On Campus

Can professors be scabs?

McGill ups the stakes by firing striking TAs from their extra non-union jobs

McGill university has taken strike negotiating to a new level of nastiness with the firing of dozens of striking teaching assistants from non-union jobs.

Teaching assistants, represented by the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM), are often also hired separately as exam invigilators. Invigilators are not represented by the union.

McGill fired 72 AGSEM members from their separate invigilator positions after the strike began April 7. Sessional instructors who also work as teaching assistants also lost their summer contracts.

AGSEM disputed the university’s interpretation of the Quebec labour code as the work stoppage continues into its fourth week. AGSEM says the firings are a violation of Section 110 of the Quebec labour code that states: “No person shall cease to be an employee for the sole reason that he has ceased to work in consequence of a strike or lockout.”

Deputy provost Morton J. Mendelson disagrees, and said the university’s actions are not only within the boundaries of the law, but are also mandated by the provincial labour code.

Defending the university’s position in a letter published in the Montreal Gazette on Friday, Mendelson cited section 109 of the labour code: “For the duration of a strike declared in accordance with this Code or a lock-out, every employer is prohibited from … (c) utilizing, in an establishment where a strike or lock-out has been declared, the services of an employee who is a member of the bargaining unit then on strike or locked out.”

“Quebec labour law prohibits an employer from hiring a striking worker,” Mendelson told Maclean’s. “The labour code does not distinguish between work that is being struck and work that is not [being] struck.”

Sessional instructors hired for the winter term have not lost their positions, suggesting that those who were working before the strike started will be kept on. However, an email sent to Maclean’s by a McGill teaching assistant suggests some inconsistency. The TA was removed this week from a position in the library, where he had been working for most of the year.

“I am frustrated and disturbed by all of this. I am disappointed by the bullying tactics this university is using against its own students,” he wrote. (When Maclean’s contacted him for further comment, he no longer wanted to comment on the strike. His name has been withheld for this reason.)

Natalie Kouri-Towe, vice-president external of AGSEM, says that paragraph 109.1 (c) of the labour code notwithstanding, the university is acting not only unethically but also illegally by firing members of the union from non-union jobs. “This interpretation that the administration has taken completely isolates that article from the rest of the labour code,” she said. “It is our assertion that this act of firing people from their jobs is illegal.”

The union filed a complaint with Quebec’s labour code earlier in the month, accusing the university of violating “anti-scabbing” legislation by having professors grade work and supervise labs. A labour department inspector visited the university on April 10 and found non-management professors supervising labs and said this would be considered “scabbing” under the labour code.

The university has maintained that grading and supervising student assignments is not work exclusive to TAs and that course instructors are ultimately responsible for grading student work. Further, the university says an agreement was reached between the union and the administration that concluded course instructors could grade student assignments and exams.

Kouri-Towe says that though the union met with the university regarding the issue of whether or not professors are scabbing, she says there was no formal agreement, and the union did not agree even informally to concede the point that professors are not scabbing. The union has since withdrawn the complaint, citing legal technicalities, but has said it will be filing further complaints.

Nevertheless, a labour board ruling released last Wednesday supported the administration’s interpretation of events, finding “that in respect of the correction of assignments and exams and the recording of grades for the Winter 2008 Term, and in respect of all tasks related to Summer Session 2008, the employer can use the services of the . . . the course supervisor . . . to carry out all tasks related or necessary to carry out for the course, irrespective of whom has carried out these functions in the past.”

Kouri-Towe says the union disagrees with the ruling, and that it does not address the labour code specifically. “The ruling that came from the [labour board] had to do with the recognition of an agreement between McGill and the Union. We do not agree with this decision and further this decision does not in any way rule an interpretation of the labour code,” she said.

In a notice released on Thursday the university cited the ruling as backing their position and Mendelson says it would be“bizarre” for the university to make such claim if it were not true.

Though the McGill Association of University Teachers has remained neutral on the strike itself, president Edith Zorychta sides with the administration on the issue of professors grading work, saying that this is what professors do. “I can’t understand why anybody would say we can’t do that,” she said.

AGSEM wants to see TA wages to rise from $22/hr to the national of average of between $26/hr and $28/hr. The university has offered a two per cent increase in each of the next three years.

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