As McGill students returned to campus for the first day of classes on the morning of Aug. 30, they were greeted by food trucks and music on McTavish Street as part of the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM)’s rally for better contracts. AGSEM, the union representing teaching assistants (TAs) and invigilators at McGill’s downtown and Macdonald campuses, has been in pre-negotiation talks with the university since July 2023, when their collective agreement (CA) expired. AGSEM alleges that McGill steals $1 million in TA wages annually by exploiting the assistants’ labour and making them work beyond their contracted hours. As the pair await a bargaining date, the union has launched the No More Free Hours campaign to combat and raise awareness about the administration’s alleged wage theft.
The campaign encourages TAs to track every hour they spend on work, from writing emails to reading course material, and to withhold labour as soon as their contract hours have been exhausted. Faculty and students who are not TAs have been asked to show solidarity by signing an open letter that calls on the university to stop the exploitation of TAs.
Kiersten van Vliet, AGSEM’s Mobilization Officer and a Musicology Ph.D. candidate, has been working as a TA since 2017. They explained that the $1 million in wage theft figure was calculated from a 2017 survey in which 48 per cent of TAs reported working thirteen hours over their contract, leading to an average of $430 of unpaid labour per person each term. Additionally, the same 2017 membership survey found that more than a third of TAs forgo medical services—such as dental or optical check-ups—due to lack of income. As AGSEM heads to the bargaining table this year, van Vliet says wages and healthcare are two of their top priorities.
“Of course, wages are usually the bread and butter of every negotiation, but we really need to see an investment in healthcare,” van Vliet told The Tribune. “We need to supplement our graduate student healthcare. We’re also demanding a transgender healthcare fund for gender-affirming care because many procedures or treatments are not covered under provincial insurance.”
In addition to food trucks and music, the Aug. 30 rally featured interactive activities for passersby to learn more about the union and its new campaign. On a wooden banner, members of the community were invited to write what they would do with an extra $430 per term. Paying for groceries, rent, or therapy were among the repeated answers on the papers stapled to the board.
Around noon, AGSEM hosted speakers such as rally organizer Emma McKay, Physics TA Nick Vieira, and student labour activist Alex Engler from the Concordia Research and Education Workers’ Union (CREW). Philosophy professor Marguerite Deslauriers also took the stage to encourage the McGill community to acknowledge the value that TAs bring to the university’s quality of education.
“[T]hose of us who have teaching assistants swan into the lecture hall oftentimes to leave scattered words of wisdom and bog off, leaving the teaching assistants to actually engage with the students, make sure they understand it, read their work, which we mostly don’t do, give them […] guidance, encouragement, and feedback,” Deslauriers said. “It’s just very important work. It’s really the fundaments of teaching in the university—the work done by teaching assistants in conferences and then grading.”
The Tribune reached out to the university for a statement on AGSEM’s allegations of wage theft and its No More Free Hours campaign. In response, McGill Media Relations Officer Frédérique Mazerolle said “The TA collective agreement expired on July 31, 2023. McGill will not make any comments regarding upcoming discussions and will let the negotiation process run its course.”