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Introducing the 2023-2024 AGSEM Executive Committee: Mobilization Officer | Kiersten van Vliet

On April 17, 2023, AGSEM General Assembly elected the new Executive Committee for the 2023-2024 academic year. All members of the 2022-2023 Executive Committee except the Macdonald Campus Officer have been re-elected for their positions. Read about the current EC team here.

This week we sat down to chat with Kiersten van Vliet, the Mobilization Officer and former AGSEM President. Kiersten (she/they) is a PhD candidate in Musicology and Gender & Women’s studies in the Music Research Department of the Schulich School of Music and has been a member of the union since 2015.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in New Brunswick, but I grew up in Brockville—a small town in Ontario a few hours west of Montreal along the St. Lawrence River. I consider Montreal to be my home, though! I have lived here since I moved here to start my Master’s degree in 2015.

What is the focus of your academic research?

I research the history of Montreal’s LGBTQ+ dance music and nightlife scenes between 1970 and 1995—or, from disco to Montreal’s “rave moment.” I am interested in the intersections between popular music’s potential for social organization, identity and group formation around music, music and affect, and activism. Through my case study, I am exploring how culture within identity groups is established and maintained, and how culture participates in the formation and maintenance of collective identity itself. I spend a lot of my time in the Archives Gaies du Québec.

What do you like doing for fun?

I love cooking and I love feeding people. I invite friends over as an excuse to make elaborate, themed meals. The best present I ever received was a knife skills class to use a chef’s knife properly. I can cut an onion in so many different ways now. So life changing!

More recently, I’ve learned how much I love gardening! I live in a walkup, so my options are pretty limited right now, but I have a little herb garden, some flowers, lettuce, a few veggies, and catnip. JP, our TA Grievance Officer, often grows me pepper seedlings. Hot peppers are basically the only veggies that don’t get stolen by squirrels. I wouldn’t even mind the squirrels eating my tomatoes if they would wait for them to ripen—they pick off the little green tomatoes, take one bite, and leave them in the pot. Greedy little buggers!

Cats! Are cats a thing one can do for fun? Are cats a hobby? Whatever. They’re a hobby to me. I love animals, but I especially love cats. I go on catspotting walks in the ruelles of my neighbourhood. I’m slowly learning the names of the cats on my street. I pet and play with my own cat. My cat sits with me while I do my gardening and he wakes me up in the middle of the night for snuggles.

I also, of course, listen to a lot of music. In the past, I used to perform and conduct a lot more (I auditioned for my bachelor’s degree in music on the violin), but other than for family around the holidays I haven’t performed on the violin in several years. This year, though, I joined an amateur choir. It has been nice to develop a healthier relationship around music performance and perfectionism.

Favorite place in Montreal?

I live in Hochelaga, so I’m really partial to Parc Maisonneuve—it’s the big park next to the Botanical Gardens. But I’m also down to go anywhere there is good coffee. My favourite café in my neighbourhood is Hélico (and their bakery Aube). When I’m at the Archives Gaies du Québec, I alternate between Pourquoi Pas and La graine brûlée.

Favorite thing about AGSEM?

Hands down, the people! The organizers that get involved with AGSEM constantly exceed my expectations of what it is possible for our union to achieve.

It is also clear that past activists with AGSEM thought deeply about the bylaws and structures of the organization—that is, ensuring that our union has strong democratic bones as well as the flexibility to adapt existing and establish new structures depending on our needs. I wouldn’t say that’s, like, a “favourite thing” (it’s pretty banal, I know), but it is something I have grown to appreciate over the years!

How long have you been working as a TA / an invigilator at McGill?

I worked as an invigilator in my Master’s degree from 2015-17, then I was an Office Assistant for Enrolment Services in the first year of my PhD. The latter position was unionized with the Association of McGill University Support Employees (AMUSE).

There were not enough TA positions for me to work as a TA during my Master’s, but I was a TA for the first four years of my PhD (2017–22). My favourite class to TA is called Critical Thinking about Music.

