FC Montreal

Opinion: My students don't want to be on strike; they want respect


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The work teaching assistants do is essential to McGill. It deserves to be given more recognition and value.

McGill teaching assistants on the picket line amid the excitement of Monday's solar eclipse. TAs are crucial to providing undergraduates with the quality education they deserve, writes McGill sociology professor Barry Eidlin. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

My students are on strike.

They are part of the 1,600 members of the Association of Graduate Student Employees at McGill (AGSEM) who hit the picket lines on March 25 in an effort to get McGill to negotiate a fair agreement. Bargaining started last September, but has proceeded slowly, with union representatives noting “very little openness” from the university in bargaining.

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Almost all McGill graduate students work as teaching assistants at some point to fund their studies and make ends meet. In this capacity, they do work that is essential to the university. They teach, grade, run labs and tutorials, hold office hours, communicate with students, and perform countless other tasks crucial to providing McGill undergraduates with the quality education they deserve. Indeed, many undergraduates develop stronger relationships with their TAs than with their professors.

Now McGill TAs are asking that this work be given more recognition and value. They are asking for pay raises that keep up with the cost of living, and that match pay rates at peer institutions like University of Toronto, Queen’s and University of Ottawa. According to an internal report prepared for the AGSEM bargaining committee, McGill ranks 11th out of 15 major Canadian research universities for TA wages — with hourly rates 16 per cent below the average, and 47 per cent below top-wage schools like Toronto and McMaster.

They are also asking for protections from overwork, and for better health care for all TAs.

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When the strike started, McGill locked TAs out of their work email accounts, putting them at risk of missing important communications regarding academic journal articles, funding applications and conference presentations, all of which are essential to graduate students’ success. An all-campus email stated access to work email accounts “will only be restored once the strike is over.”

McGill also prohibited graduate students from doing any other paid work on campus while on strike, such as research assistantships. This deprives graduate students of needed income and valuable research experience. I have also observed police being summoned to the picket lines on a regular basis, despite TAs’ Charter-protected right to strike.

Meanwhile, the administration has taken a hard line with professors, indicating we must either do the teaching and grading normally done by our TAs or risk losing our salary.

At a practical level, foisting hundreds of additional hours of teaching and grading onto professors’ existing teaching, research and service obligations is unfeasible, and can only come at the cost of undermining the integrity of assessments and grades, devaluing the hard work our undergraduates have put in this semester. By one professor’s own estimate, complying with the university’s demand would require her to work more than 56 hours a week for four weeks straight in addition to her regular professorial duties.

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More deeply, the administration’s actions risk degrading the quality of undergraduate and graduate education at McGill, and poisoning the campus climate. Forcing professors to do our TAs’ work may get undergraduates’ grades submitted for this semester. But by leaving contract issues unresolved, it will leave graduate students struggling to make ends meet while meeting their academic and professional obligations. This undermines their ability to provide a quality educational experience to our undergraduates. TAs’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.

It also amounts to enlisting professors on the side of management against our own graduate students. This can only undermine the relationships of trust that are at the heart of the adviser-advisee relationship in academic training. It will be difficult to cultivate a vibrant campus climate when graduate students feel unsupported and betrayed by their own professors.

My students do not want to be on strike. They would rather be doing the teaching and research that brought them to McGill in the first place, and that makes McGill the leading university it is today.

If the administration is serious about safeguarding the quality of undergraduate and graduate education at McGill, then a useful way to show that would be to sit down and negotiate an agreement that is fair to our teaching assistants and more in line with other major Canadian universities.

Barry Eidlin is an associate professor of sociology at McGill University, and an expert on labour movements and policy. 

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