hours as much as possible. Enter Academic Casuals, whose hourly wage is marginally above the provincial minimum wage at $15.50 an hour. The Academic Casual position quite simply exists to keep McGill’s labour costs to the absolute minimum. 

As TAs continue their negotiations with McGill, unionizing McGill’s Academic Casuals is increasingly important. The TA strike has ramped up pressure on the administration, making it likely that AGSEM will secure substantial wage increases for its members. If the strikes achieve this pay increase, McGill is likely to further reduce TAs’ contract hours so that their total remuneration stays despicably low, and Academic Casuals will be tasked with picking up the reduced TA hours. Unionizing Academic Casuals not only increases their own labour power but TAs’ power as well, as McGill would no longer be able to substitute unionized workers for poorly paid undergraduates. 

Throughout the TA strike, the administration has pitted different groups on campus against each other. The administration has forced professors to scab on their TAs, undermining both their professional and academic relationships. Meanwhile, the Provost and Executive Vice-President (Academic) Christopher Manfredi sends almost daily emails condemning the labour action of graduate students and demonizing them to the undergraduate population. Despite acknowledging that the tasks of Academic Casuals often resemble those of striking TAs, McGill requested that they continue their work. In essence, Academic Casuals are being used by McGill as replacement workers. The Quebec Labour Code prohibits the use of replacement workers because it erodes the ability of either party to implement a meaningful work stoppage. Replacement workers are inherently at odds with striking workers because they undermine their bargaining power. Instead of being weaponized by the McGill administration as a tool to erode TAs’ labour power, unionized Academic Casuals would be able to stand in solidarity with them. 

Unity has proven successful in creating change at other universities. This January, the California Faculty Association (CFA) went on strike in response to the California State University’s refusal to pay their membership a fair wage. The CFA encompasses 29,000 professors across 23 universities, giving them a considerable amount of labour power. However, the CFA also had support from their university community, students overwhelmingly demonstrated against the administration and maintenance staff threatened to strike in solidarity. The strike ended in one day as the university capitulated in the face of united workers and students. The McGill community can use the CFA strike as a model for a productive unified struggle. Tangibly, this means all workers at McGill need to stand in solidarity against the tyranny of the administration. 

The AGSEM strike demonstrates yet again how the McGill administration prioritizes its profits over the well-being of its students and employees. The McGill community, however, does not lack agency to challenge the administration’s retrenchment. Together, staff, students, and faculty have the power to assert their right to a better education and a better workplace.

Kiran is currently employed by McGill as an Academic Casual.

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