News | TAs avoid strike

McGill accedes to three of union's five demands, but hours will not be increased

For the first time in their history, McGill’s Teaching Assistants (TAs) have signed a new collective agreement without going on strike.

In a General Assembly last Thursday, the TA unit of the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) voted overwhelmingly in favour of ratifying the contract offer in a vote of 97 to 26, or 77 per cent.

Of the five primary demands the union was seeking, McGill, in large part, acceded to three – a pay raise for TAs of 7.3 per cent across three years, paid training, and multiple mandatory meetings with course supervisors.

The hourly wage for TAs will increase from $24.99 this year to $25.51 in January 2012, $26.51 in 2013, and $26.83 in the final year of the contract.

In response to the union’s demand for a nine per cent wage increase across three years, McGill had initially offered 3.6 per cent across the length of the contract.

Michael Di Grappa, vice-principal (Administration & Finance), maintained that the increase in hourly wage did not amount to 7.3 per cent over three years, but was instead the original 3.6 per cent offer, in addition to “changes in the way TAs will be compensated for their paid holidays.”

Lerona Lewis, AGSEM president, said that the administration’s effort to couch a pay increase in “changes” to statutory holiday payment was a “ploy…so that it doesn’t appear that it is actually a 3 per cent increase in pay [in the contract’s first year], simply to justify that they don’t have any money.”

“The bottom line is that there was an increase… The way you present your arguments or you frame it, the University can do it to suit their agenda, but the bottom line is that we know there was an increase,” she added.

After five months of negotiations – and an initial rejected offer – the administration presented AGSEM with a second offer on November 18. The administration had previously rejected all of the TAs’ main demands, precipitating the union’s use of various pressure tactics over the last month.

Last Thursday’s ‘yes’ vote means that TAs will not strike this spring.

In addition to new mandated meetings with course supervisors and the wage increase, TAs will also have access to a three-hour paid training session, offered in September and January.

The sessions will cover the planning of effective discussions, grading in humanities and sciences, preparing lectures, and grading and feedback in French.

In the week leading up to the vote, the AGSEM executive extensively discussed one new addition to the contract: Article 22.

McGill’s version of the article read: “the hiring unit shall make every effort to maintain adequate teaching support for undergraduate courses by such means as utilizing Teaching Assistants, or the equivalent in accord with established practices.”

The administration agreed to AGSEM’s version, which changed “maintain” to “improve,” and deleted the clause regarding the “equivalent” of TAs.

The administration has refused, however, to make a commitment to increasing the number of hours TAs are able to teach, a major defeat for some AGSEM members.

Biology TA Justin Marleau spoke to The Daily immediately after voting, saying he was disappointed in the contract. “We didn’t get any commitment about the stabilization of TA hours… After we got the pay increases in the last bargaining agreement, they just cut our hours,” he said.

Dominique Jacques, an Atmospheric Sciences TA, said that, without increased hours, anything else was “very little in terms of gains.”

Article 22, for Jacques, was “complete bullcrap. It’s words that mean nothing.”

Molly Alexander, AGSEM’s advisor from the academic department of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux, said that the clause “sets [AGSEM] up for the next round” of negotiations, while acknowledging that it had no binding power.