A TA holds up a sign that reads "solidarity is sexy" during a picket.
TAs stand along Sherbrooke Street in downtown Montreal, rallying support form passersby. Credit: AGSEM Credit: AGSEM

The familiar call for fair wages and better working conditions rang out across McGill University’s campus by the first classes of the day on Monday, March 25. Teaching assistants (TAs) are protesting McGill’s refusal to meet their demands for wage increases that reflect the current inflation rate and a cost of living hike, as well as a guaranteed minimum number of hours based on the number of students in a class. 

As crowds gathered in support of the striking TAs, the McGill administration reacted by allegedly blocking TAs from accessing their solidarity tax forms and firing TAs from all other positions they held at the university. Francis Desjardins, McGill’s director of labour and employee relations, also sent an email that afternoon to the entire McGill community claiming that Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM)—the union representing the TAs—’s “picketing on campus [is] in violation of Quebec’s Labour Code.”

How so? By “disrupting access to buildings and classes, which contravenes” McGill’s operating procedures for protests on campus. Desjardins reassured students, staff, and faculty that because of this, they were allowed to cross the picket line. 

The Association of McGill Law Professors (AMPL) reminded community members on social media however that their lawyer told them during their February 2024 strike that “employees have the right to peacefully picket and this right can extend to University grounds.” The argument is based on a Tribunal administratif du travail decision that found McGill had engaged in anti-picketing behaviour during another protest. 

The same post reminded the university that there is a difference between non-peaceful protesting and impactful protesting, which gathers so much support that very few people cross the picket line. 

Professors from all different faculties joined their striking TAs at McGill’s Roddick Gates, as did many students. Word of the 87.5 per cent vote in favour of a strike spread around campus quickly as many worried about finals season approaching at breakneck speed. The sense of solidarity is strong however. 

“Hundreds of TAs are participating in picketing, and they have been enthusiastic about expressing to McGill that we want to get a good contract,” wrote Mario Roy, President of the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) in an email to rabble.ca. “So far, we’ve had great support amongst undergraduate students, as well as teachers. The McGill community is behind us!”

Indexing TA hours has been AGSEM’s goal for more than decade. The union’s argument has always been that the rising number of students in classes needs to be met with additional work hours so that TAs can do their jobs thoroughly rather than haphazardly. Currently, TAs can work a total of 180 hours per contract period, and with an hourly wage of $33, this is not enough to support themselves.

This is why full transparency throughout the distribution of TA hours is so important, Roy argues. “It is clear to us that members do not feel that they are being respected by the employer in what they are expecting to see in their next collective agreement, so they voted to strike as a pressure tactic to remedy this situation.”

McGill TAs marching along Sherbrooke St. Credit: AGSEM

“Contentious” is the word most often used in the media to describe AGSEM’s current round of bargaining with McGill. It is no surprise that “McGill has been pushing back relatively hard on the strike,” Roy said. 

Right now, the strike is set to last for eight weeks. In that time, McGill may acquiesce to some of the TAs’ demands, but the university’s history of not conceding to union demands is a worrying. 

Support from the McGill community and others will be crucial to carrying the TAs through till an acceptable offer is made. 

“We have benefited from a lot of solidarity from student unions as well as other worker’s unions in other universities,” Roy wrote. “Universities have always been at the forefront of social change and in that sense, we have benefited from the solidarity of the McGill community [….] They want to not only get fair pay for themselves but want to make life better for the generations to come.”

Unfair compensation and borderline exploitation are not complaints reserved for McGill TAs. It extends to many unionized and non-unionized employees at McGill, including members of the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA), part of Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). 

MUNACA represents around 2,000 support staff employees at McGill—anyone from laboratory assistants and IT technicians to library assistants. In April 2022, almost 2,000 of the union’s members went on strike, protesting the four-year process of negotiating a new contract. 

A new contract was ultimately agreed on, but it would last only two years, keeping the renewal cycle somewhat on track. That contract expires May 31, 2024, and union executives are already bracing for what’s to come. 

