Graduate student workers must not be taken for granted

The COVID-19 pandemic has toppled the higher-education house of cards, scattering vulnerable academic support staff into uncertain workplace predicaments. McGill forced these employees into dire straits well before the pandemic: Overburdened by faculties and underappreciated by students, the university treats teaching assistants (TAs) and other academic support staff like raw resources rather than salaried workers. With the added pressures of the pandemic, issues like unfair compensation, payment delivery delays, and position reductions are teetering on the verge of an academic support crisis. A cultural transformation is long overdue: The McGill community, from the administrators who negotiate labour contracts to students across faculties, must start treating academic support staff with the respect and compassion that they deserve. 

Despite years of advocacy by their labour union, the Association of Graduate Students Employed by McGill (AGSEM), the administration has still sought to undermine academic support staff’s union rights. Nevertheless, AGSEM voted on Sept. 30 to ratify their collective bargaining agreement with McGill. The new agreement—under which TAs and invigilators secured a pay raise from $29.33 to $33.03 an hour—represents some progress. But it is not enough. 

Many issues remain unaddressed, including McGill’s continued failure to pay some graduate employees for their work. Recently, McGill switched its human resource management software from Minerva to Workday, a more efficient program. However, some TAs still have not been compensated—even though McGill is obligated to pay them within 30 days of hiring them. For McGill to continue to benefit from their labour without compensating them is exploitation. 

McGill seems to be bent on implementing anti-union policies. Over the summer, some faculties replaced TA’s with “graders,” who are not unionized, and, in some cases, paid only half as much. These decisions, which McGill has justified as “cost-cutting measures,” are problematic because many graduate students depend on TA positions to make a living and fund their education. 

In addition to their normal duties, the unique challenges posed by online education have forced TAs to work overtime and master new software and pedagogical practices, all while adapting to their own pandemic-impacted courses structures. Moreover, McGill’s administration advised faculties to replace major projects and exams with a multitude of smaller assignments, meaning that TAs have more work to grade. At the very least, TAs should be compensated for any extra hours worked due to the circumstances of the pandemic. Yet, as it stands, graduate employees are typically only compensated for 180 hours of the work they complete each semester. The result is a flat rate that often places some TAs below the poverty line in Montreal. Further, because TAs are technically McGill employees, they are ineligible for most government unemployment aid programs. 

This is not just a McGill issue: It is an indictment on academia itself. Higher education has long been overshadowed by a forbidding, hierarchical culture that diminishes the humanity of those trapped inside of it. Yet, this cold tradition seems to be accentuated at McGill, where the administration gratuitously works against labour unions fighting to secure the bare minimum for their constituents. Students are not absolved of responsibility either: TA’s are often unfairly criticized by students for course structure problems and harsh grading policies. Undergraduates tend to forget that their TAs are also students navigating the academic landscape, on top of grading coursework and providing assistance outside of the classroom. 

Students can reduce the burden on academic support workers by turning to services like the McGill Writing Center or Computer Science Student Help Desk before reaching out to TA’s. Above all, however, TAs must be respected for their efforts in keeping the semester afloat and assisting students. Still, these remedies alone are not a solution. COVID-19 exposed the overgrowth of injustice that teaching support staff have toiled through for decades, and the McGill community must rally behind AGSEM’s demands to clear the path towards a more equitable institution.

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