More recently, I have been a course lecturer in my department, first for Popular Music after 1945, then for Women in Music, and now this fall for a graduate course called Research Methods in Music. These positions are unionized with the McGill Course Lecturers and Instructors Union (MCLIU).

I continue to be a member of AGSEM because I’m union staff!

What is/has been your favorite part of working as a TA / invigilator?

As an invigilator, I liked the sense of camaraderie with my fellow workers. Proctoring exams can be pretty dull, so it was nice to work with people I like and could joke around with—quietly, of course!

As a TA, my favourite part of the job is working with students and developing their sense of appreciation for--and critical thinking about--different kinds of music. It brings me a lot of joy to see students expanding their horizons about what music research can be and gain a deeper understanding of music, which can enhance their own musical craft and enjoyment of music.

What has been the biggest challenge in your work as a TA / invigilator so far? As a TA, I often worked over my contract, especially in writing-based courses. It takes a lot of time to give good feedback that can be useful for students. I was also the only TA for these classes who was fluent enough in French to mark all the French students’ work, but this takes me longer than an English assignment because it is my second language.

There is unfortunately a culture of overworking TAs in my department, and the department keeps reducing the size of TA positions without reducing the workload. One time I met with an instructor to fill out the Workload Form. Between office hours, answering emails, mandatory readings, attending class, and grading, the hours did not add up properly and there was no way we were going to stay within our contracts. The other TA I was working with not only found no problem with this, but they undermined my effort to balance the workload. This is because they treated TA positions like a favour to the course instructor rather than a job. To complicate things, the instructor was a graduate student and my good friend, so I didn’t feel comfortable bringing this up to the department, and I knew them well enough that they would take it badly if I brought it up to them. So I stayed silent. This definitely put a strain on our friendship—I felt a lot of resentment for how much I was working for free (probably around 30-40 hours). Heck, my name was even on the Collective Agreement that was being violated!

When I had the opportunity of being the course lecturer for this course, I totally reworked it to prevent my TAs from going over their hours. I checked in with them over the semester and had them stop working once they maxed out. At that point, I asked my department for more hours for my TAs (which, I will add, is what all course supervisors should do), which they very begrudgingly granted. (I spoke about this in more detail in this interview published by my department.)

Overwork is one of the biggest complaints of TAs. We have to find ways to stand up for one another as Teaching Assistants and bring the fight to McGill for more teaching support. Of course, this would also be beneficial for both our course supervisors and our students.

Why did you first become interested in getting involved with your union? Any past experiences that made you realize the importance of labor organizing?

When I started my MA at McGill, I was quite involved with my Post-Graduate Students’ Association (PGSA), the Music Graduate Students’ Society (MGSS). A few close friends in the MGSS were involved in AGSEM at that time as delegates. Together we put forward a motion to modify our PGSA’s constitution to ensure that the annual elections would include two Music Research and one Performance Delegate positions.

One of the biggest issues for Music Research is that our department combines TA positions with funding packages to claw back part of our funding with the wages we earn as TAs, RAs, or lecturers. I could see that my friends affected by this were struggling both financially and emotionally—as this exacerbated issues with their academic supervisors (some of whom were also their course supervisors for their TA positions). I don’t remember my exact thought process, but at the time I was like, “yeah, this is important stuff. I can’t wait to be a TA so I can get involved in the union.”

But, I could get involved sooner than that! Because AGSEM also represents invigilators as our second unit, I was able to get involved with union organizing for invigilators in the first year of my PhD, when I became the Chief Delegate for invigilators.

AGSEM is my first labour union, but in my time at McGill, I have also been a member of AMUSE, AMURE (as an RA), and MCLIU. Of these four unions, AGSEM was the easiest for me to get involved with because it has a long-established culture of encouraging participation from all members.

How were you involved in AGSEM before occupying your current position?

