As of Sept. 13, only one of McGill’s 14 labour unions—the teaching assistant unit of the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM)—has an active collective agreement (CA) in place with the university, according to McGill’s Human Resources (HR). CAs govern salaries, hours, benefits, and working conditions of unionized employees, and are typically reviewed every three to four years.
While McGill media relations officer Frédérique Mazerolle says that the pandemic and the economy are reasons why most CA renewals have been delayed, many union representatives believe there is more to the story. Four out of the five union representatives interviewed for this piece say that McGill’s current administrative structure is ill-equipped to handle negotiations with 14 unique bargaining units. In an interview with the The McGill Tribune, AGSEM mobilization officer Kiersten van Vliet identified the university’s HR department’s constant rotation of employees as a hindrance to the negotiation process.
“There has been some turnover in the central HR,” van Vliet said. “So, there are some people who are moving into a role [of] being a negotiator for the first time. McGill’s spokesperson for our negotiations—it is the first time she is ever negotiating.”
AGSEM invigilators’ most recent CA with McGill expired in 2020, and, as a result, the last pay raise employees received was in 2019. While the stipulations under the previous agreement remain in effect during the period between a CA’s expiration date and the signing of a new contract, many CAs do not account for increases in Quebec’s minimum wage and inflation after an agreement has ended. In AGSEM’s case, negotiations for an updated CA began in March 2021, but a government conciliator was called on Sept. 6, 2022 to mediate after repeated stand-offs between AGSEM and McGill.
“It is like a war of attrition—they are trying to see how long we can hold it together, and be serious, and be firm,” van Vliet said. “Time is on McGill’s side as the institution with bigger resources. Especially considering a lot of the unions—AMURE, AMUSE, AGSEM—are majority students, and this is not our day job, they do have a lot working in their favour.”
Thomas Chalmers, president of McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA), believes the university’s “corporate mentality” is at the root of its negotiation issues.
“Even to their own HR department they have cut staff, and […] they lost three or four major HR people to other institutions. So they cannot even keep their own people,” Chalmers said in an interview with the Tribune. “It is evident there is an issue with retention, both in HR and throughout the university, and they are not really effectively addressing it.”
MUNACA has been without a CA since Nov. 30, 2018. Negotiations between the two parties began in earnest in September 2020, but more than two years of bargaining have come to an impasse. McGill requested a conciliator through Quebec’s Tribunal administratif du travail (TAT) in December 2021, but the five meetings since resulted in two days of MUNACA strikes that paralyzed McGill, despite the third-party aid.
Following the unsuccessful conciliation, McGill requested an arbitrator to settle the dispute. The two parties presented their cases in an arbitration hearing held on Sept. 1. Chalmers says it’s likely that neither party is going to be happy when the “arbitration award”—the final, binding contract made by the arbitrator in lieu of a CA—is released.
Chalmers pointed out that, while fewer than two per cent of unions go on strike or require provincial intervention, several unions at McGill have resorted to striking over the past few years. He referred to the highly publicized Association of McGill University Support Employees (AMUSE) strike last spring, during which a majority of floor fellows suspended their roles for over two weeks. Since then, AMUSE and McGill have agreed to a contract that was ratified by AMUSE in April 2022. McGill, however, has yet to sign the contract as the agreement must be translated into French first, according to Quebec laws.
“It is disappointing and shameful that floor fellows have started the new school year without their contract signed,” AMUSE President James Newman said in an interview with the Tribune. “McGill is stubborn. They want to drag out the process. They want to wear the unions down through continued negotiations. It is sad and shameful but sadly typical of employers.”
Professor Raad Jassim, president of the McGill Course Lecturers and Instructors Union (MCLIU), echoed Newman, Chalmers, and van Vliet in his interview with the Tribune, revealing that MCLIU had been close to striking when the pandemic hit. Jassim believes that McGill has no incentive to change its “old-fashioned thinking.” MCLIU’s current CA was signed in September 2020 and expired last month on Aug. 31; they will head to the negotiation table in October 2022.
“[McGill is] not able to deliver because they are underlaboured and underpowered. They need to increase HR to deal with all the unions around them, and I do not think they have enough lawyers,” Jassim said. “[McGill is] slowing the process [and through this] they think they are going to prevail to convince us otherwise. They won’t.”
Despite concerns about McGill’s HR department, van Vliet believes there is a silver lining in the solidarity built within and across unions.
“As much as it has been frustrating that these negotiations are taking such a long time, I think it is also a testament to the strength of the unions for not caving in [to] their demands,” van Vliet said. “We are not just capitulating to the demands of the employers or what they are saying is possible. We know our value, and we are going to keep fighting until we get the best that we can.”
While the Association of McGill University Research Employees (AMURE) agrees that complex and lengthy timelines have given rise to frustrations, AMURE president Sean Cory believes it is equally as important for members and students to get involved and educate themselves on McGill’s labour issues.
“If a student works at McGill […] the vast majority are covered by a union. They can contact their union, learn about their rights, and monitor the situation,” Cory said in an interview with the Tribune. “I think attending one of our meetings is a big step towards knowing what is going on and understanding why it is taking two years to negotiate, so I would encourage people to attend.”
AMUSE president Newman additionally emphasized the importance of bidirectional solidarity between the unions and the broader McGill community.
“We need your support and solidarity in all we do to try and get a fair campus for all workers, which means a fairer campus for you,” Newman said. “Because many of you are also workers, and certainly many of you care deeply about labour rights and care about creating a more just university—you’ve shown that through all the activism and protests that you guys have done over the years, particularly the occupation of the Arts building to promote a more inclusive Board of Governors. ”