Merit pay on its way

DANIEL McCABE | Hundreds of McGill non-academic staff should soon be in a position to enjoy something they haven't experienced in a long time -- a raise.

The 1,300 library assistants, clerical staff and technicians represented by the union MUNACA, haven't seen any kind of salary increase for several years. Academics and managers at McGill have been just as affected by salary freezes, but they have had access to merit pay increases, something that has eluded MUNACA members pending the resolution of their first contract with the University.

But things have changed. McGill has decided to offer merit pay increases even though the first contract has yet to be signed.

In an e-mail message sent out last month, Principal Bernard Shapiro indicated that McGill will distribute the discretionary merit funds for MUNACA members that were set aside in 1996 and 1997.

"Our preference was that merit would be part of the whole package once the first contract was reached," explains Robert Savoie, executive director of the Department of Human Resources.

"Originally, we estimated that it would take about two years to reach a deal. It's taken a lot more time than we anticipated. We're now in year three and I suspect it will be one more year before the first contract is signed," says Savoie.

"Given those circumstances, we felt we should do something now. These people haven't had increases in many years."

In Shapiro's e-mail message, he stated, "The hard work and dedication of our unionized administrative and support staff must be recognized."

Allan Youster, the president of MUNACA, is pleased by the move, but wary of the University's motives.

"It's a victory," says Youster, "but it's too little, too late. The University should have reached this decision a long time ago.

"I think it's a bit of a coincidence that McGill took this decision one month before a scheduled arbitration hearing over the grievances we've filed on this matter," says Youster.

In the grievance over merit pay, MUNACA also sought interest on the merit payments to compensate their union members for the time they've had to wait before receiving their merit increases.

"We settled that," says Youster. "The University will pay $100 to each of our members in lieu of interest."

McGill and MUNACA agree on one thing: both sides hope that the first contract is now within striking distance.

"We're now at the point where we're finally tackling the major issues: staffing policies, employment security. They'll be dealt with this fall," says Savoie. "It will take six months [to reach a deal] if we meet frequently and if everything goes great."

"At this point, all our attention will be focused on getting the first contract settled," says Youster. "I'm hoping we can have a big push and settle this soon."

The arbitrator assigned to the case still has to decide if he will impose a contract on the two parties or if he will continue to mediate between them. The arbitrator is under no deadline. "The timing is in his hands," says Savoie.

MUNACA members might not want to crack open the champagne just yet; it could take them a while to receive their merit pay increases. "I'd like to pay it as soon as possible," says Savoie. But forms still have to be filled out and processed.

"We recently moved from our old payroll system to ISIS and this will be the first time that we've done a merit exercise for this particular group," explains Savoie. "It will require setting up the programming. Also, the forms still have to be filled out by the faculties and departments. They have to make the decisions about their staff -- it is a merit increase, not an across the board raise."

The news seems to be meeting with guarded enthusiasm from MUNACA members. "I don't think they're evil anymore," says one secretary from Macdonald Campus of the administration, "just naughty, maybe."

Across the University, non-MUNACA members are hoping that McGill and MUNACA settle soon.

"Morale is a big problem. It's one of my biggest worries," says the chair of one academic department, adding that the technicians and clerical staff who work in his unit "have been held hostage" by the protracted negotiations between the University and MUNACA. "Academics also complain about their salaries, but at least we've had merit increases all these years."