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Bargaining Newsletter #11: McGill starts to budge on wages, but remains inflexible on healthcare and indexation

Friday Feb 9 and Tuesday Feb 13, 2024


AGSEM TA Bargaining Committee and regular members attending the negotiation session.


We are in a negotiations blitz! AGSEM and McGill have recently met twice for negotiations of a new Collective Agreement for TAs: on Friday, February 9th, and Tuesday, February 13th. At the previous session (Friday, February 2nd), AGSEM finally received McGill’s insulting and unserious counter-proposal, which included nothing on healthcare, nothing on indexing TA hours to class sizes, and a wage “increase” of 1.25% in the first year followed by 1% for subsequent years—for five years. As we  pointed out in our last newsletter, this is a significant pay cut in terms of real wages and TAs’ ability to pay tuition, rent, and the rising cost of living. 


At the February 9th session, McGill indicated they would be open to discussing further if AGSEM indicated our “priorities,” indicating we would have to choose between healthcare and wages. AGSEM made it clear that McGill’s insulting offer is not a starting place for negotiations, nor were we willing to sacrifice a major element of the bargaining mandate developed by TAs. AGSEM asked McGill for clarification on where their exceptionally low offer came from. McGill talked again about their position that the only relevant wage market for McGill TA wages is the Québec market. McGill might claim that Québec market rates are the most relevant factor for our contract, but as cost-of-living skyrockets, McGill TAs are unlikely to be soothed by the knowledge that they make a bit more than other underpaid workers in the province. AGSEM reiterated that the two parties are negotiating the living conditions of TAs. If McGill pays us more, they may have to adjust some lines in their budget. On our end, when TA wages stagnate, our members are forced to skip meals, miss rent payments, and forego essential healthcare. There simply is no symmetry between the budgeting logistics of the university and the material reality of McGill TAs.


Pay for McGill TAs has long been far lower than pay at the schools McGill compares itself to (University of Toronto, Queen’s, Western, etc.), and many TA unions at those institutions have healthcare plans as part of their TA contracts. While McGill representatives recognized that McGill is a top school in Canada, they argue that its academic prestige has nothing to do with TA contracts. However, we all know that McGill TAs do a great deal towards that prestige—for most undergrads, much (perhaps most!) of their education comes from TAs. The quality of education at McGill depends on TA work. TAs care deeply about their work and hope this contract can serve as an investment in education. 


Let’s be clear: McGill TAs cannot afford to choose between paying for rent and groceries and getting adequate healthcare. Nor can we abandon the fight for indexing TA hours to undergraduate enrolment as departments across the university cut jobs and shorten contracts as enrollment rises or stays constant. 


After making quick progress on many of the non-monetary items in the fall, negotiations seemed to have reached an impasse. But such an impasse cannot last forever, especially since McGill TAs have called to hold a strike vote the week of March 11th, at the latest, if we cannot reach an agreement by then. AGSEM ended the session on the 9th with a suggestion that both sides come to our next meeting ready to talk frankly about where we might find a deal—perhaps approaching negotiations in the spirit of collaboration could break the impasse? McGill was a bit apprehensive about such an approach but said they would think about it. On Monday, February 12th, McGill’s negotiators informed the AGSEM bargaining committee that they would be ready to meet but would prefer we come prepared with a more formal counterproposal.


At the start of the session on Tuesday, February 13th, AGSEM clarified that we would not present a formal counterproposal—we had made clear we would not give a counterproposal on an offer from them that amounts to an effective pay cut—but would discuss where our top priorities are. Despite McGill’s suggestion that we would have to choose between wages and healthcare, AGSEM pointed out that are members have given us a strong mandate to fight to a) protect real wages against past and future inflation, b) catch up to the wages of top U15 schools, c) introduce a substantial healthcare plan, and d) prevent the situation where undergrad enrolment rises or stays the same and TA hours are cut. We indicated some flexibility on where the wage will land, giving McGill a general range of what we think is reasonable, but made it clear that where we land in this range would depend on how robust the other aspects of the agreement (healthcare, cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), indexation) are.  


McGill was appreciative of the clarification of priorities, though expressed an unwillingness to address all but one of our priorities: recovering from and protecting against inflation. McGill acknowledged the extreme inflation of the last couple of years and suggested that they might be able to make an offer that would, in the short term, compensate for that inflation. However, they stopped short of giving us numbers. With Montreal’s inflation averaging at 5.9% and peaking at 7.1% over the 2022-2023 academic year, this is a major departure from the 1.25% they offered us a few weeks ago. Nevertheless, it still falls considerably short of our wage demands and does nothing for healthcare or indexation. AGSEM made it clear that McGill will have to find more flexibility to reach a deal AGSEM members will accept.


The session closed with AGSEM pressing McGill on their reluctance to major aspects of our proposal. On healthcare, McGill cited two issues; cost and logistics. AGSEM has proposed a detailed healthcare plan based on existing funds from unions at York, University of Toronto, and Carleton. McGill is one of the wealthiest schools in Canada, with an endowment worth nearly $2 billion. Teaching Assistants account for around $13 million of McGill’s yearly budget, and we have proposed $1 million in healthcare funds—that’s a drop in the bucket! Asking for supplementary healthcare and a serious wage increase is more than reasonable. McGill works because we do, and it’s about time McGill recognizes that. 


On our proposal to tie TA hours to undergraduate enrolment, McGill’s concern was primarily logistical. This demand is essential to preventing overwork of TAs but is also important to many professors, who are themselves overworked if there are not enough TAs, and undergraduates, who need educational support that McGill too often  fails to prioritize. Beyond education, how can McGill maintain its reputation as a top-tier research institution if neither students nor professors have the time to do their research? TAs report having to grade papers in a fraction of the time they would need to give meaningful feedback, cutting short office hours, and not having enough time to adequately prepare for conferences. By setting a minimum number of TA hours for each undergraduate enrolled, the quality of education at McGill can be dramatically improved and the overwork of both professors and TAs reduced.  We will come to the next session prepared to discuss how to implement such a proposal.


Despite lots of discussion over the past few months, each side has still only given a single proposal on monetary items. McGill has requested that AGSEM come to the next meeting prepared to deliver a counterproposal. McGill implied that this proposal should be ready to drop our priorities that are not wages. AGSEM clarified we will not be dropping those priorities, but agreed to come to the next session with a serious counterproposal.


The impasse at which we had found ourselves seems to be breaking, but McGill remains unwilling to give us the kind of wage increase TAs deserve or to seriously consider our proposals on healthcare and indexation of TA hours. The impending deadline of a strike vote and increasing pressure from AGSEM’s mobilization seems to be working, McGill realizes that their lowball offer will not be enough for McGill TAs. They can see we are ready to fight for a life changing contract and we will continue to do so at the table and beyond. We are coming to negotiations on Tuesday February 20th with a detailed proposal and hope McGill is willing to engage in a good-faith discussion about how to implement these changes. 


We are continuing our practice of open bargaining, wherein all members are welcome to join us in the room. Come see how it works! We will be negotiating today, February 20th at 1pm. Sign up to join us then, or at other sessions, here. We are also running trainings to become an AGSEM militant/organizer, which you can sign up for here.


United we bargain, divided we beg! 


Love and solidarity, 

Your Bargaining and Bargaining Support Committees

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