Commentary  It’s the time for decisive action

An open letter from McGill teaching assistants

As you may know, teaching assistants at McGill have been negotiating a new contract with the administration since May 2011. Our current contract expired on June 30, 2011.
After ten meetings and forty hours of negotiations, we have been unable to reach an agreement with the administration because their negotiation strategy is a categorical “NO” in response to the reasonable requests we have made at the bargaining table. Their refusal to progress beyond “No” and their reluctance to compromise with TAs reveals that they undervalue the contributions of TAs to the McGill community. What follows is a description of the bargaining priorities of TAs and the responses of the McGill administration.

A cut to TA real wages
TAs seek an annual salary increase of 3.0 per cent. This increase, slightly less than the current 3.4 per cent increase in the cost of living in Quebec, aims to provide TAs with the same buying power in 2012 and beyond as they had in 2011. The McGill administration is offering a 1.2 per cent annual increase that would take effect eighteen months after the last pay increase which is in June 2012.  If TAs were to accept this offer, we would be earning less in real terms each year of our contract, since the cost of housing, food, transportation, et cetera would increase at a faster rate than our salaries.  McGill’s offer of a 1.2 per cent increase amounts to a cut to TA real wages.  Under McGill’s offer, a full-time TA would earn $800 less in 2011 dollars per year by the end of the contract than if TA wages increased with today’s inflation rate. In the current financial climate, TAs should not be expected to take a pay cut – especially on the eve of a tuition hike.

More students, fewer teaching hours
TAs seek a commitment from McGill to invest in more TA hours and positions.  Since 2007, the number of degree-seeking undergraduates enrolled at McGill has increased 9 per cent and the number of graduate students has increased 13 per cent. But, the number of hours TAs work campus-wide has actually decreased by 2500 hours over the same period.  As the number of undergraduate students increases, the time requirements for consultation, instruction, and evaluation also increase. Increasing the number of TAships across the university would greatly improve the quality of undergraduate instruction and evaluation by ensuring that TAs will have enough time to teach the growing number of students.  We ask McGill administration to hire more TAs and limit the size of discussion-based conferences and laboratory sessions to ensure that TAs can provide sufficient instruction and that undergraduate students have a stimulating and challenging environment to learn and express themselves. The administration has refused.

Untrained Teachers
TAs at McGill do not receive standardized paid pedagogical training. Other universities across Canada, however, do provide paid and certified training for TAs.  Although first-time TAs are experts in their fields, before starting their duties they very often have never taught a class, led a discussion-based seminar, evaluated a paper, or marked an exam.  Even though paid pedagogical training for new TAs would improve the quality of their instruction and the quality of undergraduate learning experience, the administration has yet to respond with a concrete proposal.

Because the administration has refused to offer a meaningful response to these core issues, TAs have realised that it is time for decisive action. At our General Assembly on October 19, 2011, TAs will vote on authorizing the use of pressure tactics – not including a strike – to support our demands. These pressure tactics may include demonstrations, media campaigns, letter writing, protests, or any other action that will encourage a reasonable response by McGill to our priorities. Pressure tactics allow TAs to take their fight beyond the bargaining table and into the public sphere, where we will build support for our bargaining position. It is long overdue for the administration to negotiate in good faith, to respond to our priorities, and to offer TAs a fair contract. It is now up to us to teach the administration that what is at stake in these negotiations is the integrity of the teaching assistant position and the quality of education available at McGill.

Signed by AGSEM – McGill’s Teaching Union.