This is my third time elected as AGSEM Mobilization Officer, and the second mandate in a row. I was first involved in AGSEM in 2017–18 as the Chief Delegate Invigilator and a member of the Mobilization Committee. I was elected to the AGSEM Executive Committee as the Mobilization Officer (for the first time!) for 2018–19, and as President for 2019–20.

I left the Executive Committee in November 2020, but I continued to serve on the Invigilator Bargaining Committee on an interim basis to fill in a vacancy—which eventually lasted the entire negotiation period because there was not a lot of interest among invigilators in holding that position. A big part of the issue of invigilator involvement in their union, for sure, was the timing of negotiations and how almost the entire invigilator bargaining unit was terminated from their positions by McGill because few in-person examinations were happening between March 2020 and August 2021. I was part of this committee until we signed the Collective Agreement at the end of March 2023.

In 2021–22, the year before I was elected again as Mobilization Officer, I was also a member of the Mutual Aid Fund Committee, and a delegate for Music Research. There’s always plenty of work to do in the union!

What were your tasks as a delegate / committee member before you entered your current position?

As a member of the Invigilator Bargaining Committee, I interpreted the mandate approved by the invigilator assembly in November 2020 and prepared a bargaining proposal. We then gave our proposal to McGill, received theirs, decided on the order of negotiations (from easiest to hardest demands and then monetary), and began negotiations. Our negotiations were held online roughly biweekly between March 2021 and October 2022, with the summers off. In addition to meeting with other members of our committee and our advisor from FNEEQ, Sébastien Boisvert, to strategize how to win our demands and write counter-proposals, I communicated updates about negotiations in AGSEM’s monthly newsletter and at Delegates’ Council meetings and General Assemblies. Negotiations can be a long process, but it is so important to involve regular members throughout because they are the ones who ultimately decide what will become the new Collective Agreement by vote in an assembly.

As a member of the Mutual Aid Fund Committee, I checked the email for applications and coordinated meetings with my fellow committee members. In these meetings, we made recommendations to the Delegates’ Council (DC) about anonymized applications. If the DC approved funding, I coordinated with the applicant and Matei, our Secretary-Treasurer to disburse the funds. At the end of our term, we presented a report about how the fund was used in that fiscal year.

As a delegate for Music Research, I checked over hiring lists in my department, attended monthly Delegates’ Council meetings, and organized a union-related event in my department to discuss our working conditions. I think it was a grade-a-thon with Polish doughnuts. 🤔

What does your role as Mobilization Officer entail?

Anything and everything that will get people jazzed up about their union and more likely to participate in events and assemblies!

A lot of my work is with the Delegates’ Council: getting delegates set up in their positions, making sure the meetings happen, running training, helping with departmental events, and generally being delegates’ point of contact in the Executive Committee. I organize events and assemblies, and help others organize events. I also do a lot of communications work: I write, translate, and send out most of the mass emails and monthly newsletters, and along with the Communications Officer I keep our website updated. Other than that, I bottom-line our mobilization materials (posters, flyers, booklets, buttons, and we’re working on t-shirts for the Fall) and coordinate with our affiliates to get these things printed. Basically, I attend a lot of meetings and try not to make the meetings I lead boring.

If you occupied your current position before, what has been the most important / rewarding / satisfying part of that work so far?

Have I ever occupied my current position before! Gosh, there are so many satisfying things about working in a union—that must be why I keep coming back.

One of the most satisfying things has been to see how far our collective has come over the past six years. When I entered the Executive Committee as Mobilization Officer for the first time in 2018, the union leadership was basically in shambles due to interpersonal conflict and the turnover of longtime activists left a lot of gaps in institutional knowledge. As a result, Delegates’ Council and General Assembly attendance was miserable and nobody wanted to get involved. And, surprise!, we were supposed to begin negotiations for a new TA Collective Agreement in a few short months.

