After three years of disagreement over their first-ever collective agreement (CA), the second conciliation between the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) and the SSMU employees’ union (SSMUnion) occurred on Feb. 3.
After being accredited as a bargaining unit in January 2020, the SSMUnion began negotiations with SSMU in August of the same year. SSMUnion President Mo Rajji Courtney shared with The McGill Tribune that one of the union’s goals is to eliminate the “casual” staff designation that SSMU assigns to the bulk of its employees. This designation means that employees receive no benefits or protections, but are treated like regular part-time employees fulfilling permanent labour needs.
“[People] think of [SSMU] as a student governing body and a student representative body, which absolutely is a very important function of SSMU,” Courtney said. “However, it’s also a workforce, and that is forgotten a lot of the time.”
Courtney believes that there are dire consequences to viewing SSMU solely as a governing body. Generally, employment contracts are one year, and positions are not guaranteed to carry over to the following year. Positions at SSMU range from desk jobs in human resources to bartenders at Gerts Bar.
“You might not be offered that contract again,” Courtney said. “Instead, it [may go] to the new president’s friend who doesn’t necessarily know what they’re doing. How are we supposed to offer good quality services to students if there [are] huge amounts of turnover […] and there’s constantly new people who have to relearn everything from scratch?”
In their negotiations, the SSMUnion is also demanding a non-voting seat on the Board of Directors (BoD), competitive pay, research copyright, and a guaranteed, regular workload for employees. Courtney explained that the fluctuating workload caused serious problems for the staff, as employees would sometimes be asked to work 60 hours a week.
“The contract has a set number of hours, and [SSMU] just divided that by the number of weeks,” Courtney said. “There are many weeks where [employees] go without having work, and then weeks where there’s way too much work to do.”
Past Gerts employee alleges negligence, mishandling of paperwork
Hailey Agostino, an ex-Gerts employee, described an understaffing problem at SSMU in an interview with the Tribune. Agostino began working at Gerts as a café supervisor when they were a student, in November 2021. They found that their responsibilities grew throughout the 2021-2022 academic year.
“I was working 20 hours a week, but technically, I was working more than that. I just wasn’t logging more,” Agostino said.
After deciding to discontinue their education at McGill, Agostino, who is originally from the United States, approached SSMU to ask for a work permit sponsorship in January 2022. But they believe the SSMU executives’ negligence led to them failing to confirm Agostino’s employment status by September, when their previous permit to stay in Canada expired.
Agostino qualified for a facilitated Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA)–-a document that some employers in Canada need to prove that they require a foreign worker for a position instead of a Canadian citizen or permanent resident. SSMU would have had to submit the LMIA form and pay a returnable fee in order for Agostino to fill out their application for a work permit.
In May 2022, Agostino was told they were promoted to a management position at Gerts Café. However, they recall never receiving a pay increase, benefits associated with that position, or a new contract despite fulfilling the duties that the title encompassed. In the summer of 2022, Agostino grew more worried as they still had not heard back from SSMU about their work visa, and the time remaining on their student visa was quickly running out.
“For most of the early summer, I remember being very hopeful,” Agostino said. “As time went on, we were getting more stressed. It turns out that what was happening was HR [human resources] and the exec team were basically passing the responsibility of dealing with the actual immigration paperwork back and forth, because they both thought that it was the other person’s job to do it. It was just kind of sitting there for months.”
This was over the summer, before Gerts was set to re-open for the academic term, so the work environment was becoming increasingly stressful, according to Agostino. They felt that executives were not responsive, which made completing simple tasks difficult. Agostino said the last few weeks of summer were especially demanding, marked by having to take on additional management responsibilities that arose from staff absences while simultaneously renovating the Gerts kitchen and planning for Frosh.
“A couple weeks before Frosh was to happen, I remember myself personally spending a lot of time trying to organize the financial situation for Frosh,” Agostino said. “Me and my worker, we were the only two that were cooks in the entirety of Gerts [….] We spent multiple 10-12 hour days trying to cobble this kitchen.”
