On September 30, McGill teaching assistants (TAs) ratified a collective bargaining offer from McGill at a General Assembly (GA) of AGSEM, McGill’s union for TAs and invigilators. The offer was ratified by a vote of 172 to 101. The proposal will improve TAs’ harassment protections and grievance procedures, while also increasing their wages by a total of 9 per cent until the agreement’s expiration in 2018.
Since the termination of the last contract in June 2014, the two sides have been meeting to negotiate a new agreement. At the GA, several students recognized the advances that both McGill and AGSEM have made since they opened deliberations in August 2014.
“The last time we had this meeting, we were concerned about McGill’s unwillingness to negotiate,” said an AGSEM member during the debate. “But there are a lot more changes here than I expected us to get based on the University’s position and our demands, and this is a substantial list of demands,” they added. Harassment protections and wages adjusted for inflation were just two of the breakthroughs the TA mentioned.
Reaching an agreement, however, was not without its roadblocks. In response to these obstcles, on April 16, the first day of the exam period, the TAs went on strike. Additionally, some invigilators respected the picket lines and opted not to cross them.
AGSEM President Justin Irwin stated that the strike was galvanized by McGill’s refusal to index the TAs’ hours. “We had a proposal that would effectively establish a ratio of the number of students enrolled and the hours available for TA-ships, […] but McGill was not amenable to that language,” Irwin said.
“We had a proposal that would effectively establish a ratio of the number of students enrolled and the hours available for TA-ships, […] but McGill was not amenable to that language.”
In May, following the strike, McGill and AGSEM convened twice. Unable to resolve their disagreements, the two parties agreed to suspend talks for the summer and reopen discussion in September.
On September 1, McGill proposed its final offer, which ignored AGSEM’s demand for a revision of the TAs’ hours.
AGSEM Bargaining Committee Chair Giulia Alberini clarified that over the past few years, TAs’ weekly hours have remained largely unchanged despite a steady increase in yearly undergraduate enrolment. Throughout the negotiations, AGSEM lobbied on behalf of the TAs for several iterations of language that would address the TAs’ work-rate demands.
One proposal suggested that for every 50 students, a TA would work 90 hours. In this way, the agreement would compensate for the increased hours each TA would have to work given the increased pool of students. Nonetheless, Alberini stated at the GA, “McGill did not want to talk about any of these issues.”
TAs grievances about the agreement were diverse. One TA explained that the proposed wage offer would not be sufficient to cover the cost of living without an increase in the number of paid hours. “For many of us, a TAship is the difference between making rent or not,” he began. “Last year, there were a bunch of TA-ships that were 80 hours, and now they are 16.”
“Having only 110 hours for 103 students, I was, at one point, having to spend just three minutes for every paper so I would not go over my hours.”
Many who spoke at the debate argued that insufficient ratios of TA hours to students in a course meant a decline in the quality of the class experience. They contended that this was as much an undergraduate student issue as it was a graduate student one. One TA added that her students wished that she had more time to work with them individually.
A TA from the Faculty of Music said, “Having only 110 hours for 103 students, I was, at one point, having to spend just three minutes for every paper so I would not go over my hours. I came here not only to do my PhD, but because I want to teach at a university level – and I want to be able to do that job properly. So when I have a limited number of hours to do that job and little face time [with students], it doesn’t give me the experience that I need.”
TA reactions to the ratification of the agreement were largely mixed. Many TAs left the assembly happy and relieved that they would not have to “go through the legalities of another strike.”
Others, however, felt differently. Mona Luxion, a TA in international development studies, a PhD candidate in urban planning, and a former Daily columnist, expressed dismay at what they called a “surprising outcome.”
“I don’t think that the vote was representative of what I have heard at previous general assemblies,” they said. “Namely, that many of us actually were preoccupied with and concerned about the dwindling hours we were getting. I feel like what we can infer from these results is that many of us feel disempowered, and more importantly, cowed by McGill’s unpredictability and uncompromising nature.”