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Bargaining Newsletter #5: TAs are the Experts on our Working Conditions

Wed 22 November 2023

Content warning: this newsletter describes AGSEM’s negotiations with McGill around policies on harassment, discrimination, and sexual violence.

Negotiations are starting to get 🔥heated🔥! On Wednesday, November 22nd, TAs held their fifth and most-contentious-yet 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) and AGSEM’s TA Grievance Officer (Jean-Philip Mathieu), and Mobilization Officer (Kiersten Beszterda van Vliet). They were joined by their union advisor Sébastien Boisvert from our affiliate, the Fédération nationale des enseignantes et des enseignants du Québec (FNEEQ) of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN).

Once again, we were accompanied by rank-and-file members from various departments, both physically in the room and on Zoom. Due to the Front Commun strikes happening across Québec and the illness of some attendees, representatives of McGill attended exclusively on Zoom, while we assembled in person. Thanks to the hard work of our Tech Committee, we introduced a hybrid set-up near the beginning of this round of negotiations. This was made possible after members gave us a strong mandate to provide specific accessibility measures, such as a remote attendance option, at our September 12th Unit Assembly. Even with one side entirely remote, the logistics of the meeting went very smoothly, underscoring the importance of a hybrid option for making negotiations accessible to those on both sides of the table no matter the circumstances!

The content of negotiations began with a discussion of the system for applications and hiring. Specifically, the two parties discussed the ranking of applicants’ course preferences in applications and the timelines for communicating hiring lists to the union. The employer was willing to withdraw their proposal in applications for listing all course preferences. They realized their initial proposal would be unworkable in large departments that offer many courses. The status quo of applying for all jobs within a department was ultimately preferable than any alternative—both for managing the preferences of a number of hires and respecting the priority pool status of all applicants. On the topic of communicating hiring lists to the union, we are closer to reaching an agreement with the employer that balances the administrative burden of producing final hiring lists for the union on the one hand with the information the union requires to do its work on the other.

Following a productive discussion on these details, we moved on to more contentious and sensitive discussions. These discussions centered around Article 6, the article of our TA Collective Agreement (CA) on harassment, discrimination, and sexual violence. This greater contention was anticipated: when we began negotiations in September, both sides identified the greatest divergence between the two proposals on these topics.

After we asked some clarifying questions about McGill’s proposed changes to the system for disciplinary measures for TAs, discussion shifted to the definitions and framing of harassment, discrimination, and sexual violence. McGill’s original proposal was to completely strike the current language in Article 6 and defer instead to the University’s Policy on Harassment and Discrimination, as well as the Policy Against Sexual Violence.

We immediately pushed back on this proposal, arguing McGill’s proposal would allow our working conditions protected by this important article to be changed outside of negotiations and without the ratification of our members. Indeed, a member from Political Science in the room reminded us during a caucus that the Policy on Harassment and Discrimination will be subject to a review in the 2024-2025 academic year, and the Policy Against Sexual Violence in 2025. McGill agreed to drop this demand. Further, they accepted our proposal to introduce updated language from the latest policies in the CA, including a recognition of the disproportionate risks of harassment and discrimination experienced by underrepresented groups as well as a definition of consent.

Discussions then turned to our proposal to improve Article 6 to protect workers against forms of harassment that are major concerns among our members. This includes misgendering, patronizing, insulting, or demeaning comments, and sexually oriented remarks that create a negative work environment.

McGill argued against the introduction of additional language to define harassment, claiming that such cases are implicitly protected against in the current CA. Their argument is that the definition of harassment in McGill’s Policy on Harassment and Discrimination and our Collective Agreement is broad enough to encompass all offensive comments and discriminatory behavior. Therefore, McGill’s position is that it would be redundant to include the specific cases of intolerable and vexatious behaviour commonly experienced by TAs.

