Union mounts pressure campaign

DANIEL McCABE | Allan Youster says that McGill's non-academic staff are fed up and more than a little demoralized. A six-year salary freeze does that to people, posits Youster, the president of MUNACA, the union which represents about 1,300 library assistants, clerical staff and technicians.

MUNACA is negotiating its first collective agreement with the University. While Jacques Sztuke, associate director of staff relations for the Department of Human Resources, says the two sides "are making progress slowly," Youster believes the process is taking far too long. "People are frustrated."

MUNACA members recently voted to take part in a number of protest activities to voice their displeasure over what they regard as the overly leisurely pace of the talks. MUNACA members marched through the downtown campus last Thursday and demonstrated in front of the James Administration Building.

Youster estimates that 550 protesters took part. McGill Security says that about 450 participated in the demonstration.

"That was just the beginning of the campaign," promises Youster. Other measures under consideration include a letter-writing campaign, a strict work-to-rule campaign, and an organized effort aimed at closing McGill for a single day (all MUNACA members would take the day off).

Sztuke says such protests won't affect the pace or substance of the talks between McGill and MUNACA. "We're trying to arrive at a fair contract that McGill can live with," he says.

Sztuke, one of McGill's negotiators, states that the two sides have several meetings scheduled for the spring and he's hopeful the talks will bear fruit. "We're not facing a complete brick wall, the talks aren't stalled," Sztuke stresses. "We've made progress on bargaining unit work recently and have now begun discussions on benefits issues. We are hopeful to continue making progress." Pay equity is another area where the talks have made headway. Still, Sztuke admits the two sides haven't tackled the most substantive matters yet -- such as salary or employment security.

That last issue will be a thorny one.

McGill doesn't want to have to offer employment security to staff who've been hired since June 16, 1996. "We feel it's important to be able to hire new employees without having to make a 30-year commitment to them," says Sztuke. "Any resources that we have to spend on employment security are resources that we won't have for other purposes at the University."

"The University has made itself quite clear on that issue," says Youster, "and the union is in serious disagreement with McGill." Youster claims that staff holding down comparable jobs at other Quebec CEGEPs and universities enjoy better deals from their employers than the one which McGill is offering MUNACA's members. Staff at the other schools are better paid and better protected against out-sourcing, Youster declares.

A government-appointed arbitrator has been assisting the talks since the fall. Although the arbitrator has the authority to impose an agreement on the two sides, he's been content to act as a mediator thus far. "He'll do everything he can to have the two sides resolve things on their own," says Sztuke. "If he ends up deciding every point, it might not end up being the best solution for either party. It's much better for us to arrive at an agreement."

Youster agrees that the arbitrator's presence has been a boon for the negotiations. "We know there is light at the end of the tunnel," says Youster. "We know that at the end of the arbitration process, there will be a collective agreement."

Still, Youster would like to speed things up some. Towards that end, he recently made McGill a proposal -- give MUNACA members an advance on some of the merit pay increases they're entitled to receive once the deal is done.

"The board of governors has already approved that money. They've set it aside," says Youster. "We're saying to McGill, 'Why not provide that money to staff as an advance on the collective agreement?' It would be a gesture that people would really appreciate. It would be a sign that things truly are progressing."

McGill isn't biting. Responds Sztuke, "The distribution of merit and the method of distributing merit have to be resolved in the negotiations as part of the total contract."

Youster believes MUNACA's members have borne much of the brunt of McGill's budget cuts in recent years. When the union was first certified four years ago, its membership stood at 1,800. Today, as a result of attrition and job closures, the figure is 500 less. "When students or professors complain about a lack of services at McGill, that's what they're talking about."

Youster thinks the protest last week went well. He was especially pleased to have representatives from McGill's other unions on hand, lending MUNACA their support. "It's the first time at McGill that all the unions stood together," says Youster.

The march also helped make academics and students more aware of the job conditions facing McGill's non-academic staff, states Youster. "The campus is waking up. I kept coming across people who told me, 'I had no idea your salaries have been frozen for six years.'"