PSAC won’t crack despite pressure from Queen’s

Post-doctoral fellows deserve better treatment from the University

Post-doctoral fellows recently held a vote which gave them a mandate to strike.
Post-doctoral fellows recently held a vote which gave them a mandate to strike.
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Doug Nesbitt, PhD ’14

At the moment, both bargaining units of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) Local 901 are engaged in negotiations with Queen’s University.

Unit One, representing 1,300 graduate teaching assistants (TAs) and teaching fellows (TFs), started bargaining their second contract in May. Their first contract was signed in 2011 after they unionized the year before.

Post-doctoral fellows, represented by Unit Two, are bargaining their first contract and unfortunately, this process has taken almost three years. Queen’s has recently added three new conciliation dates to negotiate with PSAC.

In November 2010, Queen’s post-docs voted 66 per cent in favour of forming a union. However, the ballots weren’t counted until eight months later.

The ballot count was delayed because Queen’s University launched a challenge at the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB), arguing that post-docs were independent contractors, not employees of the University.

Having finally unionized, bargaining for a first contract only started in April 2012.

Earlier this month, after eighteen months of bargaining, Queen’s post-docs delivered a 92 per cent strike authorization vote. While providing a legal mandate for a strike in order to achieve a fair and reasonable contract, the vote also provides more leverage for the post-doc bargaining team at the negotiating table.

The need for such leverage isn’t simply a function of a long bargaining process. It also stems from the unwillingness of the employer to offer a wage increase for all post-docs. They are offering small increases for some post-docs, but only after 2015.

Between 2011 and August 2013, the Consumer Price Index, as defined by Statistics Canada, increased 2.7 per cent (and 5.9 per cent since the vote in 2010). Assuming inflation will continue to climb, post-docs face the prospect of a decline in real incomes if there’s no increase in compensation equal to or above the rate of inflation.

The University has advanced two arguments for why post-docs can’t have a wage increase sufficient to protect against inflation.

The first, according to the post-doc bargaining team, is that much of that money would come from faculty members themselves. However, the Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA) has endorsed the post-doc bargaining efforts ― specifically its efforts “for protection against inflationary erosion of compensation,” as well as compensation for the University’s mandatory training required of employees.

In its second reason for no compensation increases, Queen’s University has cited a 2012 letter circulated to public sector employers by Dwight Duncan, the Ontario Minister of Finance. The letter, which is a non-binding and non-legal document, recommends zero per cent wage increases in the public sector.

Duncan had also made the same recommendation in 2009. In both cases, legislation was never passed and numerous employers and unions, including universities, bargained together without incident to achieve wage increases that protected against inflation.

It’s unfair for Queen’s to cite this letter as a rationale for no wage increases when the document has no legal weight.

The letter of support from QUFA also explicitly endorses health and dental coverage for post-docs. Queen’s post-docs don’t have automatic dental coverage from the University, nor do they have child care benefits. They are the only full-time employees on campus without these benefits.

Post-docs can buy into existing plans, such as the joint Society of Graduate and Professional Studies (SGPS)-PSAC 901 health and dental plan. However, buying into a plan is very costly and dependent on two factors.

First, until a contract is signed, post-docs depend on a supervising faculty member who is willing to pay. This is unfair to both faculty and post-docs.

Second, the University as an employer has no system to ensure all post-docs are informed about their health and dental options, options which are not uniformly accessible.

Only by forming an organization have post-docs been able to develop a system of information sharing in order to identify common concerns and address them in bargaining.

The specifics of post-doc bargaining may seem distant from the immediate concerns of undergrads at Queen’s. After all, there are only about 200 post-docs compared to about 16,000 undergrads. However, the University’s position on compensation will have wider ramifications when it comes to bargaining between TAs and TFs.

Will the University also insist on a zero per cent increase from TAs and TFs? This would be doubly damaging to TAs and TFs, who also have to pay tuition fees out of their grants and employment earnings.

This would be further compounded by the School of Graduate Studies new restrictions for Ontario Graduate Scholarship applicants and the increasingly punitive and unrealistic time-to-completion rules.

These are unfortunately the new realities of the post-secondary education sector; realities which have seen Queen’s TAs and TFs, post-docs, academic assistants and administrative staff unionize in the past four years.

While Queen’s retains a reputation as one of Canada’s premiere universities, it hasn’t escaped the two-decade restructuring of how the post-secondary education sector is funded.

Tuition fees have come to comprise ever-greater proportions of university revenue, which has contributed to ballooning student debt. Labour costs are being restrained through the massive growth of short-term faculty contracts and a downloading of marking and other work to graduate (and even undergraduate) TAs.

Unionization and collective bargaining are responses to these general trends as they manifest themselves in immediate “bread and butter” issues, like health and dental coverage and protection from inflation.

In doing so, collective bargaining is an opportunity that helps funding get directed to the people who do the work that makes undergraduate education and world-class research possible.

Doug Nesbitt is a PhD candidate in the Department of History and the former president of PSAC 901

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