For the union makes us strong

With the potential for greater equity and fairness, a TA/TF union would be better for everyone

Amanda Wilson, ArtSci ’07
Amanda Wilson, ArtSci ’07

Teaching assistants and teaching fellows at Queen’s currently have no collective voice or representation vis-à-vis the University, our employer. This is an anomaly compared to most other university campuses. From the University of Toronto and the University of Ottawa to McMaster and Western, Queen’s is one of the only universities whose TAs have not formed a union. This does not mean that unions in general do not have a presence on campus­—quite the opposite in fact. From faculty and library staff to food service workers and Physical Plant staff, all have chosen to unionize. TAs and TFs are not rocking the boat; we’re just trying catch up.

So what is TAFA, the Teaching Assistant and Fellow Association, hoping to achieve? Our goal is to get enough support from our fellow TAs and TFs to hold a democratic vote on whether or not we want the collective representation offered by a union. We’re not assuming that we speak for all TAs and TFs; we understand that there are many perspectives on this issue. However, after speaking with individuals from across campus, there is an interest in a system that maintains the positive elements of our current working relationship with the University, but at the same time addresses particular areas that need improvement. We believe that the best way to achieve this is through unionization.

How would this happen? The process entails getting 40 per cent of all TAs and TFs to sign an application for membership, indicating they are supportive of a union. If this is done successfully, TAs and TFs would then vote on whether they would like to have a union. If a majority of TAs and TFs vote in favor, then we will be represented by a union local aligned to the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC)—a union that was selected after reviewing what three other organizations had to offer. An elected bargaining committee composed of TAs and TFs would then begin negotiations with the university on the details of our collective agreement. All TAs and TFs then vote on the agreement.

Our key concerns are around TA and TF allotment procedure, discrepancies across departments with regards to training, definitions of work and responsibilities, a fair and effective grievance procedure, secured health and dental benefits and pay security. Teaching Fellows in particular are vulnerable and lack any comparable policies or protections offered to sessional adjuncts through the Queen’s University Faculty Association.

It’s true some TAs aren’t complaining, and that’s great; we’re happy for them. However, we’re not happy for the other TAs in their department that don’t have it as good as they do. In many cases, TAs work far more hours than those for which they are paid. In some cases, department-level training is non-existent or inadequate, and often TAs are selected for courses they are not equipped to deal with. A union will not take away or disrupt existing relationships or agreements that TAs find beneficial and positive. It will fight to maintain them. It will bring equity and fairness to TAships so that we may all enjoy fair and decent working and learning environments.

An increase in wages or financial costs born by the administration as a result of unionization will not result in fewer TAs in the classroom. A TA/TF union would negotiate a collective agreement with the University, not with individual departments. This means that any decisions would have to be managed along with all the other budgetary expenses incurred by the University, and would not simply be downloaded to individual departments with strained budgets. At Western, the PSAC union local has consistently negotiated an increase to TA wage rates while at the same time the number of graduate TAs has consistently increased from approximately 800 TAs in 1996 to 1,800 in 2008.

A TA/TF union is not about causing a ruckus. We want to establish a collaborative working relationship that exists at many unionized schools. A union is a member-driven organization, meaning that its direction, decisions and activities are determined by TAs and TFs themselves. It’s more than bargaining contracts and grievance procedures; it’s about creating a space of empowerment and using our collective power to build a more just and equitable community.

The bottom line is that a union would not only help TAs and TFs, it would make the whole university better, both as a place of employment and as a space for learning. Establishing working relationships that are fair and transparent and a working environment that provides security and benefits will make TAs and TFs better teachers. That’s better for everyone, including you.

Amanda Wilson is a TA in the department of global development studies and a member of the TAFA steering committee.

Look for an opposing viewpoint in next Friday’s paper.

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