So much of my work has been the slow, steady process of building our institution back to something that others wanted to be involved in. It’s hard to describe all the steps that have gotten us to the present moment—it’s been a lot of little things over the years with many different collaborators that have added up to something pretty great. And now newer organizers with the union are expanding my own horizons of what I thought would be possible. It’s really beautiful to see.

What will be your top priority as Mobilization Officer in the 2023-2024 academic year?

Setting our TA bargaining mobilization plan in motion. 🖐️🎤

Why do you think unionizing and having a strong labor union is important for Teaching Assistants, invigilators, and other groups of employees at McGill?

A strong student labour movement at our institution is so important because we work and study in a context that is primed for exploitation. Take graduate TAs. We are precarious contract workers; most of us are living at or below the poverty line, and we wear—by necessity—so many different hats as graduate students. The people who we work for as TAs are also the people who will sit on committees evaluating our academic work, they run the labs where we do our research, they write our letters of recommendation, and—if we can survive our degrees and find an elusive academic job—they become our colleagues.

Before McGill TAs unionized in 1993, some departments were paying minimum wage (at the time, $7.50 per hour)—they paid minimum wage when TA positions are qualified work!! Yeah, we’re developing pedagogical skills during our positions, but to have this job we are required to have earned at least one degree and we are in the process of earning another! It’s clear that if TAs had not formed a union to be able to negotiate contracts collectively, many departments at McGill would pay us the absolute minimum they could get away with. To be honest, departments still try to find ways to undermine our wage by clawing back internal funding packages or capping our earnings far below the poverty line.

Even with our collective agreement (CA) to regulate how our jobs are supposed to work, we find time and again that departments are violating this agreement. To be clear, the Collective Agreement is not the “union’s rules” made to be a thorn in departments’ sides; it is an agreement that both McGill and AGSEM agree to uphold. We can never take this document for granted! We have to stay vigilant to ensure our employer respects our rights for hiring, workload, training, and, well, everything else.

Having a unionized position not only normalizes many aspects of our jobs, but we have a process for complaints and grievances. By filing grievances, we can assert our rights and win recourse. Confronting an issue in the workplace as an individual shouldn’t be, but so often is, risky. And for us, the risk of retaliation is multiplied because TAs are by definition both students and workers, and most invigilators are students, too. Our union is there to support us so we don’t have to go it alone. There is power in a collective!

For invigilators, it is clear that McGill would only pay us minimum wage if we didn’t have a union—because that’s exactly what they did. When our wage was frozen during negotiations for a new Invigilator Collective Agreement and the provincial minimum wage surpassed our last negotiated raise, McGill defaulted to minimum wage. After negotiations, invigilators make almost $2 above minimum and we will reach above $18 next year. McGill did not satisfy our initial demand of the TA wage, but this is a win our union can build upon in the next round of negotiations.

Hopes about the upcoming TA negotiations? What should absolutely be improved about the current TA Collective Agreement?

It still circles back to why I got involved in AGSEM in the first place: we need to find a way to make it politically untenable for McGill to claw back TA wages (or any other wages from employment) from graduate funding packages. TA wages are wages, not funding. The work you do as a TA is labour—not a favour to your advisor, or pedagogical training, or some kind of service to your department to get the full value of your funding.

And: We need a Cost of Living Adjustment to our wage, which is quickly falling behind other U15 institutions! We need health insurance! We need trans healthcare! We need academic supervisors to respect our right to apply for and work TA positions regardless of our funding situations! We need to be paid for every hour that we work!!!

Are you involved or interested in other activist or political movements or organizations at the moment?

I’m interested in tenants’ rights and environmental justice. I also do my best to follow local labour conflicts, and support how I can. Recently, I’ve gotten into organizing for Support Our Science, which is a grassroots organization with the aim of increasing funding for all graduate students.

One of the things I love about my role is ensuring there is space for you to bring forward your own political interests!

Would you like to add anything?

I think that covers just about everything!

It surely does :) Thank you, Kiersten!


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