McGill University, one of the top 25 universities in the world, stands high amongst prestigious Ivy League universities like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. It boasts of itself as the centre of excellence. However, McGill’s reputation is built on the hard work of its teachers and staff, some of the most poorly paid in Quebec. In 1993, the teaching assistants (TAs) at McGill formed a union to better their conditions, but for a significant period afterwards, no other unions were formed. The majority of McGill workers were left without protection. Things are changing, however, and McGill’s administration is now fighting several unionization drives in an attempt to continue exploiting its workforce.

In the spring of 2008, 2,000 TAs, organized by the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM), went on strike after negotiations with the McGill administration broke down. The TAs held a solid picket line for 11 weeks. When the TAs left the labs and classrooms, the administration instructed the faculty to perform the TAs’ jobs, i.e. to scab on the TAs. Many professors, especially the non-tenured ones, were forced to cross the picket line out of fear of jeopardizing their career. The professors had to work extra hours and were pitted against the graduate students.

TAs were further attacked when McGill targeted their secondary employment. Because of the low pay, many TAs hold secondary jobs on campus in order to make ends meet: tutor, course lecturer, research assistant, etc. All of these are non-unionized jobs. The administration used the provision in the labour code that is supposed to protect striking workers from scabbing, turning it around to say that TAs who worked other jobs were scabbing on the strike, and using it as an excuse to fire them. This move was meant to break the union. But instead of intimidating the TAs, it only united them and hardened their resolve to win.

The TAs won the struggle, with McGill giving in to most of the demands. However, the firing of TAs from their other non-unionized jobs proved the need to unionize across campus, or else remain vulnerable.

The first category of workers that AGSEM unionized were the invigilators or exam supervisors. McGill hires mostly graduate students for this job, with a salary of $10/hour. This salary hasn’t changed in almost ten years. In the Department of Chemistry, graduate students were even required to perform this job without pay.

Normally, union voting is done over a period of a month. However, McGill, with its army of lawyers, managed to convince the Labour Board to have it done over four days on campus. The reason the administration fought to make the vote inaccessible is simple: every abstention is a vote against the unionization. Despite these manoeuvres, the invigilators voted overwhelmingly for the union and in April 2010 they received their certification.

AGSEM then moved to organize part-time teachers. McGill part-time teachers are the only ones not unionized in Quebec, and it is thus not surprising that their pay is far below what other universities offer. While on average part-time teachers in Quebec are paid $7,500 per course, at McGill they only receive $5,000 for the same job. They also receive no benefits and job security at all. For almost a decade, McGill has been able to get away with paying a pittance to most of their work force because they are not unionized.

It is becoming a trend for North American universities to rely more and more on part-time teachers as lecturers. As of 2008, 50% of Canadian university faculties are part-time or contract employees, while in 1999 it was only 13.2%. The reason is obvious. Part-time teachers are cheaper to hire than full-time tenured faculty. Long gone is the day when most university courses were taught by tenured professors. So many brilliant and promising PhD graduates are finding it increasingly difficult landing academic jobs and fully realizing their potentials. Many of them end up becoming part-time teachers.

The unionization campaign for the part-time teachers is still ongoing. The McGill administration has responded with covert intimidation toward their employees, illegally threatening that they will stand to lose their employment if they support the union. No matter what guarantees exist on paper for workers’ right to unionize, at the end of the day it is the employer who owns the means of production and thus controls the livelihood of the worker. This is what Marx refers to as the dictatorship of capital. It is the fact that the bosses alone determine who can work and who cannot work, or in other words, who can eat and who cannot eat. Those legal rights did not stop Walmart from firing 190 workers in their unionized store in Jonquiere in 2005 for example. It was only on 13 Oct. 2010 that the courts finally ruled that Walmart had broken the law! Workers can only rely on each other and their own strength, not the bosses’ laws.

During the same period, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) successfully unionized 3,000 non-academic casual workers on campus in December 2009. This was a major victory for the precarious workers at McGill who for decades have been at the bottom of the totem pole.

Then in May 2010, 1,700 non-academic staff of McGill, who are organized under MUNACA (McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association), voted to join PSAC. Since its formation, MUNACA had been an independent union, i.e. it was not affiliated to any federation or bigger union. This so-called independence meant MUNACA was never strong enough to drive a hard bargain because it had no ability to strike, without which the workers can be rendered powerless against their employer. It didn’t have a big enough strike fund to assure its members that it could go on strike when needed. It was cut off from the rest of the union movement and thus it couldn’t muster solidarity support during its labour disputes. McGill used this obvious weakness to push for an unfavourable contract in every bargaining process. PSAC, is a member of the FTQ (Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec), a half-million strong federation. Being a part of this mass organization gives the members of MUNACA the real ability to fight for better working conditions and livelihoods.

PSAC are also organizing hundreds of research assistants and research associates at this moment. They are expected to vote by the end of this year.

There is trouble brewing at McGill. This wave of unionization has caused a big headache to the administration, politically and especially economically. Should the 1,500 part time teachers be unionized and subsequently receive the same salary as their colleagues at other universities, it can cost the university tens of millions of dollars. For the past three years, McGill has been imposing cuts to balance its budget. In 2007 McGill had a deficit of almost $20-million. In 2009 the deficit had been reduced to $11.4-million, and last year it was reduced to $5-million. This fiscal year, it is aiming to break even.

In her “Budget Letter” dated 26 May 2010, Principal Munroe-Blum asserted: “Let me be clear: we cannot continue business as usual. The Provost is engaging in a disciplined exercise to align resources to priorities, while cutting expenses, exploring the delivery of programs and services, and finding business efficiencies in many areas of our operations.”

In a sense, the Principal is right. It won’t be business as usual. Once the invigilators, casual workers, part-time teachers, research assistants, and research associates are unionized, the next step is collective bargaining. This is the real acid test for the unions. In the past, it would have been possible for the employer to give concessions to the workers’ demands when they were pressed hard. But an economic crisis has shaken capitalism across the world. The Quebec government is implementing cuts across the board to pay for the bosses’ crisis and the provincial deficit: McGill will not be immune. And the administration, which ran this university into debt, is now looking to get rid of its own deficit on the backs of its workers. The collective bargaining process will be a bitter process that will require the leaders of these unions, AGSEM and PSAC, to be ready to lead a united fight to force McGill to improve wages and conditions for workers on campus. There is also no room for any division amongst the unions. AGSEM and PSAC, despite the fact that they are affiliated to two different union federations, will have to work together. Any rivalry or split will be exploited by the administration to divide and conquer, and would be disastrous to all workers on campus.

Only a united movement can ensure victory for those whose labour keeps McGill moving. In every battle, against all odds, it is our unity that has given us strength. But this is a fight not only for workers at McGill, but campuses across Quebec. Every administration uses the example of lower wages elsewhere to extract concessions from their own workers. And so in the coming battles, McGill workers can appeal to workers at UQAM, Concordia and other institutions in Quebec, this is their fight too and we’re not alone! And students at McGill should not forget who Ms. Heather Munroe Blum actually is. Seeing this Principal resisting the demands of the unions, it will be important to remember that she stood in the National Assembly not long ago and argued that the universities should have their tuitions completely deregulated. Students are under attack by the same corporate administration, and should support the struggles of workers at McGill as linked with the struggle against tuition increases and for free education. After all, for students working on campus, a tuition increase is nothing but a pay cut.