Students: support your staff

As the largest body of employees at Queen’s, support staff deserve the right to unionize

Public spaces such as bulletin boards and lunchrooms are considered private property by Human Resources and are off-limits for the dissemination of particular kinds of information.
Public spaces such as bulletin boards and lunchrooms are considered private property by Human Resources and are off-limits for the dissemination of particular kinds of information.
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Why should Queen’s students concern themselves with staff work conditions and their ongoing unionization drive? Because our university and our day-to-day activities can’t function without their dedication and support.

Queen’s staff are the face and heart of this institution. We owe a tremendous portion of our educational success to them.

Like many other Canadian post-secondary institutions, the University is going through financial problems—budgets for departments and administrative units are being reduced by 15 per cent over a three-year period, the hiring of new faculty members is almost non-existent and fewer courses are currently offered.

As a result, fewer educational resources are available to students, faculty and staff alike.

These budgetary concerns are so serious that newly-hired Principal Daniel Woolf announced “we need to change the way we do business” in a message to the Queen’s community.

Although the community is exhorted to participate in thinking of new and innovative strategies to deal with our financial quandary, the uncertain working conditions of support staff continue to go unnoticed except by the staff themselves. Support staffs remain one of the few non-unionized groups at Queen’s. Numbering roughly 1,800, staff members constitute the largest body of employees at this university.

Along with research and teaching assistants, they are the most vulnerable employees during times of financial difficulty.

Threats to job security, layoffs, increased workload or “downloading,” reducing continuing positions to “term” appointments and general anxiety over the staff-administration Salary and Benefits agreement that expires again in June 2010 are all part of the stress University staff members experience.

With this tense and uncertain work environment in mind, members of the staff community are organizing to join the United Steelworkers—a union representing close to 7,000 staff at the University of Toronto and other universities across Canada.

Although the University officially announced it “respects and will not interfere with the rights of employees to freely choose whether or not they wish to join a union,” the current reality contradicts this stated position.

As Professor Christine Overall reported in an article in the Gazette published in Nov. 2008, the administration has placed severe restrictions on employees’ right to organize into a union, including limiting the use of campus e-mail to discuss union issues and denying them access to university meeting spaces, other than the JDUC—even outside of working hours.

More recently, the administration refused Queen’s University Staff Association members’ request for fair access to union information—a right that was granted to faculty in their efforts to unionize more than 10 years ago.

Public spaces such as bulletin boards and lunchrooms have effectively been deemed private property by Human Resources and are off-limits for the dissemination of particular kinds of information.

The stated commitment to ensure “freedom from censorship” as a core value enshrined in the University’s 2006 strategic plan, Engaging the World, appears as empty words in light of such actions.

Last month, Queen’s announced its selection among Canada’s Top 100 employers in Mediacorp Canada’s annual competition. Vice-Principal (Human Resources) Rod Morrison commented on the rewards of having Queen’s being “acknowledged nation-wide for the practices and policies that support our people in providing world-class education.” While we share and celebrate the values and rewards of quality education, we contest Morrison’s assertion that the University supports non-unionized staff members.

As Queen’s students, we can extend our support to staff at this university by supporting the equal and dignified treatment of all Queen’s employees, community members, staff, faculty and students alike.

We can support the right of staff members to freely engage in their organizing campaign and make informed decisions about union membership.

We can encourage student societies to take active stances against efforts to use the current economic situation as an excuse for layoffs and terminations.

We can hold our administration accountable to the rights of staff members, including their right to a healthy, safe and secure work environment.

Even more importantly, we can recognize the remarkable contributions staff members make to our lives as undergraduate and graduate students at Queen’s University.

Dana Olwan, PhD ’09, is an assistant professor in the women’s studies department. Andrew Stevens, PhD ’10, is a teaching assistant in the sociology department.

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