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Reaction Statement to IHEID TA Salary Negotiations

Editorial Comment - following the rolling coverage by The Graduate Press of the ongoing negotiations over pay and conditions between PhD Teaching Assistants and the Direction of the Institute, a collective of anonymous TAs reached out to tell us their reaction to the negations. This is what they had to say.

By An Anonymous Collective of IHEID TAs

Editorial Comment – following the rolling coverage by The Graduate Press of the ongoing negotiations over pay and conditions between PhD Teaching Assistants and the Direction of the Institute, a collective of anonymous TAs reached out to tell us their reaction to the negations. This is what they had to say.

The views, opinions, and assumptions expressed in this submission are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of TGP Editorial Board. Our mission is to provide a neutral platform for the student body to be able to engage in open dialogue on complex issues.

We, an anonymous collective of Teaching Assistants (TAs), denounce the problematic response of Directrice Salles to our basic wage demands. We call on all those affiliated with IHEID to stand by our side in the name of respect, equality, and progress.

Last month, TAs brought the issue of their wages to the attention of the public by organizing a press conference with their labour union representative. The step in itself was notable given the tradition at IHEID to usually have such conversations in private. However, what turned out to be the most striking was Directrice Marie-Laure Salles’ response. By brushing off our concerns and attacking our right to organize, Dr. Salles broke the little trust we still had in her leadership after two years involving scandal after scandal. 

In their response to the journalists’ request, Dr. Salles and Grégoire Mallard, Director of Research, raised several deceptive and problematic arguments, which shall be discussed below. However, while Dr. Mallard made those points in a somewhat respectful and empathetic tone, we were shocked and appalled by the posture of Dr. Salles. Remarkably, she said the following to the Tribune de Genève (paywall):

In English: “we remain open to negotiations; some great progress was made over the past two years with previous representatives of the assistants, responded the director of IHEID, but the invitation of a third party to the discussion breached the trust.

What immediately stands out is the attempt to pit the previous ADA (the TAs’ Association) leadership against the new one, SIT; this is a well-known strategy widely used in labor negotiations, and one that has been repeated by Dr. Salles on other occasions in department meetings and private conversations.

However, what is even more concerning, and frankly embarrassing, is the reference to the “third party”’s involvement as having “breached the trust”. While Dr. Salles fails to specify which party she is talking about, she could only be referring to the SIT labor union or the Geneva Canton’s Education Department, which was informed by the union of the negotiations, as is standard practice. In other words, the single reason why the Directrice walked away is that TAs dared to request the support of a labor union and the local authorities, i.e. merely an attempt at making negotiations more balanced. Through those comments, Dr. Salles added insult to injury, but also exposed in broad daylight what IHEID’s strategy probably was all along: conduct negotiations, behind closed doors with foreign workers and students, who find themselves in inherently inferior positions and vulnerable situations, and therefore ensure the absence of public accountability. Given that the right to organize is a human right and a constitutional right in Switzerland, the acknowledgment is worrying. 

Turning to the other arguments raised, they are either inaccurate, tone-deaf, or as problematic as the statement above.

It is alleged that TAs are first and foremost students: this goes against the discourse of some, including the Director of Studies, who tend to refer to PhD students and TAs as “colleagues”, and to the PhD as “work” rather than further studies.

We learn that TAs are free to choose their thesis topic and supervisor, a point the relevance of which is not immediately clear since it is the case of the vast majority of our colleagues working on social sciences at other universities. Then again, we are allegedly in a different situation because IHEID will not offer us permanent positions after completing our research—even though this is not the case either in the vast majority of doctoral programs in Switzerland. 

More interestingly, we learn that 90% of IHEID TAs are foreigners, which is where things get interesting. Does the fact that we are foreigners justify paying us less than Swiss colleagues performing the same work? We refuse to believe that Dr. Salles publicly acknowledged discriminating based on nationality, but we struggle to find a rational explanation. Does the Direction imply that the same work does not deserve the same compensation when it is done by foreigners? On other occasions, Dr. Salles has, in fact, unsuccessfully attempted to explain how IHEID TAs’ work differs from other Swiss universities’ assistants. It is unclear to whom Dr. Salles spoke, but our collective experience, compared to those of our friends and colleagues outside of IHEID, shows that our tasks are, in fact, very similar. On the nationality point, we also fail to see how this is any different for our EPFL or ETH colleagues, for instance, a lot of whom are also foreign, and yet receive salaries in line with Swiss standards. If anything, being foreigners makes us all the more vulnerable and burdens us with additional expenses: it limits outside employment opportunities, makes it harder to find affordable housing, leads to more important travel costs to be able to see our loved ones, etc. 

On the housing front, we learn that our situation is different since we are lucky enough to be eligible for IHEID housing. What is not mentioned, however, is that IHEID housing is on average significantly above Geneva market prices. Those of us living in private shared accommodation or other student residences can routinely divide our rent by half compared to IHEID prices. Therefore, if anything, this should be an argument for paying us more, not less. 

In this context, as an anonymous collective of TAs that is unaffiliated with any official organisation, have received support from many students, staff, professors, alumni, and Geneva-based Civil Society activists.

We, therefore, call on all the members of our community to appreciate the significance of the new low we have reached. We have indeed reached a point of non-return where our confidence in Dr. Salles is irremediably damaged. 

These sentiments are not uttered lightly. All of us are at IHEID for a reason. This is an institution we are attached to and it is hard for us to have to make such a public statement. However, because we cherish IHEID as an institution, and because we love and value its community, we believe it is necessary to call out the inadequate actions of its leadership since the latter is failing to represent what our institution is and stands for.

For years, many have tried to make change happen, incrementally, through bilateral, informal, and sometimes friendly discussions, but to no avail. We had high hopes for Dr. Salles’s leadership, given her credentials and research expertise—she notably co-authored the book “A Manifesto for Social Progress: Ideas for a Better Society.” However, we have been disappointed in her leadership, as it has proven how well-established academics at elite institutions can lose touch with reality when they reach positions of comfort and power, and fail to implement the principles and values they seem to promote in their scholarly work in their daily lives. 

By standing up now, we stand up for the whole IHEID community: TAs, PhD students, Master’s students, as well as staff. We also want to make it very clear that our demands should not be interpreted as being made against the interests of the rest of the IHEID staff. It is the exact opposite.

Nous encourageons en réalité tous les personnels de l’IHEID à se syndiquer immédiatement et à s’organiser pour ouvrir de nouvelles négociations collectives sur leurs propres conditions de travail et de rémunération, et de considérer tous les moyens de pression, y compris la grève. Il nous est maintenant indispensable de faire preuve de solidarité pour tenir tête à la direction ensemble et faire de l’IHEID l’institution qu’il mérite d’être.

For all these reasons, we solemnly call on all those who believe in IHEID and its singular identity and valuesstudents, staff, professors, donors, alumni, local and international officials, and members of the publicto stand by our side, in the name of respect, equality, and progress, and for the long-term good of IHEID.

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