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News | Teaching assistant strike kicks off exam season

AGSEM members hold day-long soft picket to raise visibility

McGill students’ exam season started off with picket lines held by teaching assistants (TAs) who, frustrated by their collective agreement negotiations with the administration, voted last week to go on a one-day strike. The TAs picketed outside the Arthur Currie Gym, the main site of examinations at the university, calling on the administration to provide more TA hours and to index TA funding to student enrollment.

The strike started at 7 a.m. and ended around 7 p.m.. Organized by AGSEM, the union that represents TAs and invigilators, the picket was divided into shifts of fifty to sixty people, with each shift lasting around four hours.

Because the union voted to hold a ‘soft’ picket, no one was prevented from from entering or leaving the gym – most invigilators chose to continue with their work, though some did join the picket line as an act of solidarity for their fellow employees.

“Our purpose was really not to disrupt exams. Our purpose was to stand and to make a point, and to get visibility for these issues that we want to talk about,” said AGSEM Invigilator Grievance Officer Jamie Burnett.

“It is just to say, ‘look, we are here’ – it’s not that it’s just for people [directly] bargaining with you, it’s the whole TA union who cares about the outcome of this. We support our bargaining team.”

Physics PhD student and TA Michael Stroebe, who was part of the picket line, told The Daily that visible support for the bargaining committee was one of the main goals of the strike. “It is just to say, ‘look, we are here’ – it’s not that it’s just for people [directly] bargaining with you, it’s the whole TA union who cares about the outcome of this. We support our bargaining team.”

In an email to The Daily, McGill Director of Labour and Employee Relations Robert Comeau was appreciative that the strike did not disrupt finals. “The union has a legal right to exercise this way of expressing their concerns, and we think they handled their strike with the upmost [sic] respect for the rights of our students, who were in exams, and we thank them for it.”

Although some undergraduates had expressed concerns about the potential impact of the strike on their exams, AGSEM TA Bargaining Chair Giulia Alberini told The Daily that students had been largely supportive.

“We were worried that maybe undergrads, being nervous for their exams, [would] not [be] too happy with us being there, but they actually have been very supportive. People have been asking for the stickers to put on their exams, and the day has been very cheerful and joyful.”

According to Burnett, the organizers of the strike were in communication with McGill security and representatives from Labour and Employee Relations to make sure that exams could still go smoothly during the picket.

TAs seek better compensation, student ratios

One of AGSEM’s main bargaining demands is a wage increase of 5 per cent per year. According to AGSEM, McGill TAs are are poorly paid compared to those at their peer institutions across Canada, such as the University of Toronto and York University. TAs at both institutions were on strike for the month of March over funding and working conditions.

According to the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union, the minimum funding that graduate students receive has not increased since 2008 and is well below the poverty line for a single adult in Toronto.

“Compared to other universities all over Canada, [McGill has] relatively badly paid TAships,” said Stroebe. “We want to make sure that there’s some leverage, because McGill always wants to compare themselves, not only in Canada, but worldwide.”

“It’s difficult to bargain at McGill, the administration has not always made it clear that they care a lot about student concerns, about worker concerns, so it’s difficult. But we have a lot of support, so I think we can move forward.”

However, McGill’s TAs are better paid than those at other universities in Quebec, which, according to Comeau, is the most relevant comparison.

“We would note that McGill TAs are the best paid TAs in Quebec, and we don’t think the reference market is Toronto,” he said.

AGSEM is also asking the University to include a limit on student-to-TA ratios in the agreement in order to prevent them from increasing further. According to Burnett, this is important for TAs’ working conditions, as well as for the quality of education for undergraduates. “We want to make sure that we have enough time to do our job properly, and that’s something that undergrads care about as much as we do.”

According to Comeau, two conciliatory dates have been set to continue negotiations, although a specific timeline was not given.

Speaking to the nature of negotiations with the University, Burnett said, “It’s difficult to bargain at McGill, the administration has not always made it clear that they care a lot about student concerns, about worker concerns, so it’s difficult. But we have a lot of support, so I think we can move forward.”

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