The Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) held its Teaching Assistant (TA) General Assembly online on Sept. 30 to vote on the new tentative TA Collective Agreement (CA). After two years of negotiations, AGSEM’s Bargaining Committee presented the tentative contract to the AGSEM Unit 1(TA) membership. The meeting concluded with a secret ballot vote, with 89.91 per cent of members voting in favour of ratification.
TA Bargaining Chair Jessica Rose and elected bargaining committee members Jean-Philip Mathieu and Farid Attar have been in negotiations with McGill University since the previous TA CA expired in June 2018. During the presentation of the tentative contract, the bargaining committee briefed members on various sections of the agreement, including those concerning discrimination, harassment and sexual violence, retroactive pay, union rights, and employment procedures.
“[Article 6, on Discrimination, Harassment and Sexual Violence] was a negotiation that took a very long time,” Rose said. “Our mandate was to update this section to include the policy on sexual violence, which did not exist when we were […] negotiating […] the [previous] collective agreement. We wanted to expand the language that came from [McGill’s] sexual violence policy to be more specific to TA working conditions and to add additional protection when it comes to relationships between teaching staff and students, which applies to TAs in multiple ways.”
The two years of bargaining between the union’s committee and the McGill administration escalated to conciliation with a provincial mediator after McGill stalled on equity-related issues and retroactive pay for TAs. Over summer 2020, members of AGSEM’s Executive and Bargaining Committees prepared for the assembly, creating a presentation to help communicate the details of the bargaining process to the union members.
“This [was] a mountainous task, we knew this from the beginning,” Attar said.
With 89.91 per cent of the union’s membership voting in favour, the ratified agreement will now be brought by McGill’s Bargaining Committee to the McGill Board of Governors. Once both parties sign the contract, AGSEM will follow up with current and former union members to inform them of which changes they could be impacted by. In an email to The McGill Tribune, AGSEM President Kiersten van Vliet highlighted that there remains work to be done to improve the working conditions of TAs, and that this round of negotiations has helped set priorities for future agreements.
“A [CA], while such an important document, is never a guarantee without strong enforcement outside of negotiations and there are so many things the union needs to address that cannot necessarily be codified in that document—things related to changing the culture around this power differential between TAs and their course supervisors,” van Vliet said.
The Bargaining Committee will be preparing a report of recommendations for the next round of negotiations, which will begin after the new agreement expires on July 31, 2023. The committee’s report will also help maintain institutional memory of the most recent bargaining process.
Rose cited higher engagement amongst TAs than ever before, attributing the jump in involvement to the creativity of the tactics that the members of AGSEM employed. In addition, she believes that issues such as the lack of adequate safety precautions and increasing focus on equity have helped to mobilize the student body to participate in the bargaining process.
“There were a number of barriers […] in this round of bargaining, [and] I expected COVID-19 to be the biggest barrier, but it has not turned out that way,” Rose wrote. “I believe that members voted overwhelmingly to ratify this agreement to affirm what we did achieve, and not to give up on what we have not yet achieved. As far as TAs are concerned, preparation for the next round of bargaining begins today.”