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 firstname.lastname@example.org