P.O.V.: McGill TA strike

P.O.V.: McGill TA strike McGill University

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McGill Reporter
April 24, 2008 - Volume 40 Number 16
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 40: 2007-2008 > April 24, 2008 > P.O.V.: McGill TA strike

P.O.V.

McGill TA strike

With the strike by McGill's Teaching Assistants now in its third week, the McGill Reporter gave both the University administration and the TA's union, the Association Of Graduate Students Employed At McGill (AGSEM), the opportunity to argue their positions in the dispute. Both sides were asked to keep their arguments to 400 words (or less).

McGill's View   AGSEM's View

McGill's View

No one likes a strike, but sometimes it takes one to reach a settlement in a contract dispute. Fortunately, both AGSEM, representing the striking Teaching Assistants, and the University continue to bargain with the help of a conciliator appointed by the government at McGill's request. Progress has been made on a number of important non-monetary issues. Quebec law, however, prohibits us from publicly explaining McGill's side of the dispute in detail.

Meanwhile, we must fulfill our obligations to our students. McGill has taken steps to ensure that the University runs smoothly so exams continue, grades are submitted and undergraduate students are not penalized as a result of the TAs' decision to strike.

AGSEM has challenged some of our measures, such as reminding professors that evaluating students is a fundamental part of their academic responsibilities. Despite the opinions expressed by the Union, McGill is confident its interpretation of Quebec labour law is correct.

A number of issues remain in dispute, but key among them is salaries. Unfortunately, the two sides are very far apart. McGill has offered TAs pay increases of 6 per cent over the life of a proposed three-year contract – in keeping with increases offered other unionized employees. The Union is asking for a 34-per-cent increase in base salary over the same period. Our TAs are now generally the best paid in the province and would continue to be so under McGill's proposal.

McGill has to operate within very strict funding constraints imposed by the provincial government, and it would be irresponsible for the University to proceed as if it does not face a substantial funding shortfall. Indeed, the government has ordered universities to eliminate their deficits in the next three years, and McGill, which will run a $15-million deficit this year, must comply. Simply put, we cannot afford the increases sought by the Union.

The University is moving to address the important matter of improving training for TAs. Within our current budgetary constraints, we have prioritized the creation of pedagogical training for graduate students through Teaching and Learning Services.

The administration remains hopeful this dispute will be settled quickly. But it would be irresponsible for McGill to fail to plan for the unhappy possibility of a protracted work stoppage that could linger into the fall. The University is preparing appropriate plans to ensure its smooth operation in September should the strike continue.

AGSEM'S VIEW

Let's face it: public recognition is an important part of our identity as members of the McGill community.

We are all proud that McGill University was recognized, in 2007, as the best public university in North America. Indeed, when pushing the government to allow for higher tuition, McGill vaunts its membership in Universitas 21, the international association of research-driven universities. And when the administration justifies other salaries and funding priorities, they compare them to other G-13 research-intensive universities in Canada.

But when it comes to recognizing its Teaching Assistants, the administration lowers the bar and compares us to non-unionized, poorly compensated workers in the regional market.

This lack of recognition is the central reason motivating the strike by the 2,000 members of the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM). Many of us have several years of education at one of the elite universities in the world, but endure working conditions and wages that do not at all reflect our standing in the academic community.

McGill TAs need to be recognized as educators. That recognition includes protection from unpaid overtime, paid training, access to adequate office space, caps on the sizes of discussion-based conferences, the right to call in sick, and wages comparable to the average at competing universities in Canada. Almost a year after our contract expired and after months of negotiations, McGill refuses to meet or even discuss the vast majority of these demands, even though the administration has publicly supported most of these goals in its own strategy documents.

At first glance, our demand for salary increases of roughly $6 an hour may seem high. For many graduate students, a TAship is their primary employment opportunity during their studies. The under-funding of graduate students at McGill must be addressed through employment opportunities. However, an hourly wage of $22.24 for the standard 180-hour contract only amounts to less than $4,000 a semester – about $220 a week to pay for food, rent and tuition.

A wage increase that would vastly improve the standard of living for graduate students employed as TAs would have a minimal impact on McGill's budget. Even with a substantial salary increase, TA salaries will still only cost McGill far less than 1 per cent of its annual expenses.

It is time for the administration to come to the negotiation table with an open mind and a willingness to recognize our value in the McGill community.

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