Fight for “dignity and respect” for support staff an industry-wide issue

Unfair compensation and borderline exploitation are also not complaints solely held by workers at McGill. In fact, over the past three years, major universities across Canada have seen tense negotiations, pressure tactics, or even strikes by support staff—academic and non-academic—who say their universities refuse to pay them living wages, provide health insurance, invest in good pensions, and create a safe and supportive work environments. 

There are at least ten post-secondary institutions in Canada that have seen their support staff or student workers go on strike or launch a unionization campaign—Simon Fraser University, University of British Columbia, University of Calgary, York University, University of Toronto, Carleton University, University of Ottawa, McGill University, Concordia University, and Dalhousie University. But this list will continue to grow as thousands of public employees head into contract renewal and negotiation processes this year.

Public workers in post-secondary institutions constitute 63,000 members across 230 bargaining units at the Canadian Union for Public Employees (CUPE). PSAC represents another 30,000 workers at 25 different post-secondary institutions across Canada, and there are countless other regional unions representing many more workers.

CUPE recognizes that the lack of governmental funding for post-secondary education has led many institutions to seek alternatives to make up the difference in revenue. One result is that “54 per cent of faculty appointments in Canadian universities have been contract, rather than permanent.”

The reality of contract work is that it remains precarious because workers are often at the mercy of their employers. In higher education in Canada, it is cheaper to contract out work because the contractors pay their workers extremely low wages with little to no benefits, minimal pension contributions, and little security. 

Contracting out also hurts university employees in the services that universities aim to privatize: food, custodial, and retail for example. A report published by CUPE called Who Pays? found that “contracting out takes more than $1,000 a month out of workers’ pockets, in addition to costing them pensions, sick days, and other benefits.”

All the while, top university officials like principals and chancellors across the country often make about half-a-million dollars a year, not including benefits and pension contributions. 

Since 2021, at universities across the country the labour movement has been fighting for the rights of the support staff that keeps these institutions of higher learning running. These examples show what is at stake if the rights and wages of these crucial workers are not protected.

University of Calgary, March 2022

For the second time in as many years, the University of Calgary set its sights on its caretakers when determining where would be the best place to cut back on expenses. 

Major funding cuts from the province of Alberta to post-secondary education institutions between 2018 and 2022 left the University of Calgary to make up the revenue difference by reducing its support staff work force and reorganizing shift schedules rather than cut back on bumps to the salaries of some of the university’s top earners. 

By assigning each caretaker an extra 5,000 sq. ft.—for a total of 35,000 sq. ft. to clean—and changing shift hours, the university turned four jobs into two and eliminated shift differentials, which had put an extra $2.50 an hour in the pockets of caretakers who worked overnight shifts. 

As a result, very few caretakers were left to work overnight and a majority of cleaning now takes place while students and staff are actively using university spaces. 

The consequences of these scheduling changes are much farther reaching than simply making it harder for caretakers to do their jobs. 

“Sometimes folks don’t think that there’s big implications to just doing a shift change, because on the base of it, it didn’t necessarily directly lead to job loss, or, you know, a decrease in pay, per se, to their wage,” explained Bobby-Joe Borodey, one of six vice-presidents of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), in an interview with rabble.ca. “For a group of members who were already below the living wage, by the removal of the shift differential, it was very impactful, because it took away that slight little bump that was kind of getting them over that hump of whether or not they were making a living wage.”

Borodey points out an important fact about support staff: Many live right on the cusp of the poverty line. 

At the time of the caretakers’ strike, AUPE Local 052 President Justin Huseby said publicly that caretakers, assistants across campus, technicians, and many other support workers earn an hourly rate between $16 and $20. All full time support staff work between 35, 37.5, or 40 hours a week while part-time employees have no guaranteed hours. Vacation time varies depending on how long an employee has worked for the university and can range from three to six weeks. 

Thus, if an AUPE member has been employed full time for less than five years, they work anywhere from 1,715 hours to 1,960 hours a year and can earn between $27,440 and $39,200 annually. This barely sets employees above the poverty line established by Statistics Canada for families of four, which sits at about $33,000 annually. For single working adults, the low-income threshold determined using 2022 data was set at $25,252 annually, putting one-in-five single working adults in Canada below the poverty line. 