Agostino and their coworkers, including Sam* who was also trying to obtain a work visa, asked the SSMU executives to expedite the immigration paperwork. Agostino recalled an interaction that Sam had with the SSMU vice-president (VP) External Val Masny, where they both voiced their concerns about the inaction surrounding the paperwork.
“My coworker [Sam], actually, at one point, said […] ‘I’m sorry, but I’m not coming to work unless someone gives an answer about this immigration stuff,’” Agostino said. “Val sent an email saying, basically, if you don’t show up to work, we’re going to drop this entire immigration thing completely.”
The Tribune obtained a copy of the email Masny sent, which read “I have come to understand that you are considering not coming in tonight. I want to tell you that it is hard for me to guarantee any specific outcome for the LMIA application. [We] have worked considerably on this. We are continuing to do so [….] [I]f you decide to not come in and go ahead with planning your departure, that would signal us that you are no longer interested in pursuing the application. Please let me know in the next half hour as this will impact tonight’s opening.”
Agostino eventually had to leave the country and return to the United States because they were never granted a work visa.
“It was a day after I lost status in Canada that [SSMU] decided that it was just not going to happen, that [they were] going to find different people to fill our roles,” Agostino said. “I literally had a week to vacate the country because I had no other option.
“They have completely screwed over my entire situation, my life. If they had told me earlier, I would have had a chance to figure something else out. I wouldn’t have had to just cut and run.”
SSMU executives stated that they “do not agree with these allegations” in an email to the Tribune, adding that they are unable to comment further due to confidentiality measures.
Conciliation underway between SSMUnion and SSMU
The summer was a similarly challenging time for SSMUnion representatives trying to reach an agreement with SSMU. After bargaining began in August 2020, the SSMUnion reached an agreement in principle with SSMU on May 27, 2022. Courtney recounted that SSMU then suddenly went back on their verbal agreements and involved lawyers.
“SSMU delayed by two months in having [the CA] voted on, and then in the end, they didn’t even vote,” Courtney said. “They said ‘we don’t want to vote until it’s reviewed by lawyers’ [….] And their failure to involve the lawyers was […] not our problem.”
After the SSMUnion finally received an 11-page document with over 50 amendments from the SSMU lawyers, the union filed a complaint with the Tribunal administratif du travail (TAT) claiming that SSMU was engaging in bad faith negotiations.
The SSMUnion and SSMU had a court hearing on Dec. 14, 2022, where the SSMUnion agreed to attempt a few more days of conciliation, the first of which occurred on Feb. 3. Courtney said that while they have some hope an agreement can be reached after this conciliation, they are frustrated with the yearly turnover of SSMU executives.
“We made some progress. But we’re dealing with now the third round of executives, and SSMU, like the rest of student organizations across McGill, have very poor institutional memory,” Courtney said. “So I’m re-explaining things and having the same negotiations that I’ve had.”
The next two conciliation dates are scheduled for March 7 and March 8. Courtney explained that if an agreement is not reached by the second hearing scheduled for April 26, the SSMUnion will proceed with the TAT trial.
In an interview with the Tribune, Karine Rainville—a representative from SSMUnion’s parent union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees—echoed similar uncertainty about what would happen if the SSMUnion won the TAT trial.
“Now, the hearing is not scheduled until April […], and we’re in conciliations, and things are going well,” Rainville said. “We’re quite confident that we’re not going to have to end up with a ruling. But should that be case? If [the Tribunal] decided to rule in our favor, what would the actual remedy be for this? I’m not sure.”
The SSMUnion would prefer for a CA to be reached, but SSMU cannot be forced to ratify a document, even if there is a court ruling in favour of the SSMUnion. As such, there is a chance that the pair would have to return to the bargaining table.
SSMU declined to comment about the ongoing negotiations. Various actors from SSMU and the SSMUnion are under non-disclosure agreements and are thus unable to comment.
*Sam’s name has been changed to preserve their anonymity.
Article updated 10:30 a.m., February 14, 2023.