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Pressure to begin
McGill may experience some disruption next week as members of local 800 of the Service Employees Union begin pressure tactics against the University administration.
The 350-member local includes many of the staff of the Faculty Club, printing services, computing services, the mail room, cafeterias and residences, and has been without a collective agreement since 1995.
The leadership and members "are at the end of the rope," over what they consider to be the University's refusal to "bargain in good faith," and its aim "to take away workers' rights," said the local president Michael Yacobina, porter in the Rutherford Physics and Wong Buildings, at a press conference held last week.
The University, for its part, is looking for greater flexibility in order to respond to changing academic priorities and to operate more efficiently.
From the union's point of view, the "clause remorque" is the main issue of contention. This is an article in the local's collective agreement (which, though expired, remains in effect until a new one is negotiated) that states: "If the government changes salary policy in the public or parapublic sector, such changes apply to the present collective agreement." The government called for one percent raises in 1997. McGill hasn't followed suit.
Why didn't McGill pay the increase to the workers? Robert Savoie, executive director of Human Resources, says that the "clause remorque is open to interpretation ... The arbitration ruling will guide us."
If the arbitrator decides that McGill must pay the increase, the university will also pay the one percent increases in each of 1998 and 1999. "If the University loses on '97, we'll follow through," vows Savoie.
Job security is another issue. The union states that the University wants to maintain 10 percent of its service workers without job security. The way in which this would work, says Savoie, is that 10 percent of new hirees would not immediately have job security in order to allow for some budgetary flexibility for the future.
"Say, we have 140 employees in building services. The next 14 hirees [not including casuals] wouldn't get employment security. But, when a 15th would be hired, there would be 141 employees with employment security," explains Savoie. "It will take time till we get that 10 percent," he continues, adding that the point is one of the topics for bargaining and is not being applied now.
It should be noted that among the 148 cleaners (working in all buildings except the residences), 28 are casuals, or close to 20 percent. Casuals have no job security and are paid 70 percent of the salary of a hired employee. However, the minimum wage in this sector, $12.15, is respected. The reason for the high percentage of casuals is "the 20 percent rate of absenteeism," says Savoie.
The union, on the other hand, believes that having so many casuals -- and they may work up to two years before being hired as permanent staff -- is a way of curbing job security. "At the moment, 18 to 20 percent of the job force has no security," says Yacobina, who is equally outraged at the fact that workers are not paid equally.
Yacobina is also concerned about the question of "mobility at large." Until recently, employees with job security were hired for a particular post in a particular building. However, should one such employee find her or his position closed, the University would like to have the right to move the person to another building. Employees in printing services are a case in point, as this is where positions have been cut. They may be asked to work in building services (cleaning) but because the cleaners are in a different bargaining unit, the worker loses all seniority.
"Along with having job security comes the responsibility to accept going to where the University needs you," says Savoie, emphasizing that the loss of seniority does not imply a loss in pay. Seniority, however, is what drives vacations, postings and choice of assignment, he explains.
Savoie argues that the loss of seniority is not the University's problem; it's the union's. The Service Employees Union is an affiliate of the FTQ, in which each bargaining unit has its own collective agreement. Local 800 has three: computing services, printing services and building services. Union certification with the CSN, on the other hand, goes with the local unit, meaning that seniority is not affected by a move to another bargaining unit.
It is the union's hope that the coming pressure tactics will force the University back to the bargaining table. Talks for a new collective agreement began in 1996 but have yet to reach a conclusion. If the tactics don't work, both building services and printing services have an overwhelming mandate to strike. Two weeks ago, building services voted 94 percent in favour of striking. Computing services take their vote next week. While no one has a date in mind, Pierre Champagne, president of printing services, which last year voted 100% in favour of a strike, says "that it won't be in the summer."
Savoie's reaction to the threat of a strike "is to sit down together at the bargaining table." While union leaders remain skeptical, that's one point on which the two sides seem to be in agreement.