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McGill University training its students to devalue the labour of teaching assistants

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On April 16, 2015, McGill University's 2,000 unionized graduate teaching assistants, represented by the AGSEM, held a one-day strike on the first day of final exams. Teaching assistants have been in bargaining since August 2014, but the McGill administration has firmly rejected many of their demands. Their key demands include indexing the hours available to departments for teaching assistant positions in the university's budget to undergraduate enrolment as well as getting a fair wage increase.

Although undergraduate enrolment has consistently increased at McGill over the past decade, the university hasn't budgeted more money for teaching support. In 2006, McGill budgeted nearly 13 teaching-assistant hours per full-time undergraduate student. Since then, this number has dropped steadily, falling to under 11.5 hours in 2013. As funding has decreased, teaching assistants have still had the same amount of work to do but less time to do it. Many of them ultimately work overtime without getting paid for it.

By increasing funding for teaching assistant positions, departments would receive the support they need to maintain a high-quality education: undergraduate students could get more individualized attention in large classes; professors could spend more time on research; and graduate students could get more opportunities to be teaching assistants, which are essential for their professional development.

Additionally, a wage increase is necessary to keep pace with hikes in tuition and living expenses. Instead, McGill has offered to link wages to the Quebec public sector's wage policy (PSG). The problem is that the PSG is currently being negotiated with the provincial government. The government's recent offer was 0 percent for 2016 and 2017. Still, AGSEM isn't a public sector union and, therefore, can't even participate in these negotiations. McGill's financial offer would likely result in a pay cut for teaching assistants, as the PSG has historically amounted to less than AGSEM's wage increases.

Teaching assistantships are an essential source of graduate student funding, especially for the international and out-of-province students who can't work off campus. Nevertheless, graduate students are typically expected to focus full time on their research and thesis writing. They are often prohibited from getting outside work.

Teaching assistants at McGill currently earn only $4,829 for a four-month semester of work or $26.83 per hour based on contracts of up to 180 hours. This amount is less than the average $35-hourly wage of teaching assistants for the top five research-intensive universities in Canada.

By comparison, one of McGill's biggest competitors for graduate students, the University of Toronto, pays teaching assistants $42.05 per hour for doing roughly the same amount and type of work -- grading assignments, teaching tutorials, and running labs. U of T doctoral students are also guaranteed a minimum funding package of $15,000 yearly that is set in its collective agreement. The students, members of CUPE 3902, won guaranteed minimum funding after a strike in 2000. During a strike earlier this year, CUPE 3902 fought to increase that funding.

By contrast, McGill graduate students are forced to accept whatever funding their departments and professors give them. While some departments offer students over $15,000 per year, several of them guarantee students nothing. Many graduate students earn significantly below the low-income cut-off of $23,647 for a single person living in Montreal. By underfunding graduate students, McGill is losing talent to other top-ranked universities in Canada and the United States.

The struggles of McGill graduate students for a living wage are symptomatic of a broader problem. As the Quebec government's 2015 budget is resulting in more massive cuts to education, McGill is using these austerity measures to reject AGSEM's demands. Yet, these measures are surprising considering that, in 2013-2014, the university's total revenue was around $1.2 billion and its operating expenses were about $730 million. McGill spends approximately $8 million per year on teaching assistants, which is less than 1.5 percent of its operating budget, and that percentage has decreased since 2006. McGill can surely afford to index teaching support to undergraduate enrolment and provide teaching assistants with a fair pay increase.

Nevertheless, for more than 40 years, McGill graduate students have made gains for teaching assistants through their labour union. In 1974, graduate students formed the McGill Teaching Assistant Association (MTAA). It was the first teaching assistant union in Quebec and among the first in Canada.

Although the MTAA was not legally recognized as a union, it forced the university to negotiate the working conditions of teaching assistants. In 1976, the MTAA struck for 8 days, winning a base salary of $3,750 per year with cost-of-living indexation and a 12-hour workweek. This settlement effectively provided McGill graduate students with among the best pay and working conditions of teaching assistants in Canada at the time.

In the 1980s, the MTAA discussed legally certifying as a union because McGill had revised the terms of its previous agreements. In 1992, the Post-Graduate Students' Society (PGSS) of McGill helped teaching assistants establish the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill. AGSEM was formally certified as a union in 1993, affiliated with the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), one of the biggest labour federations in Quebec.

After three years of bargaining for a first collective agreement, AGSEM went on strike in 1996 after McGill rejected its key demands. Teaching assistants won their first contract in 1998, with the strike helping them address salary inequities across McGill, as hourly pay rates ranged from $7 to $18.13.

By 2003, McGill's teaching assistant wages were among the lowest in Canada. AGSEM went on strike, leading to pay increases, and, in 2006, teaching assistants attained salary parity across the university.

During negotiations for their contract in 2007, McGill teaching assistants bemoaned their low pay compared to the wages at other universities and went on strike for two months in 2008. Although teaching assistants didn't attain everything, they received another wage increase.

In 2015, McGill has clearly demonstrated a business-as-usual response to the strike. ''Final exams must go on,'' urged Kathleen Massey, University Registrar and Executive Director of Enrolment Services, in an email to McGill staff: ''We need more than 200 people to volunteer to replace invigilators who decide not to cross the picket line/show up for work.''

By asking other employees to replace invigilators, by rejecting more funding for teaching support, and by refusing fair wage increases, McGill is training employees and students to devalue the labour of graduate students.

Striking for one day won't instantly satisfy the demands of teaching assistants. It's a necessary step, though, to urge McGill to acknowledge their valuable contributions to campus life and to become a leader in support for graduate students, like the university was in the 1970s.

Errol Salamon is PhD candidate in Communication Studies at McGill University, a teaching assistant, and a member of AGSEM

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