by Daniel McCabe
The members of the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM), the University's teaching assistants union, will be voting today on whether or not to call a strike.
After 21 months of negotiations with the University, AGSEM leaders say they're frustrated by the fact that the two sides haven't addressed salary issues yet. University representatives counter that the items up for discussion are complex and difficult to resolve quickly. McGill's negotiators insist that they're pursuing a first collective agreement with the union in good faith.
Elaine MacDonald, a member of the AGSEM negotiating team, says the University negotiators did little to advance discussions until AGSEM asked that last year a government conciliator be appointed. "After that, things did improve. We worked through the non-monetary issues like disciplinary and grievance policies at a fairly good pace. But whenever we want to talk about salaries or workloads, we get stonewalled."
Jacques Sztuke, associate director of staff relations in the Department of Human Resources, denies the charge. "Both sides agreed to a timetable outlining when certain issues would be discussed. We've been following that schedule and we've reached agreements in a number of areas."
Sztuke says that discussions on salaries and salary-related matters are definitely on the schedule. "At our last meeting, we reiterated that--we're talking about the selection process for TAs right now, then we'll talk about classifications and then salaries. Everyone seemed to agree."
MacDonald admits the two sides agreed to a timetable suggested by the conciliator. "But the schedule was flexible--it wasn't meant to prevent us from discussing issues. In fact, the conciliator herself has suggested ways that we could talk about salary. Everything is tied together--it's hard to say if we can reach an agreement when we don't know what the University has in mind about salaries. We've asked for at least preliminary proposals and they refuse."
According to Hugh Potter, AGSEM's coordinator, the two sides are at loggerheads on other important issues. Potter says AGSEM wants all TA positions to be reserved for its members, while the University "wants to contract out TA work to technicians and undergraduates."
Potter says technicians with particular areas of expertise might be well-suited for specialized areas, but "graduate students are generally the most qualified to be teaching assistants.
"Particularly in engineering, where graduate students used to work in the first-year labs, we're seeing technicians get those positions instead."
AGSEM also wants the University to give experienced TAs preferential treatment. "When someone gets a TAship, they should have some security," insists MacDonald. "The University promises potential graduate students TAships to get them to come to McGill. Then once they're here, they lose the TAships after a year and they're stuck without funding."
English professor Maggie Kilgour, a member of the McGill committee advising the University's negotiators, says AGSEM's position is problematic.
"I look at my department where we guarantee TAships to our PhD students and then try to spread around the rest to as many master's students as we can, not because the master's students need the money, although many do, but because they really want the teaching experience." If AGSEM gets its way, "fewer students will have access to TAships."
MacDonald says this is true, "but a lot of students might not need TAships. They might have research assistantships or scholarships."
According to Sztuke, "Anything resembling guaranteed employment is a problem. We're not willing to live with seniority as a criteria or to buy into a mathematical formula."
Also concerned about contract conditions is Vice-Principal (Academic) Tak-Hang Chan, "We don't want to structure this in a way that reduces our ability to meet the University's teaching obligations to our undergraduates."
Whatever the outcome of talks, Chan says that TAships can no longer be considered part of a flexible mix (along with research assistantships, bursaries and scholarships) used to support graduate students. "The relationship with TAs will now be an employer/employee relationship." Chan adds that, thanks to the McGill 21st Century Fund, "we have many more graduate fellowships than we did five years ago."
AGSEM also takes the University to task for not providing assistance in determining how many TAs there are at McGill. "Departmental secretaries have been told not to talk to us when we call them to find out how many TAs there are in their departments," says MacDonald.
"We feel that Human Resources has the ability to tell us how many TAs there are, but their response is always, 'Give us the name of someone you think might be a TA and we'll investigate,'" adds Potter. "Basically, they're stalling."
"We met with them as recently as January 28 about who is and who isn't a TA and I think we were open in our discussions," counters Sztuke. "It's the next item to be addressed in our negotiations."
Sztuke says it might seem as if the talks are taking far too long, but the items up for discussion are complicated and can't be rushed.
"The workloads vary a lot from department to department. There are many discrepancies among faculties in how they deal with their TAs. We have to make sense of all that. The tone at the bargaining table has always been positive and we've come a long way."
Sztuke emphasizes that the two sides have come to terms in several important areas--performance evaluation, employment equity, grievance/arbitration procedures.
If AGSEM members approve a strike action, Potter says the strike itself could take several forms--a one-day strike, a series of one-day strikes or TAs refusing to grade course assignments.
MacDonald hopes AGSEM members vote "yes" to a strike. "We need the membership behind us in these talks. A strike mandate isn't meant to be an attack on undergraduates or on the University, but it would send a message to McGill's negotiating team."
Vice-Principal Chan has his own thoughts on the subject. "I think it's important that TAs ask themselves if a strike would really be in the best interests of their students, themselves or the University as a whole. I hope they don't vote on this lightly."