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AGSEM completes contentious fifth round of negotiations over TA contracts with McGill

Content Warning: Discrimination, sexual violence

A fifth round of negotiations between McGill and the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) over teaching assistants (TAs)’ collective contract took place  on Nov. 22. According to a press release sent to The Tribune by AGSEM, the primary issue on the table was what they referred to as its point of “greatest divergence” between both sides’ proposals: The protection of TAs from discrimination and sexual violence. 

Following the expiration of McGill TAs’ last collective agreement (CA) in July 2023, AGSEM has demanded that their next CA include improvements to TAs’ wages and health care, better protections against physical and psychological harm, and changes to the application and selection processes of candidates. Bargaining meetings with the university on these demands have been ongoing since Sept. 21. 

Wednesday’s meeting opened with a return to the primary subject of the previous bargaining meeting on Nov. 14: McGill’s application and hiring policies for TAs. According to AGSEM bargaining committee member Nick Vieira, the parties engaged in a “productive discussion” on how applicants may rank their course preferences when applying to become TAs and the timeline under which unions are informed about the university’s hiring lists.  

The meeting then shifted to a discussion of Article 6 of the CA, which describes TAs’ rights and protections regarding discrimination, harassment, and sexual violence. According to Vieira, the parties clashed on multiple points, beginning with a disagreement surrounding AGSEM’s request that McGill specify certain scenarios or instances of harassment that TAs frequently face in the language of the CA. 

“Particular forms of harassment [that] have been brought to AGSEM’s attention by its members [include] misgendering, patronizing, insulting, or demeaning comments, and sexually-oriented remarks that create a negative work environment,” Vieira explained.

According to Vieira, McGill argued that the CA’s existing language implicitly includes such cases and did not agree to specify them further. According to the union’s members, however, taking the extra step to name specific instances of what might constitute harassment is crucial for individuals’ ability to address and report such cases of inappropriate conduct. 

“Naming precise examples of the forms that harassment can take, such as refusing to use a TA’s chosen name, sends a clear message to individual TAs that such forms of harassment will not be tolerated in the workplace, that there is no doubt that what they are experiencing is harassment, and that the TA should not hesitate to seek legal help,” Loïc Nassif, a member of AGSEM’s delegates’ council who attended the meeting, wrote in an email to The Tribune

The meeting also witnessed contention regarding ASGEM’s proposal that the CA explicitly protect TAs from retaliation if they report harassment. Vieira explained that McGill representatives expressed concern that AGSEM’s proposal would prevent action in cases of “unfounded” complaints where McGill might wish to impose penalties on the plaintiff. The discussion reached a standstill when AGSEM argued that such retaliation would be in violation of Quebec labour laws—specifically Chapter 1, Article 14—and McGill responded that AGSEM’s proposed protections were thus unnecessary. 

The parties also failed to agree on whether the CA should include a blanket policy for TAs to discontinue contact with their alleged harassers. The union proposed this suggestion, with McGill holding that judging such events on a case-by-case basis was an adequate measure.

The parties were able to find common ground elsewhere. One of McGill’s initial proposals was to strike the current language in Article 6, deferring instead to their university-wide policies of harassment and discrimination. This proposal was ultimately dropped. 

“[This decision] protects the CA from being changed without warning by McGill, a body that may not have the best interests of AGSEM in mind,” Aire McCall, member of AGSEM’s executive committee, wrote to The Tribune. “It also works to keep the CA self-contained and consistent, which makes it more approachable.”

Future bargaining meetings have been set for Nov. 28 and Dec. 5.
In an email to The Tribune regarding the Nov. 22 bargaining session, McGill stated that it will not make any comments about the ongoing negotiation process.

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