For over a year, the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) has been in negotiations with the McGill administration regarding the teaching assistants’ (TA) collective agreement, which expired in June 2018. TAs currently face a host of unaddressed issues, including limited protections for transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary TAs; insufficient protections from sexual harassment; and a broad lack of fair compensation.
In October 2019, Jessica Rose, Chair of the TA Bargaining Committee told the Daily that, according to McGill’s Human Resources Department, the administration is not bound to consider a romantic or sexual relationship between a TA and their course supervisor a violation of the University’s Sexual Violence Policy (SVP). However, as Rose pointed out, the relationship between a TA and a course supervisor holds inherently unbalanced power dynamics, as “[TAs] may need letters of recommendation or other academic opportunities from the professor, and they obviously rely on the income.” She also noted that there have been “a number of allegations in recent years involving professors who targeted students who worked for them.”
In addition, Rose explained that protections for transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary TAs at McGill had been rejected by the University. Without this regulation in place, intentionally misgendering TAs is not considered to be harassment by the institution. By refusing such a change, McGill is refusing to acknowledge or validate the experience0s of transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming TAs and is actively participating in their marginalization.
Further, the way that TAs are compensated often leaves them working without payment. This is because they are given a contract that covers only 45 to 180 hours of work for the entire semester; when they exceed those hours worked – which some of them inevitably do – they either have to work without pay, or their work goes unfinished, further disadvantaging students. According to surveys conducted by AGSEM between 2007 and 2017, there is a 40 per cent chance that any given TA will be working without pay by the end of the semester.
While these negotiations are ongoing for workers protected by the union, a unionization drive was announced to encourage all teaching support workers at McGill, not just TAs and invigilators, to join AGSEM.
“We are very, very tired of the elephant in the room,” AGSEM wrote in the Daily. “Many departments at McGill continue to create jobs that are similar in nature to Teaching Assistantships, with none of the job securities, basic protections, and better wages that McGill TAs are afforded through AGSEM.”
As the union explains on their website, “graders across campus are compensated as low as minimum wage ($12.50/hour), with no guaranteed protections for overwork.” In addition, AGSEM states that in certain programs that don’t receive external funding, some graders are required to work without pay.
Note-takers for the Office for Students with Disabilities are also severely underpaid, especially relative to the time commitment and expectations associated with the job and its importance to students who rely on their services. AGSEM explains on their site that note-takers have faced a gradual decline in compensation, from $425 in Winter 2017 to $50 in Winter 2019 to $0 in Fall 2019 (with ten community service hours on their co-curricular record and the chance to win a $50 gift card). This gift card lottery is another example of McGill sugarcoating of budget cuts, or budget reallocations, that directly affect students.
The working conditions that teaching support workers at McGill face are unacceptable. If the University continues to create precarious working conditions, not only will this affect the quality of the education it provides, but the stress put on its employees and workers will worsen. The McGill Daily and Le Délit stand in solidarity with AGSEM and its unionization drive, and we urge our readers to do the same. AGSEM will submit a certification for unionization to the Quebec Ministry of Ruling on December 3. A decision on certification by the Ministry will be announced in early 2020. If you are a grader, marker, tutor, note-taker, or work at any non-unionized casual academic job at McGill, you are eligible to unionize with AGSEM – undergraduates, graduate students, and non-student workers are all welcome!
For more information on eligibility and to unionize with AGSEM, visit www.agsem.ca/join.
—The McGill Daily & Le Délit editorial boards