Commentary | Hyde Park: Support our Teaching Assistants

As many of you already know, McGill’s Teaching Assistants (TAs) will be gathering tonight for a General Assembly to determine if they should go on strike. Why? The Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) – the union representing TAs at McGill – has been engaged in negotiations with McGill on a new collective agreement. Most of their demands are reasonable and intended to improve the quality of undergraduate education, yet McGill refuses to budge on many of them.

The first demand that concerns undergrads is paid, mandatory, and targeted training for TAs in the fields that they TA. Most undergraduates have had the experience of a TA who is out of their element – a biology student TAing our chemistry class, or a Canadian History student TAing our Roman History class. Mandatory, targeted training of all TAs in their field of teaching helps avoid these situations and improves the quality of our (undergraduate) education. Especially in faculties where face-to-face contact with a professor is limited, TAs serve on the front lines of our education, so it’s important that they’re familiar with the material they’re helping to teach. McGill’s refusal to budge on this demand sends a very clear message to students about the admin’s priorities.

The second demand that undergraduates should be interested in is caps on conference sizes. McGill provides for TAs to be hired in classes with more than 70 students. This common sense policy ensures that students in large classes receive personal attention. However, in some large classes, conferences can have more than 70 people. This policy contradiction means that students might get lost in large conferences. TAs are demanding reasonable caps on their conference sizes, and undergraduates should take up this call. McGill, again, refuses to budge.

Finally, we know how hard our TAs work. We see the bags under their eyes, we read the 4 a.m. emails they send us, and we watch them slave through office hours scheduled according to our convenience. TAs deserve fair compensation for their work. Our students are the best and the brightest in the country, and should be treated as such. Yet, McGill’s salaries for TAs are well below the Canadian average, and a fraction of what TAs are paid at McGill’s equivalent universities across the country – the “G13 schools” in Canada. McGill is proposing an insulting and degrading nominal wage increase that will still leave McGill’s TAs light-years behind their peers across the country.

There is no doubt that a TA strike right before exams will be a headache for undergraduates, a major sacrifice on the part of TAs, and a huge hassle for the McGill administration. For lack of a better term, it will be bad for everybody. However, to continue to denigrate our TAs, to fail to recognize that they are the front line teachers in our undergraduate education, and to refuse to treat them with basic respect and fairness is a lot worse for our university. As students, we are the life of McGill, but TAs are the life-support. Be sure to tell your TAs how much you value their work, and how much you support their demands.

It is the McGill administration who is being unreasonable in its negotiations with TAs, and it is the McGill Administration who can prevent a strike by dealing in good faith with AGSEM. SSMU asks all our members who would like to see a speedy resolution to these negotiations to send an email to Deputy Provost Morton Mendelson, letting him know you support the TAs reasonable demands and want to see the University acting in good faith.

You can email Morton Mendelson at morton.mendelson@mcgill.ca.


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