Thurs 9 November 2023
On Thursday, November 9th, Teaching Assistants in the AGSEM union held their third session of negotiations for a new Collective Agreement with McGill!
In the room on AGSEM’s side were, once again, the three members of the Bargaining Committee (Nada El Baba, Dallas Jokic, and Nick Vieira), AGSEM’s TA Grievance Officer (Jean-Philip Mathieu), and the negotiation and grievance from our affiliate union Fédération nationale des enseignantes et des enseignants du Québec (FNEEQ) (Sébastien Boisvert) and a CSN-FNEEQ intern, Andrea Cano. Our Mobilization Officer, Kiersten Beszterda van Vliet, who brings experience from our recent invigilator negotiations, also sat with us at the negotiations table.
After beginning negotiation of articles in earnest at the last session on October 19th, at this third session, McGill and AGSEM tackled other articles with which there was greater divergence.
For these negotiations, we were joined by six lovely members of the union! Three of these members were present for the first time. One crucial element of our open strategy of bargaining is to have workers—who are (duh!) the experts on their working conditions—speak on their experiences during negotiations. One member, a student and TA in Anthropology, spoke about how their department discourages students from applying for TA positions. The justification for this widespread practice is to leave these positions for a new cohort of incoming students, many of whom do not have external sources of funding. From the union’s perspective, this practice undermines employees’ priority pool rights, and highlights the way the employer continues to conflate TA employment with graduate funding!
Negotiators in the room who work as TAs in Physics, Biology, and Music Research affirmed similar experiences of being discouraged by their supervisors from applying for TA positions. AGSEM’s proposal is to introduce language in the Collective Agreement that will not allow students to be prohibited nor discouraged by their supervisors from applying for TA positions. McGill took issue with the proposal, and in particular the word “discourage,” and we did not reach an agreement by the end of the session.
Rather than restrict AGSEM members’ ability to apply for jobs, the union’s longstanding position is to encourage the employer to increase the number of TA positions on campus, as well as to remove TA positions from the calculations of funding packages and increase minimum graduate stipends. The status quo is not tenable: conflating academic funding and employment leads to coercive situations between TAs and their academic supervisors around applying for and accepting TA positions. While the union recognizes the importance of academic supervision for graduate students’ academic progress, limiting graduate students’ employment opportunities is not about academic progress but rather an effort to undermine our hard-won labour rights. Nobody should be able to interfere in our decision to take employment—especially during the current cost-of-living crisis. These widespread practices that undermine our TA Collective Agreement are a clear consequence of the dire status of graduate funding at this institution, as highlighted in PGSS’ most recent Funding Survey Report.
One TA from Anthropology had the following to say:
“Supervisors’ and administrators’ informal emails demanding that students not apply for TA positions create a climate of intimidation and can induce a fear of professional retaliation, as graduate students rely on their supervisors for references for job and grant applications. Moreover, the concerned students’ external funding amounts to an annual revenue that is still under Montreal’s poverty line. In essence, faculty and staff are requesting students live in poverty to make up for their own mismanagement of departmental resources.”
Workplace health and safety were also up for discussion at this session. AGSEM has proposed to bring the Collective Agreement into alignment with the Québec Act respecting occupational health and safety. The part of the law in question, updated in 2021, grants workers the right to refuse work if they believe it would pose a danger to their mental wellbeing. Your Collective Agreement currently explicitly allows you to refuse work which exposes you to physical harms, but does not explicitly mention psychological harms. AGSEM affirmed the importance of safe working conditions and the ability of workers to refuse work when there is reasonable grounds to suspect immediate danger, of any type. Despite the update to provincial occupational health and safety standards, this issue proved contentious and we could not reach an agreement. We will continue pushing for these protections at future negotiation sessions.
Nick Vieira, a member of the Bargaining Committee, had to say:
“Psychological danger—like harassment, or the threat of harassment—is real danger just like physical danger. Québec law has recognized this since the last time we signed a contract. We just want to bring our Collective Agreement into alignment with the law so that we can protect workers from any and all danger on the job.”
The November 9th session was the first in a gauntlet of five weeks of back-to-back negotiations. AGSEM will be negotiating on November 14th, 22nd, and 28th, and December 5th. Want to attend a future session of negotiations, in-person or remotely? Please fill out this form to indicate on which dates you’re available and which topics interest you, and we’ll keep in touch.
United we bargain, divided we beg!
Love and solidarity,
Your Bargaining and Bargaining Support Committees