Student-Union Union Busting?

- by Macdonald Stainsby

Concordia University is a strange place indeed for a student like myself to attend. Having been involved in anti-imperialist work for years, in particular around the issue of Palestine, the fact that this University was in the only city on Turtle Island that I could see myself moving to -- Montreal-- made it an obvious slam dunk for me over two years ago. Back then, global headlines were made by students and others who shut down an attempt to by Hillel Concordia to bring known war criminal Benjamin Netanyahu onto the campus; this was after years of attacks from right wing Zionists and other neo-liberals on what they dubbed the "bin Laden youth wing" student union and associated student clubs, who held real sway on the hallowed grounds of this institution. I would forgive you if you thought that the only issues brought up by students were around the Middle East, but that's very much not the case.

Forcing a reduction in tuition (through direct action and student strikes) for the first time in many years anywhere in the territory called Canada or Quebec, these students had also worked on union battles and even helped their own staff members become a local of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), now CUPE local 4512.

After the physical denial of Bibi, the former Israeli PM declared that the school needed to "clean up" the students; expel and attack, fight dirty, do anything to destroy all aspects of this powerful left. And, sadly, much of that has succeeded. Yet, thanks to the work of the old Concordia Student Union, workers at CUPE 4512 have still maintained their jobs (that's what unions do). Recently, the new CSU has begun taking on the little union on campus and attacking them in the most vile manner. The CSU does not extend proper notice of work hours that need to be done, is in constant consultation with its lawyers as to how to skirt labour law, and more recently has even begun to illegally suspending union leaders for carrying out their duties.

It's quite ironic in many ways. Concordia still has, in university terms, a very progressive student body. So even a very reactionary CSU (sponsored by B'nai Brith and openly adored by the administration) has to coat their attacks on workers in a thin veneer of leftish-sounding dribble. So, for example, they call for boycotts of various unattractive corporations and the like.

The Concordia Student Union has recently taken a position of calling for a boycott of a Starbucks built inside the school itself. The very first reason, explained on the CSU's own "Your Union" back cover page, and in the CSU's own words, was:

"Union busting: In 1996 [...] the CAW became their certified bargaining agent. Over the next two years, after much foot-dragging on the employer's part, a first collective agreement was reached. [....] Starbucks began stalling negotiations and started an anti-union disinformation campaign..."

Oddly, this is a very good description of what the CSU is actually up to in dealing with their CUPE local 4512. Disinformation has already begun. Now they have attempted to suspend an employee-- 4512 president Christina Xydous-- for carrying out union activities (and nothing whatsoever to do with her job description).

The CSU was originally accused in the campus papers, after long trampling their workers union and violating both good faith in bargaining and the collective agreement itself, of illegally hiring non-unionized supplementary workers without proper notice to CUPE 4512. The press release was issued by 4512, and merely presented by Xydous as an example of illegal hiring practice.

The CSU move to suspect Xydous is not only union-busting, it is the classic form of the practice. Whenever an employer actually ends up in conflict with a union, even a local, the labour arbitrator is most likely to go on precedent. So, in order to protect the jobs of its members, a union not only can challenge and grieve this, it pretty much has to. If it doesn't do it the first time, then the ability to prevent "outsourcing"-- getting workers without union protections or benefits to undermine the union-- will diminish or even expire. So, the response from the CSU is all the more astonishing.

"This is further to your distribution of a press release to campus media [...]" started the letter to Xydous. The comment here: "Your action is a very serious act of disloyalty[...]" is all the more bizarre when one realizes that Ms Xydous, acting in her position as president, was and is duty bound to defend her union. During orientation (a welcome back week of various events, concerts, etc) it was and remains clear that people were hired from an undisclosed budget line at beneath required wage levels, and against the collective agreement. The letter admits this much: "[...Y]ou did have an issue with our interpretation of the collective agreement over supplementary employees..." which means that the press release issued falls under her duty bound position at the union. The CSU, could they find a problem with Ms Xydous' work in the job and housing bank, might have a legitimate case to "impose a suspension for this grave breach of duty. You will be suspended without pay for two-months". However, it is not legal to suspend a worker for carrying out union duties. It is also rather disturbing that the CSU sees an employee standing up for a real accounting of where the CSU is spending money, student money, and gets this colossal gag order.

Orientation was something that some CSU Execs perceived as "not given proper credit" for "hard work" done: "Keeping a critical eye on the student union is only fair, but to never recognize when we are doing a good job does not exactly encourage us to continue putting 12 to 22-hour days in for the good of students." (Melissa Gruber, CSU exec). Whose "12-22" hours of work is she talking about? Indeed, there certainly was an inordinate amount of work put in by all of those who helped make the Wailers concert happen. But Ms Gruber could do us the favour of extolling the numbers, names, and most importantly, wages of the non-union, underpaid, illegally hired scab workers brought in to undermine the collective agreement that exists with this union?

The CSU has already tried to get people to look away from these anti-union labour practices, both illegal and in bad faith. They have now tried to legislate the shutting up of CUPE 4512 for saying, in effect, "Show me the money." They claim "there was no time", that there was no way in which to follow labour law, but when hours of work become available, legally they must be offered to members of the union to work.

If unionized staff choose not to or cannot work these hours, only then by law can the employer "outsource" this labour. This was not done to the tune of thousands of dollars paid for workers. These people were often friends of the CSU execs, and the better the friend, the better the wage. The wages included close friends making less than the collective agreement minimum ($11.68/hr), all the way down to $8/hr.

Wages appears in the books as lump sums, and because of the randomness of the wage structure, this leaves an auditor with a lot of detective work to figure out how many hours were worked by whom and what the tasks were.

The category on the books appears to be this place where CSU friends can line up for a bite at the apple. That apple, however, was paid for by the students. As a result of this tap-dance around labour law, followed up by the attack on the rights of the union itself, the union has what appears to be an airtight grievance-- provided they have the support of the Montreal community, and not just the students.

The CSU is possibly on the hook for the financial amount of all wages paid that were unadvertised (and although the precise amount is the subject of considerable debate, it is agreed by both parties to be in the thousands of dollars), to be handed over to the workers who have entitlement to them by law. This is a bare minimum.

Meanwhile, the friends of the CSU and others that were hired will not be required to pay back a penny; they did the work, even if they were hired illegally. In fact, CUPE 4512 is demanding that all workers hired receive back-pay to bring them up to the full $11.68 per hour they were entitled to under the collective agreement. The one who pays for this gross violation of the labor code and the collective agreement will be the student population who supply the CSU's budget.

Meanwhile, the irony of the CSU taking an anti-Starbucks stance whilst simultaneously practising the same kind of anti-union maneuvers should be lost on no one - least of all, the workers whose job security and livelihood is threatened by these anti-worker measures. But a simple boycott of the CSU would be silly. Perhaps a recall campaign would be more to the tastes of Concordia, dumping the trash and "cleaning up"-- just as once recommended by Netanyahu himself.

Macdonald Stainsby is a freelance writer and social justice activist from Vancouver, Canada now living in Montreal, Quebec and studying at Concordia University. he can be reached at

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