McGill has flexed its bureaucratic muscles once again in its negotiations with floor fellows: It has violated Quebec labour law by not paying floor fellows a wage, and gone so far as to appeal a court ruling in favour of the floor fellows. In negotiating a collective agreement with floor fellows—who, despite being essential to the functioning of residences are not paid in wages and have low job and housing security—McGill has been characteristically unyielding.
Last week, the Association of McGill University Support Employees (AMUSE) sent an open letter to Principal Suzanne Fortier. Signed by current and former floor fellows, students in residence, and members of AMUSE, it detailed the grievances leading up to the floor fellows’ unionization, and those that have emerged in the 11 months of bargaining for a collective agreement.
Residences are a space to establish community and be supported while transitioning to university life, and McGill is leaps and bounds ahead of other Canadian universities in terms of the services available. The decision to live in residence is a costly investment for both students and floor fellows. McGill residences are among the most expensive across Canada, and providing support to first-year students takes dedication, time, and energy. Unlike other residences in Canada, where floor fellows (referred to as RAs elsewhere) behave as disciplinarians, floor fellows at McGill provide support based on harm reduction and anti-oppression. These principles are essential to the functioning of McGill residences. While the residences have successfully provided services up to now, McGill’s failure to concede the inclusion of their value system shows a lack of respect for what makes the experience of residences unique.
Where AMUSE is open about its experience during the bargaining process, McGill is aloof. Floor fellows have explicitly articulated that their collective agreement must entrench their value system, particularly the two pillars of harm reduction and anti-oppression that guide their practice. McGill has so far justified its refusal to include these values in the collective agreement in legal terms. Including normative values in an employment agreement is unconventional, as it is a legal document that defines working conditions. But this justification is indicative of McGill’s failure to consult floor fellows; the result is a process defined more by its power imbalance than constructive bargaining and compromise. By not offering a clear explanation for why the values cannot be included, McGill demonstrates that is has not heard the floor fellows. There is a top-down, unilateral exertion of power that, in failing to engage in a productive and fluid interaction, has begun to disassemble the aspects of residence that make it desirable.
Failing to engage with students is bad business. McGill’s current position in the bargaining process is poorly-defined, poorly-supported—at least publicly—and short-sighted. The unilateral changes to residences, such as encouraging Residence Life Managers (RLM) to take on more duties that were previously the responsibility of floor fellows, such as taking sick or injured students to the hospital, demonstrate a loss of touch with the reality on the ground as well as lack of foresight. For one, floor fellows are essential to maintaining the community and safety of students in residence. Shrinking their duties overburdens RLMs and creates larger cracks through which first-years can fall. Should such changes become the norm, the reason for students to pay exorbitant amounts to live in residence will evaporate. The operation of residences should not be based on financial decisions; all changes to residences must be made in the best interest of the students, which requires McGill to engage in a conversation with them.
The value system of floor fellows is clearly not going to be compromised. McGill must pause, take this letter into consideration, and reevaluate its priorities. If it is seeking to limit its legal liabilities in the residences, it must articulate that position to the population who will be affected. In failing to consult floor fellows and RLMs in the changes being made to the residence system, McGill shows its true colours. Budget cuts have caused a calcified tunnel vision, where lip service to the essential components of floor fellow working conditions is perceived as sufficient. McGill must decide whether it will have a consistent support system for its employees and students, or if it will continue to play them off each other for the sake of legal and financial interests.