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A semester without MUNACA

Marri Knadle / McGill Tribune

When the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA) began striking on Sept. 1, many members of the community were unsure of how the strike would affect them.  Almost three months later, after numerous staff shortages and contingency plans, community members have felt the effects of the 1,700 support staff’s strike every day. Here, the Tribune takes a closer look at some of the areas that were affected this semester by the strike.  

Academic woes

Lab technicians make up a significant portion of MUNACA’s ranks. As a result, labs across the university have been severely compromised this semester. According to Akshay Rajaram, president of the Science Undergraduate Society, the lab component of many science classes was amended or removed entirely this semester, particularly in biology and chemistry. The lack of technicians caused delays in ordering supplies, and labs were scaled back in their complexity because of shortages of technicians preparing chemicals or making sure labs comply with protocols. 

“I believe that some of the labs being shortened definitely have an impact on the practical and tactile learning that students would normally get,” Rajaram said. 

Josh Redel, president of the Engineering Undergraduate Society, said that although no engineering classes were cancelled, lab work has been replaced with video demonstrations and virtual labs. He described a year-long mechanical engineering class that typically consists of designing and building a product and involves complex equipment. This year, the course is purely theoretical. 

“It’s disappointing for engineers,” he said. “We really would like to have the experience with the labs because then again, that’s why some people come [to McGill] over other schools. I can learn how to operate a machine on the internet, but it’s the hands-on experience that makes a difference.”

SSMU President Maggie Knight noted that students in the faculty of arts have also found their school work compromised by the delays in book re-shelving in the library, and the cancellation of inter-library loans.

Scaled down services

Another major effect of the MUNACA strike is the decreased access to McGill Student Services. Last Wednesday, SSMU hosted a Town Hall with the directors of several student services to inform students on how services have been affected. Due to severe staff shortages, many services have decreased their hours of operation and are working under contingency plans.  

McGill Health Services have been among the most affected. According to Jacqueline Courtney, clinic manager for Student Health and Mental Health Services, there are only 30 drop-in spots per day, compared to 75 or more last year. Students who arrive early enough to receive a spot often need to wait 45 minutes before they are seen at the counter and given an appointment with a doctor. Doctors are so busy that they often see students at 10 minute intervals. Health Services are also unable to provide flu shots or perform blood tests, and need to refer students to other clinics. 

“We’ve been hit quite drastically by the strike. Nurses, which do about 40 per cent of the work daily, are all on strike,” Courtney said during the Town Hall.

The reduced hours and staff shortages have caused much anxiety among students. Erica Anderson, U1 chemical engineering, had issues with her study permit but could not renew it until her student loans were processed by the Scholarship and Student Aid office. Since the strike, the office has not been answering phone calls but instead maintains contact through emails. The limited hours and long line-ups made the process very difficult, Anderson said.  

“My permit had expired and I had 90 days until I could get it renewed or I would have to leave [the country],” she said. “It was getting to the point where I was afraid I wasn’t coming back [next semester].” 

Alexandra Tighe, U1 psychology, who uses the services of the Office for Students with Disabilities, said that students with disabilities now have to make arrangements with professors on their own for final exams or assignments.

“It seems really funny that they would [make] students with disabilities, who probably have other stresses going on—seeing as they have disabilities—make arrangements on their own, such as with their finals, which other students don’t have to do anything for,” she said. 

Leaked letter preoccupies community

The effects of the strike on students reached local media on Nov. 11, when the Montreal Gazette acquired a letter from Associate Dean of Postgraduate Medical Education Sarkis Meterissian intended for Interim Dean of Medicine Samuel Benaroya. The letter, dated Oct. 17, raised concerns that the strike would “seriously disrupt our ability to track the academic programs of our trainees thereby not only compromising their education but also jeopardizing the successful completion of this academic year.”

Esli Osmanlliu, president of the Medical Students’ Society, echoed one of the main challenges brought by the strike noted in the letter: the difficulty of meeting the deadlines of the Canadian Resident Matching Service (CaRMS), which begins Dec. 1. The CaRMS is the process by which medical students apply to have residency positions in hospitals across Canada. The process is twofold: first, the university needs to mail dean’s letters to correct universities and programs so McGill students can be placed. After Dec. 1, the university has to review applications from students all over Canada applying for residency at McGill. According to the leaked letter, a minimum of 10 administrators are needed to oversee the program.

“The ongoing strike has a clear and measurable impact on our ability to attract and train top-quality candidates,” the letter states.

Although Osmanlliu described the letter as “shocking,” he noted that it had been “taken out of context” and that the content was outdated by the time it was leaked. He expressed confidence that the concerns have been addressed by the faculty and that all the letters were mailed in time for the deadlines.

“The Med-4 students haven’t demonstrated any signs of concern, particularly any particular anxiety towards this,” he said. “We can’t really tell whether the process will be as well done as in past years, because results will only be known at the beginning of next year.”

Diana Colby
, communications manager for the faculty of medicine, explained that the faculty prepared a contingency plan mid-October and that managerial staff will work on the review and preparation of CaRMS files. 

Effects on community

An unexpected result of the strike has been increased solidarity among other administrative staff and students, who are well aware of the challenges that the strike is causing.

“When I was talking to my staff about messages to present [at the Town Hall], they wanted to say that by-and-large, students have been acknowledging that we’re experiencing staff shortages and challenges, and they really express their appreciation for the efforts,” Cara Pipperni, associate director of Scholarships and Student Aid office, said. “That has really boosted the morale of the folks left back at the office, dealing with these issues. We thank the student body for their support.” 

“I need to emphasize how hard [the administrators] are working because on our side, students really appreciate the support the staff has been showing,” Osmanlliu said. “[The adeministrators] are really putting a lot of effort into ensuring the quality of those programs.” 

The tense university situation has also had an impact on first year students, who do not know what McGill is like under normal circumstances, when all its employees are at work.

“I’ve had a lot of sad first years ask me if [the university functions] like this normally,” Knight said. “There’s a lot of sadness and frustration.” 

The strike has also caused some students to appreciate the role of MUNACA workers in the university. 

“The first thing you notice when you walk into [the OSD] is there’s a posterboard that greets you at the desk [instead of a person]. I thought that took the entire sense of community [out of the system],” Tighe said.

Looking ahead

There is concern that the remaining administrators, notably overstretched this semester, won’t be able to continue working at current rates, especially as work becomes more strenuous during the winter semester.

“It’s going to be incredibly challenging, because we’ll have the same line-ups as [in] September and we’ll be dealing with the admission cycle and applications for scholarships,” Pipperni said. 

“I’m a little bit concerned about next term. In January, [the fast pace] starts off right away. After Christmas break people are already dreary and worried, it’s a difficult semester for students and therefore for us,” Ted Baker, director of Counselling Services, said. “I’m a bit concerned of keeping up … there’s hours of work we haven’t been able to do.”

Every individual interviewed for this article noted that although the university continues to run without MUNACA workers, it’s doing so at a very high cost to both students and administrators. 

“We had a question in Senate back in September about how the managers who are taking over the work would be able to maintain [current] levels of craziness,” Knight said. “I get emails from [them] at 9 p.m., 10 p.m. We are really concerned that they are going to burn out.”

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