This term, McGill TAs are done with working for free.
McGill steals a million dollars of TA wages every single year. That’s an average of over $420 each stolen from half of TAs.(1) We collected that data in 2017, and since then things have been getting worse. In departments across the university, TA budgets are getting cut, while the amount of labour stays the same.(2)
This money matters. Grads are going hungry.(3) Grad student associations across the university are reporting students in poverty, including in departments like Physics where stipends and TAships are guaranteed.(4) Grads are unable to afford healthcare.(5) Grads are unable to live in dignity and do their research effectively.(6)
TA labour matters. Quality education requires the essential work of running tutorials, giving detailed feedback, grading, holding office hours, and so much more.
The scale of the problem is huge. In some departments, TAs with 45 hour contracts are regularly working twice their hours. That’s nearly $1500 a term per TA. This has to stop.
We’ve been dealing with this alone for too long. We thought there was nothing we could do about it. We thought our labour was not worth a living wage. All the while we know the reason why we keep working is because without our work courses wouldn’t finish. The grades would never be submitted.
So what do we do about it?
Commit this term to not working for free. Sign the pledge. Fill out your workload form. Track your hours, from every email written to every lecture attended to every paper you give thorough feedback to. Stop when you hit your contract hours. Follow the No More Free Hours participation guide.
This is a work-to-rule action: it just means we’re following the rules. We work as many hours as we’re paid for. If McGill wants more work, they’ll have to pay us. Simple as that.
Talk to other TAs. Talk about how close you are to your hours. Talk to your departmental delegate.(7) Join an active support network grouped by faculty. There are loads of people who will have your back. Contact your Grievance Officer directly if you are ever being pressured to work for free.
Spread the word. Tell your friends this time we have each other’s backs, all across the university. Wear a No More Free Hours pin while you work.
If you aren’t a TA, sign the open letter. Let McGill know you want the university to pay for every hour worked.
If and when you come close to using all the hours in your contract, follow the strategy below in the No More Free Hours guide. Inform your course supervisor, talk to your support network about it, and let everyone know that if the hours run out, you won’t work for free.
What will happen?
We are acting together to show McGill that we are no longer working for free. We are showing that there aren’t enough contract hours to maintain a high quality of education. We are showing McGill that if they want functional classes, they are going to have to pay us what we are worth—every hour.
TAs are going into bargaining this fall. No More Free Hours will show McGill that our current contracts aren’t functional. Working together in solidarity will show that we have the power to change our working conditions.
This term, we’re following the rules. No more free hours.
No More Free Hours Participation Guide
1. Wear a No More Free Hours pin while you work and around campus!
2. Sign the pledge! Get access to support networks by signing!
3. Fill out the workload form with your supervisor! Do a midterm review of your workload form to adjust hours from the initial estimate.
5. Let your course supervisor know when you are close to your hours. Meet with them to review the workload form in the middle of term. Let them know you won’t work for free!
The course supervisor should request additional hours from the department. If these additional hours are approved, you can accept or refuse them. If you refuse them, a supplemental TA job must be posted.
If more hours are not granted, stop working.
Tell your faculty support network and the Grievance Officer about what happened!
Wear a No More Free Hours pin/button while you work and around campus! They’ll be available at rallies, events, tabling, and from your delegate and support network! If you can’t find one, ask!
Join your faculty support network by signing the pledge! These are groups of TAs who will be sharing with each other stories of how much McGill has stolen from their wages before, strategies to resist whatever particular difficulties exist in your departments and faculty, and be able to show up for each other when we need to!
Fill out the workload form with your supervisor at the beginning of term (8) (Article 11.02.03 of our Collective Agreement). This is an agreement between the two of you to decide how you will spend your hours. You have the right to review previous workload forms for the course you are working to see the breakdown from previous semesters. Send a request to the departmental administrator for access to previous workload forms. Make sure that all the tasks that are part of your TA work are on that form—this includes attending class, mandatory readings, all lab or conference hours, grading, office hours, mandatory training, and meetings with your course supervisor, including the meeting where you fill out the workload form. Be clear that you won’t work more hours than are in your contract unless the department approves more funds to pay you!
Keep track of all of your TA hours throughout the semester. This includes additional hours that you may have originally budgeted for student emails, additional office hours, or grading that takes longer than expected. Always remember that you are paid by the hour, and not by the task. Class prep, attending class—any hours you spend working should be paid. Use a tool like this hours tracking spreadsheet or an app like toggl. It is important to be able to show to your supervisor how you spend your time to assert your rights.
The workload form is something we won in previous contracts to help protect our labour rights. It’s not just pointless bureaucracy! Revise your workload form mid-semester. Your course supervisor is obligated to meet with you to revise the workload form. If they do not, this is a serious violation of the collective agreement. (Article 11.02.03). Tell your supervisor if you are using more hours than expected, and adjust your workload accordingly. Be clear that if they want you to work more, they must request additional overtime funds from the department.
