Concordia TAs overworked and underpaid

TAs struggle to make ends meet with wages that do not cover living expenses and are lower than some other Canadian universities.

“We deserve a living wage,” says Max Jones, communications officer for Teaching and Research Assistants at Concordia (TRAC). Jones, a master’s student in English literature, has been a TA himself for the past year.

TAs are paid $29 an hour at Concordia which is significantly lower than some other Canadian universities, such as the University of Toronto where they are paid $49, or McGill University where the rate is $33 an hour. 

Most TAs have contracts that cover an average of five to fifteen hours a week. University policy states that “the maximum TA working hours for TAs is 20 hours per week in order not to interfere with their studies.”

According to Jones, “these hours do not reflect the needs. At times English TAs need to read a whole book for a class and they can easily go overtime.” The limited hours coupled with the relatively lower pay leaves many TAs financially struggling.

“There are cases where a grad student is a TRAC executive, has a TA contract, and also works for other organizations to make ends meet,” adds Jones.  

Agustín Rugiero is a third-year PhD student in film studies. Currently, he has two RAships and one TAship while doing some other small jobs to support himself. “You need at least three TAships to break even, $29 is not a living wage anymore,” Rugiero said.

As a PhD student he received an initial funding that allowed him to pay Quebec tuition rates. “This is not the case with all students,” acknowledged Rugiero. The tuition for a full PhD program can amount to $59,000 for an Arts and Science program in the case of international students. Even for Rugiero, who is not paying such rates, he still finds himself eating through his funds instead of relying on the money he makes through his TA or RAship. “$4 more per hour for McGill students might not look like much, but it can amount to $400 more per TAship which makes a lot of difference,” he added.

PhD students are expected to carry out quality research in their fields which is in itself a full-time job, but as Rugiero points out, “if this is our job, why are we not being sustained by it?” Many PhD students are deprived of more reading and research time because they need to complement their TAships with more work. For Rugiero this fact has made it more difficult to find time to network with other researchers in his field who have the same interests.

All this can gravely affect the quality of research that is being done at Concordia.  “I enjoy my studies at Concordia; however, the creeping economic anxieties are also part of this experience,” admits Rugiero.

Vannina Maestracci, Concordia’s University Spokesperson, explained to The Concordian that the teaching assistants’ wages “are negotiated between the University and the Union.” These wages are based on a “Collective Agreement [that] is due to expire in June 2023 and that is when new wages will be negotiated.” 

However, there is no guarantee that this new negotiation will result in higher wages for the TAs and RAs at Concordia. When asked about the possibility of a wage increase, Maestracci responded that they “can’t know what will happen in negotiations that are over a year and a half away.” 

Currently, the low pay is not the only issue plaguing the TAs at Concordia. TAs are required to provide their sex assigned at birth when they are hired, “which forces trans TAs to out themselves,” Jones explains. The union has not been able to change this procedure after talks with Concordia’s Human Resources. 

When The Concordian reached out to the University to inquire about the reasons behind such a requirement, it was explained that the University is “legally required to gather this [information] because TRAC employees (like all employees) are entitled to pension plan entitlements, which are based on age and gender at birth.” 

The University official further explained that while this information is required, it is “collected separately from the other work-related information for an additional layer of confidentiality. As always, this, and all personal information, is treated with great respect and confidentiality.” While this stands as a legal requirement, Jones explained that many trans employees continue to be deeply disturbed by it.  

Addressing various TA and RA grievances has been a hard task to achieve so far for the union. TRAC is a relatively new union; it was also dissolved in 2015 and put under the trusteeship of its parent union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), due to an investigation that saw the removal of TRAC executives. The executive committee was found to be fully dysfunctional, and the lack of a united front has affected the union’s capability to bargain in the past. Moreover, graduate students have a high turnover since they mostly graduate within two years.

“Grad students are also so tired that it makes it hard to functionally bargain,” adds Jones.

Voicing grievances can also affect a TA’s prospects for pursuing a career in academia. “Your career path can be determined by the professor you work for since you need their recommendation or help and there are professors who take advantage of this power dynamic,” adds the TRAC member. Jones is referring to a case in 2022 where TAs campaigned against working for a philosophy professor who was accused of sexual harassment. Jones explained that some TAs hesitate to come forth with complaints due to career considerations.

“Professors need to be more respectful of TAs as people and not just as a way to lessen their workload,” said Jones. Jones added that at times the failure of a professor to sign their contracts on time has resulted in a TA not being paid for months.

This year the TAs and RAs at Concordia are also recovering from COVID, where they had to learn new software and hold long Zoom hours to cope with the demands of the pandemic, and all these challenges were not reflected in their pay.

Rugiero is also a TRAC delegate. He believes that despite all the difficulties and the general slow response from Concordia, they can have high hopes for the negotiations.

“TRAC is shaping up to be even better and has been rallying people up for a higher wage,” he adds.

Rugiero also believes that Concordia needs to support their words with concrete action when it comes to mental health. The low wage that pushes grad students to seek more employment affects their work quality as researchers as well as their mental health.

“We’re paying so much for tuition and TAships should not make us sacrifice our degrees so we can have money to eat,” says Jones.

The wage increase would benefit grad students and undergrads who might become grad students in the future, and in this way it would affect the student body as a whole. As Agustín stated: “Not having an inflation-adjusted wage amounts to having a pay cut.”

Infographics by James Fay and Carleen Loney


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