In the case of many caretakers at the University of Calgary, the university job was one of two jobs, if not more. But, with drastic changes in scheduling, the caretakers’ ability to maintain employment elsewhere got much harder. 

Balancing two jobs was possible in part because the caretaking position could have earlier or later shifts, explained Borodey in an interview with rabble.ca

“Then [the new schedule] also interfered with their ability to take public transit. Again, public transit is a move to save money,” so workers would have to endure another expense if they wanted to keep working,” he said. 

“What we thought was so disrespectful, was that this was actually the second time that the caretakers were taking a hit,” Borodey said. “Following both announcements by the government [to drastically cut base grant funding], the university chose to take some of its biggest hits at what we consider to be the most vulnerable, worker population.”

Despite AUPE Local 052’s best negotiating efforts, the University of Calgary refused to revert to the original schedule and reinstate shift differentials. But the union does not consider their efforts to organize as wasted. 

The caretakers had adopted purple as a colour of protest because it stands out in a crowd. Soon enough, the University of Calgary was flooded purple, with other staff, faculty, and students showing support for the caretakers. Such a show of solidarity gave the union hope for sustained support in future negotiations. 

In a surprising turn of events following the failed negotiations, the university decided to increase the hourly wages of the lowest paid workers on campus by $1 “across the grid.” Borodey is sure that the caretakers’ strike and the increased wages are connected. 

AUPE members on the picket lines in Calgary. Credit: AUPE.

The wage increases are evidence of momentum—something Local 052 will need in the coming year, along with about 95 per cent of the post-secondary AUPE Locals, whose contracts are up in 2024. 

“The sense is that because they’re vulnerable, and they’re small, you won’t see the support from the other areas, and then systematically, you can get rid of them that way,” Borodey said about the way the university seems to decide where to make budgetary cuts. “But, you know, in this particular case, specifically with the caretakers, I hope that that tactic shows them that, you know, it backfired.”

University of British Columbia, September 2022

Almost 1,000 kilometres away from where University of Calgary caretakers mounted their protest, another group of workers on a university campus were gearing up for their own fight. These new workers that were looking to unionize are graduate research assistants at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

CUPE 2278 formed 45 years ago when a group of TAs and UBC decided they had to organize if they were to protect themselves while working for the university. Within two years, the local was recognized by the BC Labour Board, but its first collective agreement that came a year later, was unsurprisingly stalled by failed negotiations. 

In 2002, the TAs and instructors at UBC’s English Language Institute (ELI)—who joined the union in 1987—voted in favour of their first strike. The pressure tactics were successful and the union achieved a major salary increase and protected workers’ benefits, setting the tone for future negotiations.

With a strong history of organizing behind it, CUPE 2278 entered 2022 with a goal of bringing graduate research assistants into the union. Up until then, the union local had only represented teaching assistants, tutors, markers and exam invigilators, graduate teaching assistants at UNBC, and ELI instructors. 

“The graduate research assistants, they are the biggest group that we’ve organized—it was about 3,200 positions,” said Sam Connolly, President of CUPE 2278, during an interview with rabble.ca. “We were able to get over 55 per cent of card signs, and so [we qualified] for automatic certification, which was great. Unfortunately, the University of British Columbia put up several objections, only one of which is still […] going through the Labor Board hearing process.”

Connolly was first introduced to CUPE 2278 and the labour movement at UBC when they began organizing for the graduate research assistant and graduate academic assistant unionization campaigns. Their time participating in the campaign led to many conversations with union members and prospective members, during which each would exchange concerns and priorities for upcoming negotiations. 

One town hall stands out. 

“One of the reasons I got involved in the campaign was there was a town hall in my department, where we were meant to talk about an equity survey that had happened at the department, but people started bringing up cost of living issues,” Connolly said. “There were these students […] feeling fortunate to live in university housing—sometimes below market rent—but still having to go to the food bank multiple times a month to be able to feed their kids, people foregoing health care costs because they couldn’t afford it.”

