Tribune Explains: Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM)

What is AGSEM? 

The Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) is the union to which teaching assistants (TA) and invigilators for McGill university belong. Founded in 1974 as the McGill Teaching Assistant Association (MTAA) and certified in 1993 as a union to represent Teaching Assistants, AGSEM is the oldest Teaching Assistant Union in Quebec and currently the largest labour union at McGill University. Comprising several branches, AGSEM operations are run by an executive committee, a bargaining committee, a Delegates council, and several other peripheral committees. In 2010, McGill’s student invigilators were similarly accredited as a union after receiving a 94 per cent majority vote in favour of unionizing.

AGSEM represents TAs and exam invigilators through its Collective Agreements, which are signed by the organization’s representatives and McGill’s Board of Governors. The Agreements define employees’ labour rights, which include freedom from harassment and unfair dismissal, as well as limits to hours worked. The most recent Collective Agreement for TAs expired in 2018, and a new one is expected to be voted on later this month. 

AGSEM and COVID-19

AGSEM recently criticized and annotated a draft of McGill’s “Directives for Teaching Staff Regarding In-Person Activities: Fall 2020” for failing to adequately address the rights of teaching staff. The union called for a more concrete plan to communicate the directives with its employees and demanded that TAs not be forced to assist classes in-person and through Zoom simultaneously. 

In April 2020, the McGill administration announced its decision to hire non-union graders for some summer 2020 online courses. This move sparked outrage among McGill’s graduate TAs and invigilators who saw the decision as explicitly anti-union, enacted solely to cut-back on costs. In addition to anger over McGill’s choice to hire graders outside of AGSEM, the union felt that the decision to raise online course capacity levels over the summer placed an additional burden on already overworked and underpaid TAs. 

As McGill adjusts to learning online with some in-person options, AGSEM has expressed that McGill’s employed graduate students deserve to be better compensated for working in virus-prone conditions. For those TAs and invigilators expected to assist with in-person learning opportunities, there is now an increased risk associated with their position.  

Unionization Drive for Teaching Support 

While graduate TAs have been protected by a collective agreement signed in 1993, McGill has added many non-unionized teaching support positions in recent years. Teaching support positions include markers, graders, tutors, note-takers, demonstrators, facilitators, mentors, course assistants, student assistants, academic casuals, and placement exam administrators. AGSEM’s bargaining unit has been actively engaged in an effort to unionize teaching support positions so that workers in these positions can profit from union benefits like negotiated fair wages, paid breaks, job security, access to office space and teaching resources, access to grievance procedures, and protections against workplace harassment and discrimination.

On Apr. 30, AGSEM petitioned to unionize teaching support staff. AGSEM and the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) are currently initiating legal challenges against McGill to ensure that the university is following the proper unionization process.

The upcoming TA assembly

AGSEM is holding a bargaining ratification vote on the upcoming TA general assembly on Sept. 30. Occuring after two years of collective negotiations, graduate TAs will have a chance to discuss and ratify their new tentative contract. Starting on Sept. 22,  AGSEM will be hosting a series of online presentations outlining the tentative agreement in preparation for the assembly.

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