Commentary | Grad students are workers too: lessons from the TA strike

Hyde Park

After a bitter 11-week strike, 2,000 Teaching Assistants (TAs) at McGill who are organized by the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) ended their strike by signing a collective agreement.

On June 12, the TAs voted 91.5 per cent to end their strike, not with their heads hung low, but with their heads held up high in victory. However, the strike has brought to the forefront something which is far more important than a collective agreement: the militancy of graduate students.

In this struggle against McGill administration, the graduate students realized that they are workers too, that they are exploited, and also that they can organize and win.

Despite the repeated attempts by the McGill administration to portray the TAs as students – and along with the argument that it is not in their place to demand workers’ rights – the TAs never fell for it. At one point during the negotiation, one McGill spokesperson told the TAs to “grow up and take responsibility.” In response, the TAs showed their maturity by banding together in an even stronger fashion in their union to fight for better working conditions. This kind of maturity never sits well with the administration – whose conception of maturity is blind obedience.

This strike has shown many grad students that they have different interests than those of the administration, which is only interested in squeezing as much as possible out of them. As TAs and researchers, we are expected to work long hours for minimum pay. Universities in general try to disguise this exploitation under the blanket of graduate student “apprenticeship” – that grad students are just students, not workers; that we are here to study (read: perform research) and train (read: teach students) and that we should be grateful to receive a stipend (read: salary) while we are here.

While this concept of apprenticeship may have been true hundreds of years ago, graduate students are workers now. We sell our labour power as TAs and researchers. As TAs, we are not different from teachers, and perform the same services as them. As a researcher, graduate students are the backbone of the University’s research. They are the ones who perform the dirty work in research and it is this research that brings in millions of dollars for the University. The strike itself was proof that McGill cannot function without the labour of the TAs.

Today, graduate students have joined the ranks of workers, and the victory of McGill TAs further reinforces this notion. McGill’s attempts to undermine and break the union backfired; the union became stronger and its members became more class conscious. The victory at McGill serves as an inspiration for other graduate students across Canada to organize and to stand up for their rights as workers.

Ted Sprague is a Master’s II Chemistry student.

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