News | TAs grapple with effects of austerity

Many unions considering spring strike action

Correction appended March 19, 2015.

Across Montreal, universities are shifting the burden of provincial austerity measures onto students. While undergraduates at many institutions are facing higher tuition fees and larger class sizes, for teaching assistants (TAs), the cuts have meant a fall in real wages coupled with increased workloads.

“[Concordia’s] tried basically cutting every expense they could find […] they’re trying to cut everything,” said Robert Sonin, a Teaching and Research Assistants at Concordia (TRAC) union member.

He explained that the number of Concordia graduate students has climbed, while the TA budget has remained flat.

Quebec funds universities based on their number of weighted FTEs (full-time equivalent students), with graduate students garnering heftier subsidies than undergraduates. Increasing graduate admissions thus act to counterbalance funding shortfalls elsewhere. However, the result of an enlarged graduate student body is fewer TA contracts with fewer hours, and ultimately a lower rate of compensation.

“They take the money from the easy places where they know there’s less resistance, and there’s less resistance among students because [students] take what [they] can get,” Sonin continued.

He also told The Daily that TRAC is working to combat an unspoken norm under which TAs are expected to work more than their contracted hours. However, graduate students are not in a strong bargaining position; many are glad just to have a job, and are afraid to jeopardize what is often their only source of income. As Sonin explained, “If that’s how you pay your rent – you’re stuck.”

TAs at McGill are feeling similar repercussions of austerity. Justin Irwin, president of McGill’s TA union, AGSEM, agreed that TAs working well over their contracted hours is an “endemic issue.”

“They take the money from the easy places where they know there’s less resistance, and there’s less resistance among students because [students] take what [they] can get.”

In an email to The Daily, AGSEM Grievance Officer (and former Daily Publications Society Chair) Benjamin Elgie explained that because of unionization, “McGill has not been able to impose a wage decrease or freeze” on TAs in response to provincial austerity. However, he pointed to a “successive and sometimes drastic decrease in TA hours” despite rising undergraduate enrolment, as having a similarly negative impact.

At McGill, departments have offset cuts to teaching hours by employing more course graders, who do the same work as TAs but are not unionized. According to Elgie, graders “have minimal labour protections, as well as significantly lower pay with longer hours.” AGSEM is currently seeking to extend its membership to all teaching support workers, including course graders.

The Daily also spoke to Shanie Morasse, an executive member of Université du Québec à Montréal’s (UQAM) TA union, SÉTUE. So far, UQAM has mostly confined its cuts to professors, lecturers, and staff, who have suffered a 2 per cent wage drop.

SÉTUE is currently in negotiations with UQAM, which will announce its next budget in April.

“We’re anticipating a cut in the number of contracts, a cut in the number of hours contained within contracts,” Morasse told The Daily in French.

An actual decrease in TA wages at UQAM is unlikely given their already low pay rate, Morasse explained. UQAM graduate TAs earn $13.31 per hour, far below the $26.81 per hour offered at McGill. However, she noted that some courses have been cut, which has reduced the number of TAs required. “We’re looking [at] a fall in real wages,” she continued.

Potential for strike action

Asked what measures teaching unions were taking to protect their members, Morasse said that SÉTUE is “constantly in contact with the Printemps 2015 committee to keep an eye on what’s going on.” She candidly told The Daily that a strike at UQAM is almost a certainty at this point, and that SÉTUE will join “to put the pressure on” and “fight austerity.”

Sonin was more reticent about the prospects of a strike at Concordia. However, he echoed Morasse’s sentiment, saying, “It would be nice to see a strike in the spring.”

“This is the richest humanity has been – ever. The decision is where are you going to spend the money […] How are you going to divvy it up? That’s the point of a strike.”

Elgie confirmed in an email that AGSEM in currently in a legal strike position, but does not yet have a strike mandate. He added that a motion to strike could be proposed by any member, and that the union understands that “a number of other unions have members who are planning to bring strike votes for May 1 as part of a coordinated effort against the provincial cuts.”

In an interview with The Daily, Irwin explained that AGSEM was in contact with unions at other universities, but was unwilling to state which ones.

In 2008, a dispute with the University over standardized workload forms led McGill TAs to call a strike – which was a success. Indeed, with TAs across the city under strain from their universities’ reactions to austerity, several union representatives confirmed to The Daily that they saw value in retaliatory strike action.

Sonin argued that austerity is not, in fact, necessary. “This is the richest humanity has been – ever. The decision is where are you going to spend the money […] How are you going to divvy it up? That’s the point of a strike.”

A previous version of this article stated “Elgie confirmed in an email that AGSEM will not have a legal strike mandate until May, when it will finish collective agreement negotiations.” In fact, the end date of AGSEM’s negotiations is unknown. Additionally, the article should read that AGSEM is currently in a legal position to strike; however, it will not have a strike mandate unless a member-led motion to strike gains majority support.

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