McGill law professors, hoping to gain greater faculty autonomy while seeking the security of a collective bargaining framework and a collective agreement, are attempting to unionize at the faculty level, a first for professors in the university’s 200-year history.
The Association of McGill Professors of Law (AMPL) petitioned the Quebec Administrative Labour Tribunal to be recognized under the Quebec Labour Code in late November 2021 shortly after the university adopted a controversial COVID-19 vaccination policy, a position that proved to be the “bale of hay that broke the camel’s back,” said Evan Fox-Decent, AMPL’s interim president. A supermajority of the 51 McGill law professors have signed membership cards to allow the AMPL to act as their exclusive bargaining agent. The overwhelming majority of Canadian professors are unionized, with less than a handful not represented by a certified bargaining unit.
“The university is becoming more McGill incorporated than McGill University in recent years,” remarked Fox-Decent, Canada Research Chair in Cosmopolitan Law and Justice. “What really drove the point home to us about how precarious our situation is, was when we were told we were going back to teach in fall, of course we were under a new wave of COVID-19 that was starting up. That was as much as anything what put people on edge and made the majority of the faculty think that we just had to sort of take control over our own house.”
But McGill University is resisting those efforts and opposes the certification of the bargaining unit. Hearings before the Quebec Administrative Tribunal are scheduled to take place in May. “The University is of the opinion that the unit proposed by the petitioning association is not appropriate – none of the current bargaining units or staff associations cover a single faculty,” said Frédérique Mazerolle, a McGill media relations officer in an email. “Moreover the administration feels it does not take into account the converging interests of a broader group of employees and the history of labour relations at McGill University.”
Issues between McGill’s law professors and the administration have been percolating since at least 2009 when the university unilaterally changed the type of pension plan staff received, from a defined benefits pension plan, which promises a specific and predictable income at retirement, to a defined contribution pension plan, which hinges on the amount paid into the pension and the fund’s investment performance.
But things came to a head in August 2021 when a group of law professors wrote a letter to McGill’s administration demanding that they implement a policy requiring proof of vaccination to be able to attend classes at the campus. University administrators countered with a letter asking faculty deans and department heads to name faculty members reluctant to teach in person. “Academic staff are not permitted to determine, unilaterally, that they will teach remotely rather than in person,” said the letter penned by Christopher Manfredi, McGill’s Provost and vice-principal academic, adding that fear about campus safety or concern about relatives who might be at heightened risk or exposure to COVID-19, including those living under the same roof are not “valid reasons for granting permission to teach remotely.” The university has stated that it is not legally allowed to make vaccines mandatory for students without an explicit government directive.
“It had been dawning on us for sometime that the governance structure of the university had become much more centralized,” said Richard Janda, a McGill law professor and AMPL’S interim secretary. “That particular gesture on the part of the administration was the moment that sort of crystallized people’s views that far from being in a context where we could influence and have an impact on university policy, on the contrary, we were exposing ourselves to discipline.”
Policies around COVID-19 vaccinations have been a flashpoint in Canadian universities, noted David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), an organization representing 72,000 academic staff. Over the past six months six academic staff associations have gone on strike compared to six strikes that have occurred over a ten-year stretch before the pandemic, added Robinson. “There’s been a lot of concern, particularly underlined by COVID-19, that senior administrators are making academic decisions about whether we go online or what online format we use without consulting the Senate or faculty, and so there’s been a lot of pushback from that,” explained Robinson.
McGill law professors are hoping that the bargaining unit will put them more on an equal footing with the administration, protect the collegial governance at the faculty level, ensure a degree of autonomy in the decision-making process, and be able to negotiate a collective agreement that will provide better working conditions and security. At present, law professors are in the dark over how much people make, “which makes it much more difficult for us to negotiate individually because we really don’t know where we stand with others,” said Fox-Decent.
But the AMPL does not want to affiliate itself with other unions that exist at McGill nor are they interested in being a part of the large umbrella of Quebec labour federations, said Janda. Rather it is modelling itself on what has been done at the Université de Sherbrooke and York University and establish a bargaining unit that represents only their faculty. At Yorke, professors of Osgoode Hall Law School are unionized through the Osgoode Hall Faculty Association while remaining faculty members are unionized under the York University Faculty Association. At the Université de Sherbrooke, engineering professors have their own separate union. “We want something for our faculty, for our particular community,” said Janda. “It’s based on the analysis that we felt that there had been an overwhelming centralization tendency at the university, and we are trying to preserve something of the mode of collegial governance that had characterized McGill before at our faculty.”
The unionization drive is receiving financial support from both CAUT and its Quebec counterpart, the Fédération québécoise des professeures et professeurs d’université (FQPPU), to help cover costs of the legal tussle. CAUT has a policy where it covers the cost of any group that’s trying to organize and certify professors “because we believe that it’s through certified trade unions that we can best protect professional rights,” explained Robinson, adding that he is not surprised by McGill’s legal challenge. “There’s always been a bit of resistance, but the old adage of the employer or administrator being the best organizer is at play here,” said Robinson.
According to Janda, the “material support” of both organizations is instrumental. “The administration has demonstrated that they want to resist this to the teeth and have spent a lot of money resisting our claim,” said Janda. “One of our fears is that even if we win before the labour tribunal that they may want to drag this out before the courts, and obviously there are issues as to what resources are available to a small association to persist with litigation. We’ve been fortunate to receive the backing of CAUT and more recently of the FQPPU.”
The unionization initiative has received support from some 150 McGill law alumni who signed a petition calling on the university to end the legal battle it is waging. The Association des professeures et des professeurs de droit du Québec (APPDQ) has been silent. But its president and Université de Montréal law professor Michel Morin said “in a personal capacity only, without committing the Board of Directors or the Executive Committee” noted that McGill law professors have the fundamental right to unionize in accordance with the rules of the Quebec Labour Code. They can “also define the unit of accreditation they consider most appropriate,” added Morin an email.
This story was originally published in The Lawyer’s Daily