McGill, News

AGSEM claims misinformation, unjust treatment from McGill amid TA strike

Chants and ringing bells, echoed by supportive honks from passers-by, can be heard daily at the Roddick Gates as teaching assistants (TAs) enter their third week of striking and picketing for higher pay, better working conditions, and healthcare. 

Since TAs’ previous collective agreement (CA) expired on July 31, 2023, the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM)—the union that represents TAs and invigilators—and McGill have been in talks to come to a new CA. After McGill failed to meet AGSEM’s demands, the union passed a strike mandate during the week of March 11 and TAs subsequently began an eight-week strike on March 25. 

AGSEM’s Mobilization Officer Emma McKay told The Tribune that the strike has helped AGSEM get concessions at the bargaining table after almost a year of unfruitful negotiations. 

“The point of a strike is to withhold labour and disrupt the actions of an employer,” McKay said. “We’ve gotten so much more movement at the table than we would have otherwise. So we know that what we’re doing is putting pressure on McGill  in a good way, and while we’re not yet at a deal that we deserve, we are way beyond what we would have gotten if we hadn’t gone on strike.”

In a newsletter published by AGSEM, its bargaining committee outlined their April 2 bargaining session with McGill. AGSEM presented a new proposal concerning harassment, discrimination, and sexual violence; indexed working hours to avoid a reduction of TA hours while class enrollment remains the same; a new letter of agreement (LoA) on protecting the rights of transgender TAs; and two options regarding rates of pay—14 per cent over three years or 21 per cent over four years. 

According to AGSEM’s newsletter, McGill’s counter-proposal incorporated only one item from AGSEM’s original proposal—to hold an annual meeting with all relevant parties to discuss teaching support budgets and the allocation of TA hours—but limited the attendance to one Union Delegate per faculty. 

In response to McGill’s proposal, AGSEM drafted another counterproposal, including the original LoA protecting transgender TAs’ rights; amendments to McGill’s proposal of annual meetings to discuss teaching support units, with the modification that attendance would be open to one Union Delegate per Hiring Unit rather than one per faculty; and an increase in wages by 8.5 per cent the first year and 3 per cent per year for the following three years, for a total of 17.5 per cent over four years. 

The two parties then entered a discussion about AGSEM’s counterproposal, beginning with discussing the LoA on protecting transgender TAs’ rights. The preamble of the proposed LoA states: “Whereas, transphobia is on the rise around the world.” According to the newsletter, McGill believed this phrase was controversial. 

“[McGill has] argued that misgendering and deadnaming are already implicitly included as forms of harassment in their policy. We presented this case to TAs in January, and asked: should we keep fighting on this? The answer was a resounding yes. The bargaining team works for TAs, so we continue to fight for this,” Nick Vieira, a member of the bargaining committee and former AGSEM delegate, wrote in an email to The Tribune.

AGSEM and McGill then discussed TA hour reductions, leading to a stalemate. After a brief recess, McGill presented a “final global offer.” McGill proposed allowing one Union Delegate per Hiring Unit to attend the  annual meeting; a letter of intent with goals of establishing an item on the agenda of the Labour Relations Committee to address TA workload and examine workload issues; no LoA on transgender TAs’ rights; and an increase in wages of 5.5 per cent the first year and 3 per cent per-year for the following three years, for a total of 14.5 per cent over four years. 

While this was lower than AGSEM’s original demands, the bargaining team was content to see that McGill proposed one Union Delegate per Hiring Unit, as opposed to one per faculty. 

“The inclusion of this amendment suggested that McGill might in fact be getting serious about a deal. We were still far away on many items, but it reflected movement that we were grateful to see,” AGSEM wrote in the newsletter. 

However, shortly after AGSEM convened to discuss this proposal, McGill sent the committee a follow-up email stating that they had made a typo and instead maintained their original proposal of one Union Delegate per faculty. 

“Their offer left much to be desired, but AGSEM was actively considering the proposal before we received McGill’s clarifying email. McGill’s mistake made it clear there was no more room for useful negotiations on Tuesday,” Vieira wrote. 

After this typo, AGSEM decided that they had lost the opportunity to find a deal that day and reaffirmed that TAs deserve to be taken seriously by McGill.

On April 5, McGill’s Director of Labour and Employee Relations Francis Desjardins sent an email about the ongoing negotiations with AGSEM to all staff and students. In the email, Desjardins addressed TA wages, the legal case AGSEM has filed over instructors doing TA work during the strike, TA hours, and access to McGill accounts for striking employees. 

