I had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with today’s guest blogger in late July, when in the course of commiserating over the gig economy in which we live, I discovered that she did time at McGill University. August, whose real name has been changed to protect her identity, shared the following experience with me (which I share with permission):
(Trigger warning: sexual aggression)
"I'm a longtime employee of post-secondary institutions, with more than 7 years’ experience working for public and community-based educational organizations. I'm also very proud to say that last fall I finished my master's degree. As the first woman in my family to finish a university degree, it's a big accomplishment for me.
I worked as a student affairs coordinator in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education (DISE) at McGill University. When I was first hired, I was ecstatic. Before moving to Montreal, I'd had an overwhelmingly positive experience working as an administrative assistant for a university out west and I was genuinely excited to continue working within an academic milieu in my new hometown. My excitement quickly wore off, however, as I witnessed students and staff repeatedly mistreated by upper level management.
There was a general lack of care and respect for support workers and international students in particular. Administrative support staff like me were overworked and expected to take on tasks that had previously been the responsibility of management-level contract employees and faculty members. The extra workload was typically introduced as an opportunity for “career development” and “teamwork,” and often involved responsibilities for which I had neither sufficient training nor support to carry out.
For instance, I was asked to take on student advising for graduate students, particularly international students in personal crisis. While I was certainly able to explain course registration and program requirements, I had never received crisis training and had no formal qualifications for guiding students through important career and program choices. In the past, this guidance had been provided by faculty members with PhDs and years of experience in their fields.
Meanwhile, more and more students were being admitted into the graduate program in order to maximize tuition revenues. One of my colleagues, the only full-time graduate student advisor, was fired without cause shortly before she expected to take maternity leave, which precipitated my managers' demand that I take on student advising. Casual workers were brought in to assist with administrative tasks and all of us support staff in the office were expected to train and re-train these casual hires on top of our already overwhelming workloads. The casual workers were poorly paid and rarely renewed for a second contract, which meant additional training and follow-up work on the tasks they had been assigned to complete.
Throughout this period, I was also dealing with the aftermath of a workplace-related sexual assault. I was interrogated aggressively by the university's insurance provider and subject to repeated, invasive examinations and evaluations while seeking basic care for the medical consequences of the assault, which in theory was meant to be covered by my employee health plan. Even though I belonged to MUNACA, my union was unable or unwilling to protect me from the distress of this situation or the ongoing pressure to take on additional unpaid tasks at work. I was told that a formal grievance could be pursued regarding the workload concerns, but this grievance would take an indefinite time to resolve. In the meantime, my supervisors insisted that if I did not complete the additional work demanded of me, the department's graduate students would suffer, since they would not receive their funding on time or be given sufficient support during times of serious personal or academic crisis. Eventually, I found the working conditions totally unbearable and left McGill University to work in the community education sector.
Support staff are often put into untenable positions like this, where our managers present us with a cruel (and false) choice between fair pay and working conditions (and, in my case, my own health) and the well-being of students. The pressure resulting from this ultimatum pits students and staff against each other, when in fact it's bad management that creates these intolerable conditions in the first place by, among other things, cutting the number of support staff employed by each department, under-paying (and frequently delaying payment to) graduate students, and pressuring both students and staff to do more with less money.
A universal living wage would go a long way toward ensuring that all workers on campus can work with dignity, integrity, and also in solidarity with other employees and students. In my opinion, when you are paid well to complete a reasonable amount of work, it means you are more capable of doing your job well. It also makes it easier to improve on existing work processes, address abusive or otherwise unpleasant working habits, and build long-term, effective relationships with your colleagues, all of which in turn also contribute to improved working conditions. Workers should also be entitled to job security and benefits as well as reasonable pay. McGill University needs to create full-time jobs in place of casual employment, particularly in departments such as DISE where, in my experience, casual employees were a seasonal norm.
What’s also needed is a comprehensive shift in how both students and support staff are treated by the institution. A fair workplace should also mean being safe from sexual aggression and psychological harm. Staff members and students who experience sexual assault and harassment should be cared for and supported by the institution, not punished for coming forward. The unions also need to be stronger, more supportive and more accountable to members enduring the consequences of sexual assault and harassment."
This blog is an initiative of the 15 and Fair McGill Coalition. Curated by MM and MB. This experience was written by guest-blogger August, and prepared for publication by MB.