Unproductive contract negotiations are inciting the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) to call for a strike vote at a special meeting Monday.
Most union members – over 2,000 teaching assistants (TAs) – have agreed that a strike is the only viable response to the University’s refusal to compromise in negotiations, said AGSEM president Salim Ali.
“The University is compelling us to strike. The timeline is not ideal, but there are no other options left,” Ali said.
AGSEM’s contract with the University expired in June, and the union has been negotiating the terms of a new agreement since October.
AGSEM is demanding that its new contract reflect the importance of TAs in undergraduate education. Their bargaining points include higher wages, formal training, adequate office space, and the introduction of a uniform workload form.
Ali hopes that the pressure of a strike vote will shift the course of negotiations and preempt a strike.
“It’s our last option. If the vote passes, then maybe McGill will come back with a better proposal,” Ali said, noting that the University has been “relentless,” particularly in its refusal to compromise on the monetary demands.
However, the University’s negotiating team insists that the negotiations are going well.
According to Associate Vice Principal of Human Resources Lynne B. Gervais, who has been involved in the regular meetings with AGSEM, strikes are routine during contract negotiations.
“The reason why [AGSEM is] having a GA and asking their membership to vote on a strike mandate is due process. It’s part of negotiations and they are absolutely entitled and in the right to do so,” Gervais said, adding that she does not foresee a strike influencing the status of negotiations.
“We don’t plan on their having a strike and I don’t think [AGSEM’s] membership does either. But I don’t think that it will speed up or slowdown the negotiations,” she added.
Representatives from AGSEM and members of McGill’s Human Resources Department have been meeting regularly – once per week for several hours. While both parties are eager to settle, negotiations should continue throughout the summer if an agreement is not reached.
Historically, the University has not treated AGSEM well, Ali said, recalling the union’s last negotiations with McGill, which took two years to complete and culminated in a strike.
“McGill is…still not coming forward with a good proposal,” Ali said. “It looks like they don’t want to work with us. They’re bargaining in a traditional way.”
The semester’s looming end presents a potential complication in AGSEM’s negotiations. The union usually holds elections for its executive members in March, but postponed them this year so as not to interfere with negotiations.
In classroom announcements this week, AGSEM members have said that a new executive could disrupt the flow of negotiations.
However, Gervais does not foresee complications.
“As long as they come to the table, negotiations will continue,” she said.
In addition, TAs serve a particularly vital role in undergraduate classes at the end of the semester and faculties have drawn up contingency plans in the event of a TA strike.
The absence of TAs at such an inconvenient time may make a strike more effective, said Derek Nystrom, the TA coordinator for the English Department.
“Since the University relies on [TAs] to perform a great deal of its teaching, a TA strike would most definitely demonstrate precisely this – that the TAs are an essential part of the University’s teaching efforts, and they should be treated and compensated accordingly,” Nystrom wrote in an email to The Daily.
Nystrom also noted that a contract favouring AGSEM’s demands would provide TAs with more time and resources to devote to their teaching duties.
“Based on what I know about the TAs’ demands, I would say that if the TAs win, so will undergraduates and professors,” he wrote.
To pass, a majority of TAs present must vote “Yes.” Ali expects 500 TAs to attend.
“The ball is in their hands. If [McGill] wants to have more sessions they can. It’s just a willingness to work with the union.”