In the email, McGill once again discussed picketing, reaffirming the  university’s stance that “while peaceful picketing is lawful, obstructing academic activities, intimidating students and instructors, and damaging property is not.” Desjardins claimed that members of the community have been “unnerved” by the disruptions caused by picketers and felt “intimidated” when going to class.

The email also addressed the safeguard order that AGSEM applied for with the Tribunal administratif du travail, which, if granted, would have forced instructors to stop performing the work of striking TAs in their absence, which McGill has told them to do, but AGSEM maintains is scabbing. The injunction was not granted, so instructors are able to continue doing this work for the time being. 

McGill’s email on the [safeguard order] was also misleading,” Vieira wrote. “The case is not resolved and there has been no ruling for [or] against McGill [or] AGSEM. Rather, the court did not see the urgency in resolving this issue when the case was heard [….] There will be further hearing(s) in the coming weeks [or] months. AGSEM maintains its position that professors and lecturers (except for department chairs) are not managers and that it is illegal scabbing for them to do work which was originally assigned to TAs.”

McGill did not answer questions about whether future hearings will take place.

Desjardins also compared TA wages across Quebec in the April 5 email, pointing out that while AGSEM believes their members deserve higher wages, TA pay at McGill is higher than the Quebec average of $26.50. McKay feels that McGill strategically compared TA wages across Quebec—where they are lower—rather than across Canada. AGSEM has printed out comparisons of TA wages across Canada and displayed them prominently while they picket.

“So we know that the average wage at York, UofT, UOttawa, Carleton, Western, McMaster, and Queen’s was recently $46.36. Now it’s higher because the TAs at UofT just won to raise to $53 an hour,” McKay said. “McGill was so threatened by our very legitimate comparison to other universities that they like to compare themselves to, that they had to say: ‘No, we think that the way that TAs are poor in Quebec is the right way. Look at how poor these other people are. And we want our TAs to remain that poor as well.’”

Desjardins further wrote that TAs “feeling the need to work beyond what is stipulated in their letter of offer should speak with their Course Supervisor to address the situation.” McKay thinks this, too, is not the full story. They said that TAs requesting additional hours is not the solution to the systemic problem that McGill has created by cutting TA hours and ignores the “complex supervisory relationships” that TAs are in. They also noted that course supervisors and McGill often reject valid requests for more hours, resulting in TAs doing unpaid labour.

Desjardins’ email additionally addressed TAs’ access to their McGill accounts, stating that “system accesses required for the performance of work, including work email, will only be restored once the strike is over.” However, he went on to say that TAs still have access to their student accounts and tax slips. According to McKay, while McGill’s statement is technically true now, it lacks context; AGSEM has heard from members who were locked out of their student accounts and unable to view their tax slips when the strike first began. 

“They locked us out of Workday immediately, including locking us out of getting our tax information […] which is an illegal thing to do,” McKay said. “We [also] can’t file for hours worked in other [McGill] jobs, even if those hours were worked before the strike.”

In an email to The Tribune, McGill Media Relations Officer Frédérique Mazerolle reaffirmed that TAs currently have limited access to McGill staff accounts, but claimed that they are still able to file for hours worked before the strike.

“Teaching Assistants still have access to their student accounts and to Workday to view their pay stubs, tax statements, and enter time for work performed prior to the beginning of the strike,” Mazerolle wrote. 

TAs who work multiple jobs at McGill have all been fired or suspended from their other McGill positions due to section 109.1c of the labour code, putting many TAs in financial peril. 

“We sent a letter of request for a negotiation for a letter of agreement between the union and McGill which would allow TAs to continue in their other work, which is an option in section 109.1 […] to allow for striking workers to maintain their other roles,” McKay explained. “McGill never even acknowledged that we asked them for this. So they continue their cruel behaviour, some people have lost their entire income, for no reason.”

McGill did not respond to questions about whether the university has responded to efforts to come to an agreement so that TAs with second jobs at McGill can keep working.

Vieira explained that since the April 2 bargaining session, there has been “radio silence from McGill,” excluding Desjardins’ email. He echoed McKay’s frustration toward the information presented in the email and hopes to get back to the negotiating table as soon as possible. 

“We hope that McGill will soon spend less energy on lengthy, misinformed emails and instead spend that energy on negotiations,” Vieira wrote. 

A previous version of this article stated that Nick Vieira was an AGSEM delegate. In fact, Vieira is no longer a delegate. The Tribune regrets this error.

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