On August 30, amidst the usual chaos of the first day of school, the lower part of McTavish was filled with tents and food trucks provided by the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM). This marked the launch of AGSEM’s ‘No More Free Hours’ campaign denouncing alleged wage theft by McGill and encouraging teaching assistants (TAs) to pledge to no longer work for free.
“‘No More Free Hours’ is about TAs committing to not working for free, banding together to support each other, and saying that we’re simply not going to let McGill commit wage theft anymore,” explained Emma McKay, AGSEM’s Chief Delegate Mobilization.
When TAs enter into a contract with the university, they’re paid to work a certain number of hours, which varies by department. However, McKay told the Daily that TAs often have to work more hours to complete all the work assigned to them. They say that in the most recent data they have, almost half of TAs worked over their allotted hours, with most not receiving extra compensation.
“The way that this happens is that they’ve been shortening and shortening the contract hours of TAs,” said McKay. “And there’s a culture that expects TAs to simply get the job done.”
As part of the campaign, AGSEM encourages TAs to track their hours properly and review their workload with their supervisor throughout the term. Per the collective agreement, it is mandatory for supervisors to meet with TAs and fill out a workload form during the semester, yet many supervisors may not be aware of this requirement. If a TA is working longer than their allotted hours, the department must provide them with additional funding as compensation. McKay said that many departments have told AGSEM that their hands are tied when it comes to providing additional hours.
The loss of these wages has significant effects on TAs, many of whom are in financially precarious situations. A January 2023 report by the McGill Graduate Association of Physics Students showed that many of their members, of which 92.5 per cent work as TAs, are unable to save money, feel as if they are not living in dignity, and in some cases, are experiencing food insecurity. McKay added that AGSEM had seen similar trends among its members, such as having difficulty affording food, rent, or medical care because they don’t make enough money.
August 30 also marked the beginning of AGSEM’s bargaining period with the university to draft a new collective agreement, as their previous one expired in July. The union is currently waiting for a response from McGill to start negotiations, and expects to be at the table by mid-fall. Some of the bargaining priorities include higher wages, health insurance and trans-specific healthcare, and improved protection from sexual violence in the workplace.
The McGill Media Relations Office told the Daily that the university “will not make any comments regarding upcoming discussions and will let the negotiation process run its course.”
This campaign is a ‘work-to-rule’ action, meaning that by participating, TAs will not be breaking any laws. They will be exercising the rights that they have under Quebec labour law, but that are allegedly not being enforced. If McGill were to demand that TAs work more hours, McKay argues that they would be the ones breaking the law.
“When TAs have worked their entire hours and McGill demands that they work for more, they will be publicly admitting that their course delivery depends on wage theft,” they explained.
They say that the effects on course delivery may be quite pronounced in some departments, especially those where TAs are expected to do significantly more work than they’re paid for. In these cases, the TAs may stop working well before the end of the semester.
“Our intent, of course, is not to interrupt education,” said McKay. “The fact is that we want to provide a better education. We want to preserve our own quality of life, be able to buy groceries, pay rent, and deliver the education that undergrads and graduate students deserve.”