Commentary  Hyde Park: Respect and fair employment for all teaching staff

This has been a rough year for labour on campus.

Teaching assistants (TAs) are still fighting to be paid for work-hours completed before their long, bitterly-fought 11-week strike earlier this year. Getting paid for your work is a principle we all agree with, and we hope the University will move quickly to find a solution before proceeding to arbitration. The union representing non-academic staff, MUNACA, is also in negotiations, and so far McGill has been unwilling to meet their demands.

Apparently, the University’s motto – “By work, all things increase and grow” – doesn’t apply to workers’ salaries or the consideration they receive from the administration. And to make matters worse, a short-sighted decision last month by the Quebec Labour Relations Commission has placed TAs, other graduate employees, and non-traditional workers at a disadvantage by placing all of their on-campus activities at risk when exercising their right to strike.

This week, McGill TAs join contingent academic workers from across the continent to observe Fair Employment Week. We are calling attention to those whom the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) dubs “invisible academics:” teachers who do their fair share of teaching but don’t benefit from the same respect and protections as do the full-time, tenure-stream faculty.

Fair Employment Week has traditionally focused on working conditions for sessional instructors. At McGill, they carry a huge portion of the teaching load and their numbers are growing; according to the University’s web site, in January 2007 only 26.5 per cent of the academic staff were tenure-stream faculty. And even though we depend so heavily on these professionals, most sessionals earn as much as $3,000 less per course than their equivalents at other Quebec universities. According to CAUT, they have no benefits, limited job security, inadequate academic support, and no opportunity to participate in research activities or academic governance. They are academia’s cheap labour.

In the past few years, there has been a growing awareness that, like TAs, graduate employees must also be recognized as contingent teachers. As enrolments increase and the number of tenure-stream faculty – for instance, those involved in research – stagnates, the teaching load is shifted more and more to sessional instructors and assistants. In fact, several well-respected education journals have acknowledged this shift by publishing articles demonstrating the need to include teacher training in graduate curricula for those who will become TAs and instructors. This should come as no surprise to McGill undergraduates who will likely have more face-to-face contact with their teaching assistants in many of the University’s larger lecture courses.

In my own experience working with TAs, I have worked alongside an accomplished journalist, an award-winning world-class musician, and a number of junior scholars conducting ground-breaking field research, to name just a few. The next time you find yourself meeting with a TA during office hours, take a few moments and ask them about their own work. Let us not forget that the term “graduate student” can too easily disguise the fact that your TAs and sessionals are talented teachers and scholars in their own right, deserving of the same fair and equitable treatment as anyone else in the university community. You can judge for yourself whether the administration’s response to TAs and other graduate and contingent employees constitutes “fair employment.”

We should all take a moment this week to reflect on the role that all teaching staff play in the academic vitality of the McGill community. Their contributions shouldn’t need Fair Employment Week to be recognized; let us all carry forward that sense of respect and equity for the rest of the year.

Richard Hink is a PhD student in communication studies and President of the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM), the union that represents TAs.