News | Grad students decry increased workload, decreased hours for TAs

AGSEM negotiates collective agreement in the face of budget cuts

Around thirty graduate students rallied at the Y-intersection on Thursday afternoon to support their union’s demands in negotiations with the University about the teaching assistants’ (TAs) collective agreement. After its old agreement expired in June, AGSEM: McGill’s Teaching Union, which represents TAs and invigilators, is now pushing for protection of TA working conditions and improved quality of education for undergraduate students.

A leading grievance is that while McGill has increased student enrolment, it has reduced the number of TAs. AGSEM argues that TAs are often expected to work more than their allotted hours, and maintains that the University should provide more TA hours to guarantee educational standards, despite provincial cuts to education funding.

“I was speaking with a member just now [who said that] the course that he and his colleague are working for, as teaching assistants […] has something like 150 students, [but only] 3 TAs. A couple of years ago, that was 5 TAs,” said AGSEM President Justin Irwin.

“The amount of work that has to be done isn’t being decreased, it’s staying the same, or it’s increasing,” he added. “So the main thing we’re fighting for is […] to protect not only our members and their employment, but also the quality of education here.”

On top of an increase in TA hours and protection from unpaid work, AGSEM is bargaining over a salary boost. TA salaries have effectively been sliding for years: according to AGSEM promotional literature, McGill awarded TAs a 1.2 per cent pay increase last year, which is below the 2 per cent rate of inflation.

Eden Glasman, a Masters student in English, agreed that TAs are in an unenviable position. “You can’t help feeling that […] graduate students are used to the convenience of the institution in a way that’s not ideal.”

In addition to beginning negotiations with the University over pay conditions in the upcoming months, AGSEM will also argue that the standard of education at McGill will suffer unless cuts to teaching support are reversed. Angela Kalyta, a member of the AGSEM bargaining committee and a PhD candidate in Sociology, addressed the assembled students over a megaphone.

“All of us are familiar with this kind of thing: grading papers without giving a lot of comments, doing it really quick, stuff like that. Undergrads don’t like that, undergrads want better quality education, they want conferences with less than seventy people in them – but we can’t do that unless we have more hours,” said Kalyta.

Irwin also spoke to the crowd, expressing his frustration that McGill has chosen not to publicly condemn the current provincial budget cuts, even though it opposed the Parti Québécois cuts to higher education in 2013. He stated that “responsible belt-tightening” was McGill’s new “party line,” and urged union members to dispute it.

“I think our university should stand up to the province and say that they’re not okay with the cuts that are being proposed, like they did before when the PQ were in power,” Sunci Avlijas, a graduate student in Biology, told The Daily. “But now all of a sudden because the Liberals are in power they’re okay with it. […] How does that make any sense?”

“I hope that the administration will agree with us that [the proposed TA collective agreement] is a priority for our university and our community,” Avlijas continued. “But I hope that our fellow teaching assistants will agree that we have to protect the quality [of education] whatever it takes – even if that is a strike.”