Inform your supervisor BEFORE you reach the limit of your contract. Sit down for another meeting to review your workload form. Tip: You can review this form as many times as necessary throughout the semester. On that form, there is a space for the course supervisor to request additional hours to complete the work for the course. (Article 11.04)
Additional hours beyond your contract must be acquired or fulfilled by the course supervisor. That means it is not your responsibility to make sure the work gets done—you are paid by the hour, not the task.
A few things can happen from here:
If additional hours are approved and you want to work them: Great! These hours MUST be paid at the TA rate, no less. (Article 11.04). Wait for written confirmation from the department that the hours are approved. Double-check your pay stubs to make sure you do indeed get paid. If there are any issues, contact email@example.com as soon as you are aware of any discrepancies.
If there is still more work to do for the course but you do not want to work any more: Great! That’s totally fine. Even if the department approves additional hours, you are not obliged to work them if you have reached the hours you were initially contracted to work. The department MUST offer you these hours at the TA rate before they are offered to anyone else, but it’s always your right to say “thanks but no thanks.” Only after you refuse can these hours be offered to a new supplemental TA hire (Article 11.04). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org immediately if your department outsources your work without your permission!
If additional hours are NOT approved by the department: you stop working because you will not work for free. If your department or course supervisor tries to force you to work for free, or if your TA labour is outsourced to a non-TA, this is a violation of your rights. Contact email@example.com immediately.
How do I participate?Follow the No More Free Hours guide above! Wear a No More Free Hours pin around campus and while you work! Sign the pledge! Signing will allow you to join your faculty support network! Talk to your fellow TAs and your department delegate! Fill out the workload form with your supervisor! Track your hours! Tell everyone you are not working for free!
What is work-to-rule? Is it legal?Work-to-rule is a form of collective action that involves workers doing exactly the amount of work required by their contracts and following all the rules and regulations strictly. It is NOT a strike or a slowdown. It is a way of asserting our labour rights and showing the employer how much we contribute to the university It is completely legal and protected by the Labour Code as long as we do not breach our Collective Agreement (CA) or interfere with the work of other employees. What is not legal is what McGill is doing: not paying us for our work.
Why are we doing work-to-rule?Address the ongoing issues of overwork and underpayment of TAs, which affects our financial, academic, social, emotional, and health well-being Protect the rights of graduate TAs, who are highly dissatisfied with their funding and working conditions, and who struggle with financial challenges and mental health issues due to low wages, high tuition fees, and inadequate funding Expose how much academic support is needed to run the university, and how the employer does not respect the existing CA and our labour rights Increase our bargaining power and solidarity as TAs, and support our negotiations Improve our current unbalanced working conditions and compensation, and ensure that our labour is valued and respected by the university
But I’m slow!Almost every TA we’ve spoken to has said this. Are we really all slow? No. Teaching, grading, reading—all of these things take time. Especially when you care about the quality of feedback. You’re not slow.
I do actually take longer to do work because of a disability! What should I do?Request accommodations for your work through Human Resources! If you are working for free because your work takes longer (for example, because of dyslexia or another information processing disability), that is discrimination. We all get paid by the hour. No more free hours, not for anyone. Support networks, delegates, and the grievance officer are again available to work through requests for workplace accommodations and any difficulties that might arise along the way!
How do I help organize my colleagues, cohort, or department?Join your faculty support network! Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org! There’s lots to do!
I’m not a TA! I want to support!Thank you!! Sign our open letter here! Spread the word! Talk to your TAs this term about No More Free Hours! We also know that undergrads and non-TAs are sometimes asked to do TA work. We expect McGill to ask non-TAs to do TA work for less to avoid the consequences of this action. Don’t be a scab! Let us know if you are asked to do TA work for less.
I am worried about this causing conflict with my course supervisor. What should I do?First, you should know that it is McGill’s responsibility to ensure there are enough teaching resources for each course instructor. If there are not enough resources (i.e., paid hours for you), then it is the fault of the administration, not your course supervisor. Tell your course supervisor that this is not against them, personally, but rather a principled stance that graduate student workers are taking to protect their rights AND ensure McGill invests in the teaching resources we need. Departments and course supervisors will never know there is an issue with the number of hours allocated for a position unless we make them aware! Our working conditions are their teaching conditions. Just as our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. Students, course instructors, and TAs are all on the same side of this struggle because we all care about the quality of education at this institution. Start with a conversation about how we are all on the same side—we are all interested in providing quality education, and that requires sufficient paid hours. Talk about how you will work together to make sure that you do not work for free—through asking the department for more hours, carefully tracking hours, and planning the workload using the workload form. If the relationship becomes more difficult, tell your support network, delegate, or grievance officer about it. You can bring a union representative, like your delegate or grievance officer, to meetings with your supervisor for support—this is a protected right! These folks will provide accurate information about your rights and the supervisor’s responsibilities, or support you in the way that will work best in your situation. You can also copy your delegate or the grievance officer on any difficult emails, if only for additional oversight. We are here to support one another!
