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Teaching assistants prepare to strike

Union decries lack of progress in negotiations with administration

McGill’s Teaching Assistants (TAs) voted overwhelmingly in favour of a strike mandate at a Special General Assembly last Monday, in hopes of compelling the University to compromise at the negotiation table.

Members of the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM), the union representing McGill’s 2,000 TAs, argued that the University does not recognize the importance of TAs at McGill.

According to AGSEM President Salim Ali, the University has failed to address the union’s concerns.

“At this point we require more than a promise. We need actual proposals. We need something concrete to give our members,” Ali said.

Seventy-nine per cent of the 300-plus members present at last week’s meeting voted to allow the AGSEM executive to call an unlimited general strike at the “most opportune time.”

AGSEM’s last formal agreement with the University took over two years to negotiate, and culminated in a strike in 2003.

According to TAs present at the voting session, AGSEM’s bargaining team stressed the necessity to strike during the exam period.

“A strike is employees withholding work. If it happens, it has to happen while people are working,” AGSEM VP External Natalie Kouri-Towe said.

But Morton Mendelson, McGill Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning), said the University would hold its regular course during negotiations, and would not act to prevent a strike.

“Preventing the strike means caving into what the University thinks are unrealistic demands,” Mendelson said.

A demanding negotiation

Since the expiration last June of AGSEM’s collective agreement with the University, the union has sought changes in the contract regarding wages, class sizes, and training, in line with results from a survey of AGSEM members last year.

Negotiations have not been totally fruitless: AGSEM has succeeded in gaining intellectual property rights equivalent to professors and clarification on policies on sexual harassment.

But the University has made no other concessions, and negotiators fault administrators for moving slowly through negotiations, claiming they have cancelled several meetings and come unprepared to others.

The union’s lobby for increased wages has been one of the most contentious at the bargaining table.

In early March, AGSEM submitted a salary proposal comparing McGill to the average anglophone G-13 schools. The plan would result in TA salaries being raised to between $27 and $28 at the end of three years – an increase only translates to a 0.1 per cent change in McGill’s operating expenses.

McGill’s TAs currently earn $22.24 per hour, and their salaries are only 0.6 per cent of the University’s operating expenses.

According to AGSEM executives, the University has money to invest in TAs’ salaries – but is refusing to budge.

“They won’t even discuss it. We’re open to alternatives, but they’re not offering any,” said Kouri-Towe.

McGill instead offered a two per cent wage increase, reflecting the Quebec market and consistent with salary increases offered to the University’s other employees.

“For unions to say that we have the money means we either have to go more in debt than usual or take the money away from something else,” Mendelson said.

He also ironically suggested that raising undergraduate tuition fees is a possible strategy to gain revenue to accommodate TA’s demands.

“It’s a question of who is going to pay,” he said.

AGSEM is also pushing for more training and department-specific instruction. McGill has so far offered a TA Day, organized through Teaching and Learning Services, but union leaders said this will not prepare TAs to provide proper feedback to students.

“It doesn’t have to cost McGill money to prepare their instructors,” Kouri-Towe said.

Think of the undergrads

According to SSMU VP External Affairs Max Silverman, AGSEM’s demands for training will enhance the quality of undergraduate students’ academic experience at McGill. He claimed that the University’s resistance reflects a problem more disconcerting than McGill’s tight wallet.

“Training for a thousand TAs, a couple of sessions – these are drops in the bucket of McGill’s budget, but this would go far to improve McGill’s quality of education,” Silverman said.

Many undergraduates argue that the University should have acted to prevent a scenario that may hurt professors and students.

“I’m not a fan of strikes, but it is frustrating that the University is not putting its interests in students. A lot of people feel that McGill does not put our needs first,” said Markian Kuzmowycz, U3 Economics.

Silverman and the SSMU executive have been collaborating with AGSEM throughout their negotiations to inform undergraduates and rally their support.

On Wednesday, SSMU sent a listserv email to all undergraduates with information about the TAs’ mandate and negotiation history, urging students to send emails to the senior administration. By noon on Friday at least 130 emails had been sent to Mendelson, and Silverman defended students’ actions.

Mendelson said that while he appreciated students’ concern, the emails were a hindrance to negotiations.

“I received enough email that it was an irritation. I didn’t find it funny or helpful and I told the SSMU executive that their emails bordered on harassment,” Mendelson said.

He claimed that SSMU’s email included “factual errors and editorializing.” “They misinformed thousands of students. Where is the sense in that?”

Silverman defended students’ rights to express their discontent.

“Morton Mendelson is the spokesperson for the University, and more specifically for undergraduates, so it is more than legitimate for undergraduates to email him with concerns, and it is more than appropriate for SSMU to encourage them to do so,” he said.

Preparing for the worst

Since last week’s vote for a strike mandate, professors and staff have begun circulating information throughout campus about how to react to a strike.

Professors received an email Friday morning from the administration outlining how to respond to a TA strike, including recommendations for how to respond in situations not covered under legal provisions.

The documents urged professors to discourage TAs from addressing the class about AGSEM’s labour dispute, and stressed that professors should correct any misinformation that TAs deliver.

Further, department advisors and administrators have been urging professors to obtain all student work TAs currently possess, according to other emails obtained by The Daily.

AGSEM and the University seem to be interpreting the labour code differently. According to AGSEM, professors may not do work mandated in a TA’s work agreement, and is threatening to pursue legal action against any professors that do.

But the University has prepared thorough instructions for professors and students about the ramifications of a work stoppage, with particular emphasis on examination and grading procedures.

“Our main concern in this whole effort is to make sure that teaching continues and that undergraduates do not have to worry about their academic year,” Mendelson said, adding that McGill will prioritize the needs of students scheduled to graduate.

Against the strike

Those voting against the strike feared that a strike would be a misplacement of their concerns onto professors’ and students’ backs.

“We’re holding professors and students hostage to pressure McGill to meet our demands,” said Daniel Lametti, a Daily contributor, TA, and first year PhD candidate in Psychology. He was one of 62 to vote against the mandate.

Lametti faulted AGSEM for failing to communicate its grievances to undergraduates.

“I couldn’t wholeheartedly vote for a strike knowing that undergraduates don’t know as much as they should,” Lametti said.

Negotiations between AGSEM and the University continued over the weekend and into today.

Kouri-Towe stressed that even though the mandate has been approved, a strike is not certain.

“[The strike mandate] is a pressure tactic, so if the University wants us to…work, they’ll need to move at the negotiation table so we can resolve things quickly,” she said.