Editorial, Opinion

Assist, don’t resist, TAs in their strikes for better rights

On Monday, March 25, McGill teaching assistants (TAs) began striking following months of failed bargaining and 19 meetings with the university to negotiate a new collective agreement (CA). Last week’s strike vote found 87.5 per cent of the TAs in favour of striking, providing the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) the power to call a strike at any time. AGSEM’s primary demand is the provision of fair wages, namely, an increase from $33.03 to $46.36 an hour. This would bring McGill in line with the average pay at other Canadian universities, equalling that of the University of Toronto. Other demands include an automatic cost of living adjustment if inflation surpasses three per cent and the inclusion of healthcare in their contracts—which is missing from the proposed agreement entirely. 

McGill TAs are currently the lowest paid at any Canadian university, despite McGill’s massive endowment being the third largest in the country. With the tuition hikes imposed by the Quebec government as a cover dominating the current news cycle, McGill is able to stifle TA demands with lesser pushback. Although the university is facing major financial concerns due to the provincial government’s policies, it is pouring funds into new on-campus projects, including the McLennan-Redpath library complex renovations and the settler-colonial New Vic Project. While McGill is clearly in dire need of better infrastructure, it cannot come at the expense of paying a liveable wage to those who keep the university running. 

TAs are an integral component of the university’s day-to-day operations. Professors and students alike rely on them, not only for their tireless work grading and correcting assignments but also as an important and accessible point of contact for students who are often unable to reach out to professors for help. TAs allow professors to improve the quality of their teaching and maximize student learning by focusing primarily on lectures and class content, while TAs take over the bulk of grading and running conferences or labs. Moreover, the TA position is a significant part of the graduate student experience and contributes to the TA’s own learning, especially for students who want to teach professionally. The university cannot continue to encourage its students to become TAs as a way to work and study while simultaneously signalling that they do not care about their student workers by refusing to compensate them fairly.

Although the strike was a last-resort effort for TAs, it is a particularly effective tool for AGSEM, as McGill has proven time and again how difficult they are to bargain with. By striking, the TAs hope to prove how indispensable they are. Quebec’s stringent anti-scab labour laws provide the ideal conditions for a TA strike by prohibiting the reallocation of work that has already been assigned to striking workers. Although this should apply to tasks such as marking assignments, the McGill administration is exploiting a loophole that allows them to pass this work off to professors instead by classifying professors as “managers” who, under the Quebec Labour Code, are able to take on the TAs’ work. Regardless, overworking professors is not an effective or long-term solution for AGSEM’s demands and is a massive disservice to the student body. 

This strike also comes after the university resisted efforts from the Faculty of Law and Education professors to unionize. McGill has an abysmal record with unionization on campus, and their battle against the law and education professors proved that McGill would rather be an exploitative workplace than a liveable one. This situation also illustrates the university’s sheer power, as McGill locked members of the Faculty of Law out of their email and online services on the day of their strike without justification or prior notification. Given that professors have significantly more power and job security than TAs, this is an incredibly precarious situation for them.

The future for McGill and its TAs is murky, as no one knows how long the strikes will last. As the TAs continue to take a stand, students and professors alike must show their support through solidarity on the picket lines and by reaching out to the administration and demanding that McGill take action. We must resist the urge to turn against TAs as classes continue to be disrupted and instead stand firm in our support of the fight for their rights.

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