One-day strike by TAs

by Eric Smith

The Association of Graduate Students Employed by McGill (AGSEM) held a one-day strike Tuesday after the University made its first salary proposal in negotiations with the union.

AGSEM members had granted the union a one-day strike mandate in a vote last month, following nearly two years of negotiations between AGSEM and the University. The union asked for the mandate because of frustrations with the pace of negotiations which had yet to address salary questions.

Since approval of the strike mandate, the University has tabled a global offer including a salary proposal of $10 per hour for teaching assistants under one classification and $15 per hour for TAs in a second category.

The current pay scale for TAs at McGill ranges from approximately $8 an hour up to $18.13 an hour in the Faculty of Arts. The average hourly wage is between $15 and $16 an hour. (The lack of access to scientific research grants, available to graduate students in Science and Engineering, accounts for the higher Arts TA wage rates.)

AGSEM's salary proposal is $28.75 an hour for TAs classified as TA1 and $42.52 an hour for those classified as TA2.

Further complicating the differences between the two sides are different definitions of the two TA classifications, disagreements on the number of hours used to come up with the hourly rate, and the issue of inclusion of non-salary remuneration, such as bursaries, tuition fee waivers and assistantships, in the collective agreement.

On the question of classification, AGSEM proposes a model whereby only those TAs responsible for coordinating the work of other TAs would be classified as TA2. AGSEM estimates that approximately 10 graduate students currently fall into this category. Under the classification system proposed by McGill, markers, graders and lab demonstrators fall into the TA1 category. TAs who lead course seminars would fall in the TA2 category. Under this system, most Arts TAs would probably be classified as TA2.

Many TAs at McGill receive other compensation in addition to their salaries in the form of bursaries, in some cases a tuition waiver and/or a signing bonus, or assistantship pay.

In addition to the hourly wage, AGSEM's current proposal demands that the bursary component--in the form of both a tuition rebate and a signing bonus--be included in the collective agreement. The University's current proposal would leave the bursary component out of the agreement and to the discretion of McGill's departments and faculties.

Assuming the loss of the bursary component, AGSEM estimates that the University's proposal represents a 50 to 75 per cent cut in total compensation to most McGill graduate students who take on TAships.

According to AGSEM president Hugh Potter, "We were astonished by the proposal of $10 an hour." Adds Potter, "[McGill's offer] has annoyed a lot of TAs. Even those who are less sympathetic to the union are extremely angry at such a cynical proposal."

According to incoming executive director of human resources Robert Savoie, the initial proposal made by McGill takes into account the rates paid TAs at other Quebec universities. Rates at the Université de Montréal range from just over $11 to just over $16 an hour. To AGSEM's charge that TA responsibilities are less at U de M because of the school's greater dependence on chargés de cours (sessional lecturers), Savoie responds, "We made sure our comparisons were made correctly."

Both Savoie and Vice-Principal (Academic) Bill Chan stress that McGill's initial proposal's non-inclusion of the bursary component should not be interpreted as the loss of that form of graduate support. Says Chan, "AGSEM has confused support for graduate students with payment for TAs. McGill will continue to support graduate students through waivers, loans, other forms of bursaries and through assistantships."

According to Savoie, the non-wage compensation should not be part of the wage negotiations because "support components are the responsibility of the faculties. Bursaries and waivers should be dealt with as academic policy."

Polical Science professor Rex Brynen, a former member of the University's negotiating committee, speaking privately, says he's sympathetic to the shock expressed by some graduate students at McGill's first offer. But TAs should understand that "this is the way labour negotiations work. AGSEM started extremely high--under their proposal, TAs would be earning more per hour than many tenured faculty members. McGill started low and in doing so has given the union a great issue to mobilize members." In the end, he predicts, "the two sides will meet in the middle, somewhere near the current average hourly wage for TAs.

"The one thing that is certain," adds Brynen, "is that McGill is not going to increase the salary mass at the end of negotiations. In fact, we know the salary mass will be smaller at the end. The union believes there is extra money in the budget, but everyone's budget is shrinking."

Brynen adds that the union's proposal to increase the Arts TA salary and then apply it to all TAs at the University does not take into account "the implicit bursary" in the higher Arts wages, a bursary Brynen says the faculty provides to make up for the lack of availability of external sources of funding for Arts research.

Potter is not convinced of the University's inability to pay more for its graduate students. "It's a political choice on the University's part," he insists. "The administration can decide how much it is willing to spend on TAs."

Potter gives the example of special funds set aside in McGill's budget this year, including $1 million for merit increases for faculty and administrative and support staff and another $1 million earmarked for improving academic salaries. "McGill is not a poor university," he says.

Brynen argues that the union's identification of these monies and of McGill's current operating surplus does not take into account the size of the University's current debt and its need to pay down that debt to have access to future government funding.

But he adds that McGill needs to make clear that "it is not intending to use wage negotiations to reduce graduate support."

Negotiations are continuing and Potter says AGSEM has planned a general assembly on April 2 to discuss the current proposal or any new proposal McGill tables before the meeting.

"We will be asking for some form of mandate. Hopefully McGill will come up with a more realistic proposal before then." Potter says he does not yet know whether the union will be asking for a broader strike mandate.