Research assistants move closer to unionizing

University, local union and Labour Relations Board meet to determine potential union members

The switch to T4As has repercussions on RA research.
Image by: Arwin Chan
The switch to T4As has repercussions on RA research.

The formation of a union of graduate student research assistants (RAs) at Queen’s is moving slower than expected.

An application by Queen’s RAs to unionize with the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) 901 was submitted in April, a move that followed two and a half years of deliberation. If formed, the union will represent approximately 1,000 RAs.

PSAC 901 already represents teaching assistants and teaching fellows at Queen’s.

The Journal reported in May that Research Assistantships were being re-classified under two categories: RAs receiving T4 employment tax forms, and Graduate Research Assistant Fellowships (GRAF) receiving T4A scholarship tax forms.

GRAFs are not legally considered as workers and therefore don’t receive employment insurance or pension contributions from the University.

The potential union aims to see graduate RA work legally considered as work, which would include stricter health and safety protections than those received as a non-employee. This would also allow them to receive legal protection under the Ontario Labour Relations Act and the Ontario Employment Act. Neither act can apply to scholarship recipients.

Following the union certification vote on April 30 in which approximately 600 graduate student RAs voted, the ballot box was ordered sealed by the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) due to contestation over the eligibility of some RAs who participated in the vote.

The first regional certification meeting took place on May 21 between the OLRB, the PSAC and the University, to discuss steps toward determining the membership of the potential bargaining unit, with the potential union side working to include in the membership all the ballots in contestation. During that meeting, Queen’s was granted an extra month to prepare documentation.

The second certification meeting took place on July 7, with litigation set to begin during the meeting. Queen’s was scheduled to present their case first in litigation with opening arguments, evidence and witnesses, followed by the potential union side.

Kathryn McDonald, lead organizer of the unionization drive, said the University still hadn’t produced the necessary documentation as of the July 7 meeting, and the litigation didn’t take place.

Dan Bradshaw, associate vice-principal of faculty relations, wasn’t available for comment by deadline, according to Rosie Hales, communications officer for the University.

“[Queen’s has] said that because [the documentation] comes from so many departments within the university, it’s just too difficult for them to gather it all,” McDonald, MA ’14, said.

At the meeting, lawyers from the potential union and the University spoke to their respective parties before opting to gather more documentation from Queen’s, including T4 and T4A tax forms, prior to proceeding with litigation.

A settlement was also discussed during the meeting, but there was no agreement on its terms. McDonald said the University was willing to open the ballot box with a shortened voters list, which the potential union didn’t accept, because “it didn’t offer any sort of guarantees for the future in terms of negotiating a contract.”

“[Queen’s was] offering a list of around 20 people, basically saying, this is a starting point, we will informally acknowledge that more than 20 people have an employment relationship but we’re not going to say who and we’re not going to say under what conditions, we’re going to bargain in good faith,” she said.

The University’s contestations to RA unionization have unofficially begun to change, McDonald added, reflected in the University’s willingness to open the ballot box during talk of a possible settlement.

“It is changing favourably but I don’t think future success is dependent on their position changing,” she said.

A case management hearing is scheduled for Sept. 8, with litigation expected to begin in October.

McDonald said the future of unionization remains positive.

“I do think that we will get a certification from the labour board to have a bargaining unit of graduate student research assistants at Queen’s,” she said.

“I’m not sure what it will look like at this point, but I think there will be one.”



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