Tues 14 November 2023
Teaching Assistants can’t be stopped! On Tuesday, November 14th, TAs held their fourth 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 Mobilization Officer (Kiersten Beszterda van Vliet), 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.
At these negotiations, we continued to bring rank-and-file members into the room. Five members from a variety of departments were present in person. We were also joined for the first time by two members over Zoom, who joined remotely for accessibility reasons: one member works primarily off-campus, while the other was ill at the time of negotiations. This push for accessibility follows our September 12th Unit Assembly, where TAs gave us a strong mandate to ensure negotiations are accessible to every TA who wishes to attend.
At this session, we discussed:
Posting & application and selection & appointment processes
Emphasizing that TAs can use their chosen names when applying to TA positions
Including fifth-year doctoral students in the priority pool
Communicating hiring lists between administration and the union
These issues around posting & application and selection & appointment processes (articles 12 and 13 in our Collective Agreement, respectively) were our main focus. Compared to previous topics of negotiation, McGill and AGSEM more strongly diverge in their proposals for these issues. McGill had initially proposed to alter the process by which TA positions are offered to applicants, and to overhaul the system of final hiring lists sent to the union. If implemented, parts of McGill’s proposal would have undermined the priority pool system which ensures that TAs are allocated positions based on their year in their studies.
On our end, we proposed changes which emphasize the ability of TAs to use their chosen names when applying for TA positions, to prevent supervisors from prohibiting or discouraging graduate students from applying for TA positions, to extend the priority pool system up to doctoral students in the fifth year of their studies, and to ensure that the aforementioned initial and final lists are sent to both union delegates and the union itself.
The priority pool system is a crucial and hard-won element of our Collective Agreement. It describes the order in which offers should be made to those applying for TA positions. The priority pool empowers graduate students—many of whom are in precarious financial situations, as outlined in PGSS’ recent funding survey report—to have confidence in their ability to obtain TA positions and make well-informed financial decisions. As it stands, the system favours doctoral students in their first four years of studies and then master’s students in their first two years, in that order. Graduate students outside of these stages of their degrees can still get a TA position depending on the availability of jobs.
We have proposed to add a third tier to this system: doctoral candidates in their fifth year of study, after master’s students. This proposal is made in light of the trend of ever-lengthening doctoral programs, to ensure that doctoral students can continue to TA later into their studies. Many PhDs take more than four years! And in fact, this was part of McGill’s proposal at the last round of TA Collective Agreement negotiations. We are pleased that both parties agreed on the proposal to extend the priority pool to fifth-year doctoral students. The ordering of how this 5th year of PhD priority is still to be negotiated, but the union’s proposal is to put the priority for the 5th year of PhD programs below the Master’s level to preserve job security for Master’s students.
McGill was willing to withdraw some of their proposals which would undercut the priority pool. Hiring lists proved to be a greater point of contention; nonetheless, the two parties approached the issue from a collaborative angle of problem-solving. AGSEM and McGill both want these lists to contain relevant hiring information, for these lists to be transmitted in a timely manner, and to make union-administration communications crystal clear. Both parties will do their own research on this topic and return to negotiations ready to continue discussions.
The topic of encouraging applicants to use their chosen names when applying for TA positions was also contentious. McGill argued that applicants are already able to do so on Workday, but AGSEM highlighted that this is often unclear for TAs. Hiring units also sometimes use workers’ wrong names in lists sent to the union or in letters of offer to TAs. Indeed, AGSEM has on numerous occasions received deadnames from hiring units in various departments after a member has undergone a name change as a student and employee.
When McGill questioned us on our demand to allow TAs to use their chosen name in job applications, a member in the room from Computer Science passed us a note informing us that their department had previously encouraged applicants to use only their legal names when applying for positions. This real-time fact-checking was a first for the union—we made union history! Workers are the ultimate experts on their working conditions, and we experienced the tangible value in having our members present in the room in real time.
The union’s position is clear. Deadnaming of our members is an unacceptable practice that needs to stop in our place of employment. Workers are empowering us to make this happen.
AGSEM and McGill also revisited previous discussions, namely, proposals around timeley meetings between the union and Provost, the inclusion of psychological danger as a real danger for which TAs have the right to refuse unsafe work, and empowering TAs to provide accommodations for students with noted accessibility needs.
On the topic of the frequency and feasibility of union-Provost meetings, we still have not reached an agreement. The rationale from the employer is that they do not want to put additional conditions on the Provost to meet with the union. TAs are currently the only unionized employee group on campus that have an annual with the Provost codified in our Collective Agreement. Given the importance of Teaching Assistants for McGill’s mission of “the advancement of learning and the creation and dissemination of knowledge,” our union’s position is to both increase the frequency of meetings and ensure they happen in a timely manner. Time will tell whether the employer will budge on this issue.
Other revisited topics were far more fruitful! The two parties agreed to introduce language into the Collective Agreement which gives workers the right to refuse work which would endanger their mental wellbeing, in addition to existing protections for their physical wellbeing. This welcome change, initially proposed by AGSEM, brings our Collective Agreement into alignment with new Québec law.
The two parties also collaborated on and reached an agreement to introduce new language requiring course supervisors to communicate students’ accommodation needs as established through the office for Student Accessibility & Achievement (SAA) to TAs. This change to the Collective Agreement would empower TAs to implement these accommodations. This element of our bargaining mandate comes from members who brought this issue to light at our April 27th Unit Assembly.
At the next round of negotiations, we will return to discussions about postings, applications, selection, and hiring. We also expect to begin discusions on issues of harassment, discrimination, and sexual violence.
We are currently on a spree of back-to-back negotiations! AGSEM will also be negotiating on November 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