Vancouver is a notoriously expensive city to live in. Most renters can expect to pay around $2,600 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, so any source of revenue is welcome. In situations where people depend heavily on their positions as TAs, instructors, and graduate research assistants among others to pay rent and put food on the table, additional protections for workers are necessary.

“Another thing that came up was this question of bad supervisors and supervisors who are unavailable and don’t help you progress in your degree—supervisors who set entirely unrealistic expectations about being in the lab 40 hours a week, when a lot of people have to TA or work other jobs,” Connolly added.

Establishing a path for proper recourse in the case of abuse from a supervisor was also high on CUPE 2278’s list because, as Connolly said, “people want a union, an outside body, who is able to come in and help with advocacy in those situations.”

The unionization campaign was successful in many ways: Graduate academic assistants successfully joined the union and UBC kept to a hands off approach, saying little publicly and leaving campaigners up to their own devices while campaigning was actively taking place. 

But when the graduate research assistants’ union certification went to the BC Labour Relations Board, UBC intervened. The university objects to the unionization of graduate research assistants and is arguing that they are not employees, but students who receive a sort of stipend or scholarship for their work. 

To make its point to the Board, UBC allegedly engaged in the unfair targeting of people speaking in favour of unionization. One alumna was questioned about how long she took to complete her thesis and why she thanked her supervisor when she was alleging the supervisor acted abusively towards her. Another witness’ supervisor was allegedly contacted the night prior to the hearing in an attempt to gather information that could be used to discredit the forthcoming testimony. Some professors even reported to CUPE 2278 that the university was scrutinizing their employment histories and looking for hiring mistakes.

*A Freedom of Information request was filed with UBC on behalf of rabble.ca in an attempt to verify these allegations. A response from the university is still pending.*

Connolly has a theory as to why the university took drastic measures to prevent the graduate research assistants from unionizing.

“When workers are collectively organized, they actually have a lot of power to enact change in their workplace in a way that, you know, unorganized students don’t,” they said. “It’s a pretty big indicator of the kind of the power that unions have and the possibility of making change, through unionizing.”

A decision from the BC Labour Relations Board is due by April 30. For now, CUPE 2278 is holding out hope that the Board will uphold the graduate research assistants’ votes and is setting its sights on work learn program participants.

The outcomes at the University of Calgary and UBC are only two potential outcomes when unions face down their respective employers over wages and the treatment of workers. A third, rarely seen option, may become more popular among post-secondary education support staff and student worker unions. This third option has just reached its conclusion in Ontario..

University of Toronto, October 2023

To say that CUPE’s locals at the University of Toronto have fought tooth and nail over the past year to secure fair contracts for their members would be an understatement. Almost 10,000 employees saw their contracts with the university expire in 2023, and CUPE locals 3902 and 3261 had the task of negotiating with an employer that was clear from the beginning that it was uninterested in meeting the majority of the unions’ demands. 

“U of T likes to talk about my local, [that represents service workers], as sort of being this non-essential part—‘its an area where costs should be cut wherever possible’—and you know, they told us that at the bargaining table,” said Luke Daccord, President of CUPE 3261, in an interview with rabble.ca.

CUPE 3261 is the second largest local on campus. It represents support workers from athletic facility assistants and service attendants, to food service workers and drivers, recycling workers, sous chefs, University of Toronto Press warehouse and retail workers, and so many more. There are more than 1,000 members in the local, and they work across all three U of T campuses. 

The largest local at the university is CUPE 3902, and it represents around 8,000 postdoctoral researchers, TAs, and sessional lecturers. In January 2022, CUPE 3902 added a unit for instructors from the New College in International Foundation Program and International Summer Academy voted 100 per cent in favour of unionizing. 

The significance of their numbers—as unionized workers heading into negotiations with a university that has historically stonewalled talk of wage increases and better benefits—was not lost on Daccord and his colleague Eriks Bredovskis, President of CUPE 3902. 