While we agreed that the instances we outlined do fall under the status quo definition of harassment, the policies do need to reflect the reality of Teaching Assistant work. We made the case that greater specificity would add clarity to the CA and empower members to better navigate difficult situations and address inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. In response, McGill stated it would be unproductive to introduce a “grocery list” of different forms of harassment.

We strongly disagree with this characterization of our proposal. The CA has the power to be an important document which prevents instances of harassment, discrimination at violence and specifically identifying these behaviours as harassment empowers members to stand up for themselves when facing them. In the end, we could not reach an agreement, as McGill continues to refuse to add any language to the CA beyond existing University policies.

The Bargaining Committee also proposed language that would enshrine protections against retaliation for grievances or complaints about sexual harassment or sexual violence, and the right to discontinue or limit contact with the alleged party. McGill raised worries that there might be cases where a complaint or grievance is deemed to be “unfounded” or “untrue,” and McGill might want to impose penalties on the complainant. This counterargument confused our team—this imposition of penalties for filing a an unfounded grievance is not a measure which the employer has ever taken against an AGSEM member. We countered that workers are protected against retaliation for filing a grievance under Québec labour law, to which McGill responded that our proposal was therefore unnecessary and not concrete. To our proposal of the right to discontinue contact with one’s alleged harasser, McGill found our proposal was instead too concrete; arguing that instances of harassment should be judged on a case-by-case basis.

In general, McGill’s concerns fluctuated between worries that some proposed changes were redundant and therefore unnecessary, and that others were too concrete. Aside from dropping their initial proposal to remove all language defining harassment, discrimination, and sexual violence from the CA and defering to the University’s policies, McGill showed an unwillingness to make changes to Article 6. When asked if they thought there was any room for improvement, McGill admitted that there might be, but expressed skepticism that such improvement could be made in the given article or CA as a whole. We reiterated the importance of these changes to our membership, and expressed hope for creativity and thinking outside of the box to address these problems on both sides.

Bargaining Committee member Nick Vieira, had the following comment after the negotiation session:

“We appreciate the existing policies of the University, and McGill’s willingness to include them in our Collective Agreement. But that won’t be enough. Time and again, our members have shared with us what forms of harassment they specifically are subject to as they occupy two roles: employee and student. The student-course supervisor relationship introduces a power dynamic which is different from those experienced by other workers on campus, and our Collective Agreement should reflect that. The TA contract is precisely the right place to elaborate on what forms of discrimination, harassment, or violence TAs specifically should not be subjected to.”

Following negotiations, we also spoke to our members. Aire, a member doing their MSc in Animal Science at Macdonald campus and AGSEM’S Macdonald Campus Officer, who attended these negotiations, spoke to the value of precise definitions:

“[AGSEM’s proposal] would provide members who have suffered such difficult offences more confidence that their particular case is covered by our CA. I believe this confidence will embolden members to come forth with their cases more often, therefore leading to a larger number of members receiving the assistance they need.”

Loïc, a member doing their PhD in Computer Science who also attended these negotiations, reiterated the importance of the CA:

“Due to the significant power dynamics at play between the TA and the course instructor, who is sometimes also the TA's academic supervisor, the action of reporting such an offence can be very difficult and stressful given the fears of potential retribution and general feelings of powerlessness, and as such, a large number of cases go unreported. Naming precise examples of the forms that harassment can take, such as refusing to use a TA's chosen name, sends a clear message to individual TAs that such forms of harassment will not be tolerated in the workplace, that there is no doubt that what they are experiencing is harassment, and that the TA should not hesitate to seek legal help. Article 6 already covers specific forms of sexual violence; I believe it is perfectly reasonable to include specific forms of harassment and discrimination as well [...]”

We couldn’t agree more. Specifying language is crucial to addressing the specific situations of Teaching Assistants. TAs know their working conditions best, and we’ll continue to involve them in negotiations, every step of the way.

This was our third in a spree of back-to-back negotiations! AGSEM will also be negotiating on November 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


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