AGSEM), representing teaching assistants (TAs) and invigilators at McGill, has been in negotiations with the administration for over a year. The TA Bargaining Committee, led by Chairperson Jessica Rose, has been negotiating with the University over the TA Collective Agreement (CA). Although the CA expired in 2018, it is still in effect for the moment. The members of the committee include PhD students Rose, Farid Attar, and Jean-Philip Mathieu.
Their main concerns, per Rose, include protections from sexual harassment; protections for transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary TAs; and fair compensation, among other issues.
Protections from Sexual Harassment
In an email, Rose explained to the Daily that the main issue is whether or not TAs would be entitled to the same protections under the Code of Conduct in the revised Sexual Violence Policy (SVP), which states that “no member of the Teaching Staff may enter into or initiate a sexual or romantic relationship with a student.”
Per Rose, McGill HR maintains that the relationship between a TA and their course supervisor would not inherently be purely academic. Per Rose, McGill “insisted repeatedly” that the administration would not be bound to consider a romantic or sexual relationship between a TA and their course supervisor a violation of the SVP.
Relationships between TAs and course supervisors, Rose explained, hold inherent power dynamics. “[TAs] are doubly reliant on a positive evaluation of their work,” she wrote.
“They may need letters of recommendation or other academic opportunities from the professor, and they obviously rely on the income,” Rose noted. Further, “there have been a number of allegations in recent years involving professors who targeted students who worked for them.”
In addition, Rose says the Union has concerns about McGill HR’s commitment to the SVP, noting “their lack of familiarity with the policy” and instances in which AGSEM had to correct their assumptions about certain aspects of the SVP.
In their most recent negotiations with the University this past week, she stated that the TA Bargaining Committee submitted a proposal that they think will resolve the deadlock around this issue. This proposal “respects the existing policies and regulations at McGill, while giving the Union more oversight and participation in terms of how these policies are applied;” however, Rose stated, they did not receive a concrete response from the University.
“[We] were stalled again as McGill’s negotiators reiterated their refusal to define the deadline to file a grievance regarding harassment in the CA,” she explained. “We find that the principles that the University repeatedly espouses are absent from their bargaining position with student workers. We get one message from the senior administration, and another from their representatives at the table.” They have been negotiating this issue with the University for six months.
Protections for Transgender, Gender Non-Conforming, and Non-Binary TAs
In the same email, Rose states that McGill will not include language in the definition of harassment to clarify that TAs must be addressed by their pronouns. Certain individuals, she says, “will insist on misgendering their co-workers or employees,” and that some of these individuals are alumni of McGill.
In addition to the above issues, the way in which TAs are paid is through a salary-type system. Effectively, though the job is technically hourly, TAs are given a contract for between 45 and 180 hours of work a semester – and after those hours are completed, they are expected to work without pay.
“This job, like many aspects of graduate studies, has become infused with this work-til-you-drop mentality,” Rose stated.
Per surveys conducted by AGSEM between 2007 and 2017, there is a 40 per cent chance that TAs are working without compensation by the end of the semester. To address this, AGSEM hopes to increase the number of hours budget for TAs’ work, “and to distribute them more equitably across the University,” Rose told the Daily.
“TAs are dedicated to providing the best teaching support they can for their students and for their professors and McGill is exploiting that,” she added. “More TA hours means that we can get overtime in our contracts and finally be paid for the work that we do, or another TA can be hired to share the load.” Working as a TA is also a crucial source of supplemental income for graduate students, and provides them a chance to teach while at McGill.
AGSEM does want a raise for TAs; however, Rose notes that they first want to “address the way that the University claws back our wages through the integration of TA positions in funding packages.” In practice, this means that when PhD students are offered a set amount of funding, they are also given the stipulation that “a portion of that will come from TA wages and the rest will be ‘topped up’ by their department or supervisor.”
Accommodations for TAs with Disabilities
With regards to accommodations for TAs with disabilities, Rose stated that they have reached a resolution; although it is not what they originally proposed, she called it “a step in the right direction.” As it is still under negotiations, more information could not be provided, but the TA Bargaining Committee is reportedly close to reaching an agreement.