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After Three Rounds of Negotiation Direction Refuses to Address TAs Demands for Better Pay and Conditions

After weeks of negotiation, the Direction's delegation communicated its unwillingness to meet any of the demands made by the TAs.

By TA Representatives

Almost two years ago, on 18th May 2021, the Board of the Assistants’ Association (ADA) presented to the Collège des Enseignant-e-s, the constraints to accessing full social protection, adequate healthcare and housing, and childcare, due to existing contractual conditions of teaching assistants (TAs).

After months of mobilisation in response to a series of unilateral decisions from the Institute’s Direction, ADA and the labour union Syndicat Interprofessionnel des Travailleuses et Travailleurs (SIT) have had the mandate from TAs to seek better contractual conditions. In that time, the Direction imposed a more recent and precarious contract in June 2022, excluding close to 1000 hours allocated to doctoral research from TAs’ working time. Six months ago, the Direction cancelled the only negotiation meeting that could be scheduled in the Fall, with less than one hour notice. 

In the meantime, TA representatives have held twelve General Assemblies and Town Halls, voted eight times, and organised more than 30 meetings with the working group leading the campaign for better contractual conditions. TA representatives have also participated in roughly fifteen meetings with the Institute’s Administration to discuss this issue. 

Over the span of those months, we have heard statements that have alarmed and outraged TAs. It has been said that TA contracts should not be evaluated through Swiss lenses, and that TAs need not have full social protections as 90% of them are not Swiss and will not remain in Switzerland after completing their PhD. TA representatives have heard that they should have held their dogs (referring to the discontent expressed as the conciliation process at the Geneva Chamber of Collective Labour Relations (CRCT) was going on), and that TA parents requesting access to childcare would be taking away from single mothers who are in real need. To our dismay, the list goes on.

TAs are an essential part of the Institute. Yet, they are struggling to get by in one of the most expensive cities in the world. They have long suffered from a lack of adequate pay, full social protection, and access to decent housing and healthcare. A wealth of research has clearly shown the countless professional, social, and mental health effects of academic precarity. Campaigns are ongoing at the Swiss and internationalnlevels for years. Such as the Petition Academia, which identified specific principles and measures, Better Science, UCU Postgraduate Researchers in the UK, and in the context of strikes across the US. And yet, no solution to TAs’ precarious contractual conditions could be found. In fact, the Direction categorically rejected all of the TAs’ demands.

In late November 2022, TA representatives filed a conciliation procedure at the CRCT to get the Direction to enter negotiations. During the first conciliation meeting on 15th December, the Direction’s stance not to negotiate with TA representatives, already appeared untenable. 

Two days before the conciliation meeting, the Direction submitted twelve documents outlining:

  1. The 2020-2021 PhD reform, which introduced funding packages for PhD researchers admitted from September 2022 onwards;
  2. Its attempt to implement a new TA contract with a 70% time rate between December 2021 and June 2022;
  3. The re-discussion of the Terms of Employment of TAs between ADA, the Director of Studies, and Human Resources in Spring 2022. 

The underlying message in the documents, which cited out-of-context paragraphs from emails sent by the Boards of ADA and GISA, was that the current TA contract was the result of a broad discussion that included all concerned parties. As explained in the second negotiation bulletin, this was a creative but significantly flawed interpretation of the processes described in the documents. However, it was not enough to justify the Direction’s refusal to negotiate with the TAs’ elected representatives.

TA representatives proposed three negotiation meetings in February before the beginning of the semester, which the  Direction refused.  They stated that only three dates were available with more than a month between each meeting. This move meant that negotiations could not proceed as planned, leading to more delays and frustration. In addition, the Direction asked the CRCT to fine ADA, arguing that an anonymous reaction statement to IHEID TA Salary Negotiations published in The Graduate Press on 15th December constituted a breach of the CRCT regulation prohibiting the parties from mediatising the issues discussed in the conciliation meetings and taking public collective action. 

Eventually, during a second conciliation meeting at the CRCT on 24th January, three negotiation meetings were planned, on 1st February, 15th March and 27th March with each delegation designating its five participants to the meetings (See the third negotiation bulletin). 

During the first negotiation meeting on 1st February 2023, the TA delegation presented the four main demands. The demands included the replacement of the distinction within the remuneration between a scholarship and a wage by a single salary, an increase in net pay, an increase in the activity rate, and the reconversion of the contracts for PhD researchers employed as assistants for the Master Programme’s Applied Research Projects (ARP) into TA contracts.

As TA contracts are a central part of the PhD funding package, meeting TAs’ demands is crucial to ensure the attractiveness of the Institute’s doctoral programmes and the diversity of PhD researchers’ profiles, and would counter inequality amongst TAs on the basis of nationality and permit, socio-economic background, age, academic discipline, etc. 

However, after more than five weeks from the first negotiation meeting, the Direction’s delegation communicated its unwillingness to meet any of the demands made by the TAs. The Direction refused to provide any information concerning the allocation of public subsidies and of the Institute’s budget more generally. The Direction claims that the current TA contract is the best option available, even though it does not provide TAs with adequate pay or working conditions. According to the Direction, the Institute’s budget constraints prevent allocating any additional resources to improve TAs’ contractual conditions, despite this requiring just an additional 1% of the Institute’s budget.

Furthermore, the Institute, managed by a private-law foundation,even though it does not seem to be considered a private institution, probably because more than 30% of its budget comes from public subsides – roughly 40% before the opening of the Grand Morillon residence – and it is institutionally accredited, is not required to to follow public standards at the cantonal or federal levels. Among these are the Geneva state salary grid or the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) guidelines, which recommend hiring PhD researchers on contracts that protect 80% of their working time for their own research. 

Are these legitimate reasons not to meet TAs’ demands? TAs do not think so and therefore will take public action. The first step was a poster campaign, started on Wednesday 26th April. By lunchtime most posters were taken down. But TAs will not be silenced: a town hall meeting was organised on 27th April to discuss TAs’ contractual conditions with the entire Institute’s community.-Save the date for a Day of Action, Visibility, and Solidarity for better contractual conditions for TAs on Wednesday 10th May!You can find here more detailed information on TAs’ contractual conditions, the issues these entail, and on the negotiations.

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