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Wave of unionization hits campus

Of all of the labour disputes on campus, the MUNACA strike has most tangibly affected students. For some, this is limited to the awkward process of crossing picket lines for class. For others, the strike has substantial implications for their research, labs, or graduation schedules. The MUNACA strike is only part of a larger trend toward union activity on campus, as many groups are in talks with the administration.

The Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM), which represents teaching assistants, has been in contract negotiations with McGill as of last spring. Their demands include an increase in TA hours, the reservation of TA positions for eligible TAs (as opposed to course assistants or undergraduates), regular meetings between TAs and course supervisors, and a wage increase to match inflation.

Jonathan Mooney, a member of AGSEM’s teaching assistant bargaining committee, noticed that the administration took a more co-operative tone in the most recent round of negotiations, held on Sept. 16. Previously, the University requested that AGSEM table its main demands.

“They seemed really willing to speak with us,” Mooney said. “They wanted to add as many [negotiation rounds] as possible [and] want to meet on weekends if we’re available … [there’s a] sense of urgency,” Mooney said.

The Association of McGill Undergraduate Student Employees (AMUSE), is writing a collective agreement with McGill after unionizing in 2009. The casual nature of their employment—to be standardized during negotiations—complicates recent reports of scab labour during the MUNACA strike, which McGill contests (see “MUNACA,” cover). The outcome of negotiations has implications for the strike, and vice versa.

“If McGill concedes … it shouldn’t be too difficult to ask them to concede on other issues of the same principle,” AMUSE president, Fariddudin Attar said.

A common issue is wages; these negotiations must be taken in the context of broader changes at the university level. Citing financial issues, McGill has been cutting back.

“What is the same is the economic and financial context in which we find ourselves,” Michael Di Grappa, VP Administration and Finance at McGill, said. He added that the Quebec government allows for a 1.2 per cent wage increase in its budget. “Any [additional funding] the university would have to find from other sources. They’ve also made it clear that we can’t take any money from the tuition increase … We have to manage the budget globally.”

These claims have been contested. SSMU recently pledged its research resources to verify McGill’s financial predicament.

Nonetheless, these cutbacks have heralded a wave of union activity on campus. In an unprecedented level of inter-union activity, regular meetings have been held between workers’ and student unions. AMUSE and the Association of McGill Undergraduate Research Employees were involved in the Sept. 16 rally through their affiliations with the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

“People are realizing more and more that if democracy in a public education institution is to work, it needs active and meaningful participation,” Attar said. “[That] begins with organizing [and] achieving agency for ourselves.”

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