This week, educators across the continent are calling attention to the employment conditions of contingent academic staff at our colleges and universities. These professionals form the often-unacknowledged labour force that makes the university work, ranging from sessional and part-time instructors to teaching assistants and other graduate employees. “Fair Employment Week” runs October 27-31 this year. For the Fédération nationale des enseignantes et des enseignants du Québec (FNEEQ-CSN), it’s an opportunity to raise awareness about the precarious working conditions of graduate employees at McGill University. A recent Quebec labour relations commission ruling vividly demonstrates the need to update Quebec labour law to reflect the modern reality of atypical and precarious work situations, says FNEEQ President Ronald Cameron. In a September 24 decision, Commissioner André Michaud rejected the complaints filed by 138 McGill teaching assistants against the university after it dismissed them from unrelated on-campus employment during a 10-week strike by the unionized TAs last spring.
“This ruling means that thousands of on-campus workers do not now enjoy the same job protections guaranteed to every other worker who is governed by Quebec labour law,” said Mr. Cameron. “The decision goes against the spirit of Quebec’s Labour Code, which is intended to protect the right of workers to engage in legal strike action. For those who have no choice but to work multiple jobs at universities in Quebec, this right is now seriously threatened.”
Lawyers acting for the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) had argued that the dismissals were illegal under articles 15 and 16 of the Quebec Labour Code, which prohibit employers from firing workers for union activity, such as a strike.
However, Commissioner Michaud accepted McGill’s claim that certain other articles of the Code – originally intended to prevent picket-line violence when they were drafted in the 1970s – led the
university to a “reasonable” belief that it had no choice but to fire AGSEM members from their secondarycampus jobs. These included exam invigilators, sessional lecturers, research assistants as well as members who worked in the library, in information technology and as campus guides.
AGSEM President Richard Hink noted, however, that the university chose not to dismiss sessional lecturers during the winter semester after the strike was declared April 8, three weeks before the semester concluded. “McGill may regret this move,” observed Mr. Hink. “Should teaching assistants strike in the future, the impact on the university will be far more serious given the number of other jobs our members do on this campus.” Ultimately, the FNEEQ believes the Quebec government must act to protect the right to freedom of association for the growing number of people in atypical work environments. “It’s time to bring the Code into the 21st century,” said Mr. Cameron. “These highly skilled knowledge workers at McGill and other universities should not suffer discrimination because our laws are out of date. The law should be the same for everyone.”
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