After thinking back on their locals’ past bargaining experiences, Daccord and Bredovski thought maybe they should start working together. 

“Folks involved started to wonder, Why is it that we’re in different locals? Why is it that we’re also split up in these different bargaining units,” Bredovskis said in an interview with rabble.ca. “We kind of really came to the realization that all those different units and locals keep us divided.”

The typical blue collar and white collar associations made about CUPE 3261 and 3902 respectively did not forbid the two locals from working together. 

“In a way it serves basic unionism and basic concepts of how do you fight to improve everyone’s working conditions,” Daccord said. “It’s with unity, above all else, right, as many folks together fighting for a living wage, dignity, and respect.”

So the two locals began insisting with their employer that witnesses or negotiators from each of the five units in need of contracts—three units under CUPE 3261 and two units under CUPE 3902—attend negotiations. By doing so, the unions hoped to reinforce the fact that they fought together and would support each other until all five units had acceptable new contracts. 

The university was less than enthusiastic about CUPE 3261 and 3902 bridging their divides. In fact, the school also originally refused to even meet with members of CUPE 3261’s three units at the same time. Daccord said that each of the units had to sit down with their employer individually, then each unit would report back and compare notes—often to find that they had had similar conversations to their colleagues. 

“The first day that we went into negotiating table was with our main unit, which is called the full-time, part-time unit and is about 700 members,” Daccord said. “We brought an observer from each of the other two units within our local and they refused to meet with us. They canceled that first aid negotiations.”

Prolonged stalemates with their employer led 94.4 per cent of CUPE workers in need of a new contract to vote in favour of a strike. In the first week of March, workers would have found themselves in a position to legally go on strike. 

A possible strike—which would have led to major campus disruptions—seems to be what finally pushed the university to take the unions and their demands seriously. 

“The employer refused, up until the 11th hour, where then finally, we were able to get all five bargaining teams together in one room with the employer,” said Bredovskis. “Actually seeing, 23 or 24 members of the employer on one side of the table, this like, really long, long table, […] and 27 CUPE members representing their members.”

At that table, late into the night, employees and employer negotiated. The CUPE leaders had decided that for this meeting, instead of presenting individual demands from each unit, they would combine the demands into one document, putting themselves in front of their employer, declaring that this was a process that each unit would see to the end while supporting one another.

It worked, to Daccord’s and Bredovskis’ surprise. CUPE 3261 and 3902 secured subsidized transit for its members—U of T does not offer student rates for public transit fares like many other universities—among many other things. 

The base salary for postdoctoral workers on campus was increased to $50,000, making them one of, if not the highest paid postdoctoral researchers at a Canadian university. Mental health insurance coverage was doubled and a weekend shift premium of $1 was secured. Undergraduate academic assistants will be guaranteed work if they return to campus the following semester, and first time TAs will be guaranteed a minimum of 35 hours of work a week. All members of CUPE 3261 will be paid a minimum of $25 an hour and the local also shifted the cost share of benefits for its members, lightening the financial burden for older employees. 

“It’s a real affirmation of respect and dignity,” Bredovskis said. “I think that was one of the things [late at night during negotiations that last day], like actually hearing what other teams are getting, because of all this coordination. It’s very, it’s very empowering.”

“It’s that power that you’re able to have when you have all these different units together and it sets a new precedent for our negotiations, and hopefully negotiations at the university,” Bredovskis concluded. 

Going forward, CUPE locals at U of T plan to work together. Bredovskis and Daccord are also thinking about what would happen if unions at universities across Canada joined forces like CUPE 3261 and 3902. Maybe there could be a true reckoning where universities accept how crucial support staff and student workers are to the functioning of an institution of higher education. 

“Why wouldn’t you band together with as many workers within the similar struggle as you can?” Daccord said.

A photo of Madison Edward-Wright.

Madison Edward-Wright

Based in Montreal, QC, Edward-Wright discovered her love for journalism while completing her undergraduate degree at McGill University. Her work has appeared in The Tribune and she will be featured in...