As a student at McGill University, the on-going McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association’s (MUNACA) strike has certainly been enlightening. At the beginning of September, when I first began speaking to some of the strikers, their tone was upbeat. They didn’t think the strike would last more than two weeks, and were optimistic about negotiations with the university. Now, three months down the road, one cannot help but feel the air of depression blanketing the still-marching strikers. These strikers are desperately trying to reach a settlement because, unlike the administrators and their six-figure salaries, they are trying to feed their families and pay rent on a strike salary. The Secretary for the East Asian Studies department, is working at McDonalds and selling her home in a desperate attempt to make ends meet.
But McGill’s bad press is about to get worse. For the past two weeks Teaching Assistants (TAs) and Course Lecturers have begun to warn their students of a strike in the very near future. Thus far the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) has only voted to use pressure tactics to support their bargaining position with the administration. “They’ve forgotten that McGill’s TAs have never gotten a new contract without striking first,” said one TA. But all of the TAs interviewed agreed that, whether or not they wish to go on strike (and many are extremely against it), their bargaining position would be strongest if they did so alongside MUNACA. In other words, the administration would be squeezed by both sides, prompting many to believe such pressure would produce faster resolutions.
According to AGSEM’s Bargaining Committee, “TAs are requesting a 3% salary increase, an increase in TA hours, size limitations for discussion based conferences and laboratory sessions, and paid and certified training for first-time TAs.” The latter is of special importance to students because more TAs with specialized training will increase competence and allow for a more stable grading criterion. These are almost identical to the demands made in spring of 2008 during the last TAs strike, a strike that continues to invoke acrimonious memories for both faculty and students who were present.
It’s easy to listen to an administration that persists in propagating the fiction that the previous TA contract (signed after the 2008 TA strike) was both fair and generous. While on the surface it appears to be both, closer examination reveals that higher pay the TAs negotiated was given at the cost of cutting TA hours. This means TAs are only paid for a specific number of hours they are expected to work, not the full hours they need to work in order to keep up with their workloads. Like MUNACA, their request for a 3% increase is a response to economic inflation and conditions—not “greed.”
What exactly does a TA strike entail? For those graduating this year it could mean a delay in grades—especially problematic for those with early graduate school deadlines. For some professors it means remarking all previous work, along with having to shoulder the entire brunt of marking. It means an end to conferences. For those in science it means an end to any sort of assistance during labs, and in addition to the already lacking laboratory technicians, there would be a lack of supervision. And these are only surface problems.
Each TA that I have spoken to over the past few weeks has shared a similar level of concern for their students. While none of them are happy about the likelihood of a strike, it is obvious that as each day goes by there is less and less belief that their pressure tactics are in any way effective. Their anxiety of a potential strike is shared by both students and professors. Many MUNACA strikers feel the same way as the refrain from the Roddick gates is the simple wish to go back to work. But the continued feelings of victimization and paranoia that both groups have regarding the administration is not going away, and is felt by students and faculty alike. The Arts Undergraduate Society of McGill (AUS) and the Student Society of McGill University (SSMU) have both heard motions to invoke a student strike. Other motions have included a wish to stop the administration from using listserves as a tool for propaganda. Even international guests of honour to McGill have refused to cross the picket line, citing the unprofessional attitude and lack of respect the university’s administration has shown towards their striking employees as his reason to cancel his public speaking engagement. If the bad press and bad blood from a potential TA strike persist, the situation will worsen, and ultimately it will be the students—those people with the least ability to effect administrative change—who suffer, not the administration. Unfortunately when we pay McGill tuition, we support the administration’s efforts. Striking as a student body is an empty gesture, and while the value judgement behind the action is strong, it is also a fruitless one. But at least the student body, MUNACA, and AGSEM are trying, which is more than can be presently said about the administration’s position at the negotiation table.
– C.J. Fogel