November 7, 1996

TAs ask for arbitration

by Daniel McCabe

The negotiations between AGSEM, the McGill teaching assistants union, and the University have reached an impasse. AGSEM leaders have made a formal request to the Quebec Ministry of Labour for first contract arbitration.

Recent talks between AGSEM and McGill have gone on with the assistance of a Quebec government-appointed conciliator. Most non-monetary issues have been settled, but AGSEM spokesperson Regina Harrison is doubtful that further progress is possible without the involvement of an arbitrator.

"In our last several negotiation sessions, it became increasingly apparent that our positions were still far apart," says Harrison. "McGill's last proposal would raise the salaries of some of the worst- paid teaching assistants, but it would also result in a decrease in salary for many of our members--TAs in biology or in the Faculty of Arts, for instance. That's completely unacceptable to us. Arts TAs live on their salaries."

Human Resources executive director Robert Savoie says McGill is more than willing to continue negotiations with the union while the government ponders AGSEM's request. "We're still willing to talk. I can't judge why they're throwing up their hands."

In a recent press release, however, Savoie underlines the University's position that it won't be budged from certain principles.

"Despite numerous exploratory meetings with the conciliator, the union did not move away from a position which would place McGill's compensation for teaching assistants significantly higher than what is offered in other Quebec universities. As it was important in these times of constraint to exercise fiscal responsibility, the University could not agree to the union's monetary demands."

Under McGill's offer, the University's TAs would make roughly the same amount of money as TAs in other Montreal universities. While TA salary rates would become lower in some faculties and departments, TAs who are currently employed in those units wouldn't see their pay cheques go down. The University would protect the salary commitments that are already in place.

In March, the University sent AGSEM a proposal that would pay TAs who help teach courses about $15 an hour, while TAs who don't tutor but who grade essays and exams would make about $10 an hour. "That wasn't intended to be our final proposal," says Savoie, "but AGSEM never gave us a counter offer."

AGSEM argues that unionized TAs in other provinces earn about $27 an hour, but McGill counters that funding arrangements for universities in other parts of the country are very different from those in Quebec.

Harrison says another issue that AGSEM wants resolved relates to job security. "Nothing prevents departments from hiring upper-level undergraduates or TAs from other universities to take over the work that McGill TAs are doing now."

Negotiators for the University argue that giving students formal job security is tricky since they work for limited periods of time--until they graduate. "The priority pool idea has been our way of tackling that issue," says Savoie. Under such a system, current TAs would have first shot at future TAships.

Now that the arbitration request has been made by AGSEM, the Ministry of Labour will solicit the views of the government-appointed conciliator as to whether arbitration is necessary.

"I think we were nearing a point where [the conciliator] would have recommended arbitration anyway," contends Harrison.

If the government opts for arbitration, it will assign an arbitrator to head a three-person tribunal to oversee the talks. The union and McGill will each se-lect an individual to serve as an assessor on the tribunal. The tribunal will first attempt to medi-ate between the two sides. If that doesn't work, the arbitrator can then ask each side to make its case for what it wants in the first contract. After considering AGSEM's and McGill's positions, the arbitrator can impose a binding agreement on both sides.

Anyone hopeful that an arbitrator's involvement would speed up the pace of negotiations is likely to be disappointed, says Savoie. "The arbitration process can last up to a year."

Savoie says the arbitrator can "consider everything and anything that either side brings up." Adds Harrison, "An arbitrator could come up with a position that neither AGSEM nor McGill would like all that much and both sides would be stuck with it."

Harrison doubts, though, that an arbitrator would impose a contract that would result in any TAs making less money than they currently do.

"We don't believe that an arbitrator would rule in favour of lower salaries for any of our TAs, especially when the pay scales in some departments have been established for the last 10 years."

Harrison says AGSEM's appeal for arbitration doesn't preclude a possible strike by the union. "There might be work disruptions. We're not ruling out a strike." Savoie says that under arbitration, the union would retain its right to strike "until the arbitrator decides to impose an agreement."