Unions pledge to fight cuts

April 5, 1996

As Canada's province of Quebec announced large cuts to higher education, lower-grade academics were engaged in their own struggle to safeguard their pay and conditions.

Some 2,500 academics were aleady involved in action in two separate disputes in Montreal, on the eve of the announcement.

After 22 months of negotiation, McGill University's graduate teaching assistants held a one-day strike while sessional lecturers at the Universite de Montreal, who have been without a contract since last June, continued a week-long go-slow.

It was the same week that saw new Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard bringing together a number of business and labour leaders to examine ways to improve the province's beleaguered economy. Union leaders from the two universities, however, were more pre-occupied with how to hang on to their positions and wages.

Quebec last week announced its spending estimates for the next year and is poised to cut university and science spending by Can$97.7 million (Pounds 47 million) - about 7 per cent - college education by Can$39.8 million and financial aid by Can$5.3 million.

At McGill, 700 teaching assistants are fighting a proposal to slash salaries. The university, struggling with a Can$66 million deficit and a possible Can$12 million share of the provincial cut next year, wants to halve the pay of the masters and doctorate student lecturers and laboratory demonstrators. According to the union, it also puts their current tuition waivers, that allow most graduate teaching asistants to pay partial or no tuition, in jeopardy, even though McGill labour negotiations spokesman, Robert Savoie, said waivers were not touched and will remain at the discretion of each department.

In contrast, the 2,100 Montreal sessional lecturers want to keep their old agreement, which allows their members to teach up to six classes. The francophone university, which says it needs to attract more field professionals to their faculty pool, want the lecturers, many of whom make their living solely from teaching, to conduct no more than two courses per semester.

Cheering at every car-horn honking its support, some 50 members of the Association of Graduate Students employed at McGill (AGSEM) spent the day protesting in front of the 175-year-old university. "I'll be 90 before I can afford a car like that," yelled one demonstrator after one driver, refusing to be redirected to a side entrance, pushed through the demonstrators.

Elaine MacDonald, one member of the AGSEM bargaining committee, said McGill's Can$10 and Can$15 an hour offer for the two categories of teaching assistants is a "kick in the teeth" after close to two years of sporadic talks. Currently, the top salary for a teaching assistant is Can$21 an hour.

"If they go through with this offer, 90 per cent of our members will receive a cut of 50 per cent to what they are now making," said the 30-year-old civil engineering doctorate student.

AGSEM coordinator Hugh Potter, an international student from Hampshire, illustrates the insecurity involved: some of his colleagues from abroad have been lured to the university with promises of teaching assistant positions, only to have them taken away some time after they arrive. International students are not legally allowed to work off-campus. Some jobs are lost through disputes with a professor, others, he says, are terminated and added to the workload of a technician.

Being part of a trade union may help their cause. Teaching assistants across Canada who are unionised - at 11 universities in all - are better paid than their non-unionised counterparts. And at Carleton University in Ottawa they earn more than the non-unionised part-time professors.

At Universite de Montreal, Chantale Gamache, spokeswoman for the Union of University of Montreal Sessional Lecturers says the university's bid to cut her colleagues' work loads is a backward step.

Ms Gamache says that many teachers earn about Can$4,650 per course, which is their only income. But Claire McNicoll, Montreal's vice rector for public affairs, says the courses are her priority. "We're not here to ensure the sessional workers make a living from teaching."

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