After two and a half years of deliberation, Queen’s research assistants (RAs) have put forward an application to unionize with the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) 901.
The application, submitted on April 23, follows an 18-month battle between postdoctoral fellows and the University to secure better benefits and wage increases.
PSAC 901 represents teaching assistants and teaching fellows at Queen’s in Unit 1 and postdoctoral fellows in Unit 2. If certified, graduate student RAs would form Unit 3.
The union certification vote took place on April 30, with approximately 600 graduate student RAs casting a ballot.
The Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) ordered that the ballot box remained sealed because the names of RAs who participated in the vote are under contestation for membership in the potential union.
The University has nine grounds for contestation, including the potential for graduate students to be represented by multiple bargaining units.
Kathryn McDonald, the lead organizer of the drive, said the move to unionization started in late 2011 in response to funding cuts, threats to intellectual property protections and “a desire for a seat at the bargaining table”.
Plans changed course when the University re-classified Research Assistantships under Research Assistants using a T4 tax form for employment and Graduate Research Assistant Fellowships (GRAF) using a T4A tax form for scholarships.
RAs receive employment insurance and pension contributions from the University while GRAFs do not.
“Unionizing … would mean a switch back to getting the legal protections of the Ontario Labour Relations Act and the Ontario Employment Act, which currently do not and cannot apply to scholarship recipients,” McDonald, MA ’14, said.
It’s the classification of RAs’ work that has changed, not the type of work, she added.
McDonald said that in January 2013 the University switched graduate students in the sciences and engineering from T4s to T4As.
Graduate students completing work in the faculties of Arts and Science, Engineering, Computing, Education and Health Sciences were subject to the switch.
“If it was just isolated to some programs and some kinds of work, then, yeah, it would have some sort of sense to it at least,” she said.
“But this appears to be a sweeping change and I can only see it as being because of the financial benefits that Queen’s gets.”
She said the implications of the switch to T4As were seen last summer when RAs conducted their fieldwork.
“There was a student who was switched over and who was injured and who was not able to receive workers’ comp … because of this, they couldn’t do their research and the supervisor couldn’t afford to keep them on the project because research dollars are tightening,” McDonald said.
“The research assistantship that this person was expected to have the whole summer
… was lost because of an injury.”
According to McDonald, the vast majority of graduate RAs are currently receiving T4As.
She said the response to unionization has been “mixed, but by and large … mostly supportive” amongst RAs.
“In the last year, I’ve talked to probably a thousand people — whether that be signing cards to get it to a vote or to apply for membership, or people who just have concerns and want them heard … generally the conversations have been really fulfilling and amazing,” she said.
The OLRB met with the PSAC and the University on May 21 in the first regional certification meeting since the vote to discuss steps toward determining the membership of the potential bargaining unit.
During this meeting, the PSAC accepted the University’s request for one extra month to prepare documentation. The University also clarified some of its justifications for contestation.
The next certification meeting has been scheduled for July 7-8.
“I think that [Queen’s is] just delaying, delaying, delaying and hop[ing] this ballot box will never be opened,” McDonald said.
University representatives said they were unable to comment because the unionization process is still ongoing.
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