How do I explain this to my students?First: yes, explain this to your students! Send an email or let them know in the first class, lab, or tutorial. Tell them that McGill has been stealing a million dollars in TA wages every year, and that you and all TAs are not going to let that happen anymore. Talk about the real consequences: it might get to the point where you stop grading assignments or running labs. Yes, this sucks. But we believe that they deserve better than overworked, burnt out, and underpaid TAs. We’ve seen that McGill will squeeze TAs as far as they can go without care for the quality of education. We want that to stop. In 2020-2021, Suzanne Fortier, the former principal, was paid $860,971.(9) This is nearly the amount of money that was stolen in wage theft from TAs that year. Where is your tuition going? Not nearly enough towards the education that it is paying for. No More Free Hours is part of the labour action that will improve education at McGill, instead of directing your tuition increasingly towards principals who are paid more than most of us will ever dream of.
TA contracts have been made smaller because of budgetary constraints, right? What if McGill just doesn’t have the money to pay TAs?McGill steals a million dollars in TA wages every year. The total budget for TA wages is currently $12 million. That’s a huge portion the administration is keeping for themselves. The former principal, Suzanne Fortier, was paid $860,971 in 2020-2021. They had enough money to pay her almost as much as they stole from TAs! The McGill endowment is currently $1.8 billion.(10) Its value has stayed fairly steady since 2018, fluctuating by about 5%. The entire current TA budget of $12 million is 0.7% of that endowment. To stop wage theft, it would only take 0.05% of the endowment. The endowment is used to fund university activities (in addition to funding from the government and tuition). In 2021, $70.4 million dollars was distributed among faculties for their use; $57.4 million of that was spent.(11) In fact, from 2017-2020 there was about $10 million distributed to faculties every year that went unspent and was returned to the fund.(12) There is absolutely enough room to pay TAs what we are worth, for every hour.
(1) AGSEM Membership Survey 2017. See also AGSEM’s 2019 report, Graduate Student Precarity in Perspective, https://www.agsem.ca/graduate-workers-issues-at-mcgill. An average of binned responses put 48% of TAs as working an average of 13 hours over their contract. In 2023 wages, this is $429.39.
(2) The School of Religious Studies standard TA appointment dropped this year from 120 hours to 100 hours. Psychology dropped from 180 hours to 150 hours, and as of this year has stopped covering Fall tuition for grad students who work as a TA.
(3) 38% of McGill TAs forego healthy food due to lack of income. AGSEM Membership Survey 2017.
(4) “My weekly food budget allowed me this week to purchase a single loaf of bread and one bag of chips and some coffee grains. I am very hungry. The amount of money I am able to save per month is in the negatives.” McGill Graduate Association of Physics Students (MGAPS), Report on the financial situation of McGill Physics graduate students, 27 January 2023, https://mgaps.physics.mcgill.ca/files/MGAPS_Stipend_Report_2023.pdf.
(5) Over one third (36%) of graduate Teaching Assistants at McGill are reported to forgo medical, dental, and optical services due to lack of income, and 38% forgo healthy food. AGSEM Membership Survey 2017. McGill’s results in the 2022 Canadian Graduate and Professional Student Survey (CGPSS) indicate that 19.8% of Master’s students and 18.1% of PhD students suffer from mental health disorders, including major depression, bipolar disorder, general anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder. McGill Analysis, Planning and Budget, CGPSS McGill Summary Report 2022: Doctoral Students (accessed July 2023); McGill Analysis, Planning and Budget, CGPSS McGill Summary Report 2022: Master’s Students – With Thesis (accessed July 2023).
(6) Approximately two-thirds (62.3%) of grads in physics at McGill do not feel like they are “living in dignity” and (66.4%) report their financial situation has a negative impact on their “ability to effectively carry out research.” McGill Graduate Association of Physics Students (MGAPS), Report on the financial situation of McGill Physics graduate students (accessed July 2023).
(7) If your department doesn’t have a delegate, and you’re interested in helping out your fellow workers, let us know and become a delegate!
(8) This is required by article 11.02.03 of our Collective Agreement. The course supervisor cannot send you a workload form to sign. It must be done during a meeting and it must be agreed upon by both of you.
(9) Bainbridge. March 27, 2023. “McGill senior administration made big bucks last year”. The McGill Daily.
(10) McGill Endowment Fund Annual Report 2021-2022. https://www.mcgill.ca/investments/files/investments/endowment_report_v10_final_0.pdf
(11) Report on Endowment Performance 2020-2021. https://www.mcgill.ca/investments/files/investments/report_on_endowment_performance_2020-2021_-_final_-_en.pdf
(12) Report on Endowment Performance 2020-2021.