Residence dons seeking to unionize at Queen’s

Internal ResLife email believes voting could start as early as Wednesday

Image by: Curtis Heinzl
Dons are the first point of contact between first year students and university employees.

On March 15, United Steelworkers (USW) announced that Queen’s University residence dons filed an application to unionize on USW’s Instagram page.

Residence dons have long been considered first year students’ first point of contact with university employees. Dons are encouraged to build rapport with students to provide a greater sense of community support and encourage good behavior in residence.

Avery*, who has been a residence don for the last two years, is among the group of dons organizing to join USW. They mentioned the effort for residence dons to unionize has been “a long time coming” and their contract terms are loosely defined.

“[One aspect] of one of the things in our contract is ‘any other duties as assigned,’ such as a day on-call shift or things like that,” they explained in an interview with The Journal

While Avery explained the donning experience is different for each student working in residence, all dons have the same basic slate of responsibilities. Each don is required to hold office hours for students on their floor for four hours each week, attend team meetings, have biweekly check-ins with building teams, and work on-call shifts.

For on-call shifts, dons are required to do rounds at 8 p.m., 11 p.m., and 1 a.m. and must carry and respond to any calls sent to the on-call phone.

Avery also mentioned the added responsibility of enforcing rules in residence when they are not officially working. Any time a residence don is spending time in residence and first year students are engaging in excessive partying behavior, dons who are not on call are expected to break up parties.

Expectations for dons have increased to encompass supporting students through major crisis issues in residence, such as suicidal ideation, sexual assault disclosures, and crisis pregnancies.

Avery and a few other dons began organizing to join USW since the first week of January. To file an application to unionize, Queen’s residence dons must file a petition with an undisclosed number of signatures.

Avery mentioned that USW typically mandates organizations obtain signatures from 40 per cent of their staff; however, USW asked for more than this and did not specify the amount.

Since news of application to USW has been made, Avery mentioned some tension among residence dons. While they said most dons are in favour of unionizing, there are some who don’t want to upset the University and are nervous about the prospects of future employment with Residence Life (ResLife).

“We have a lot of people who look like racialized minorities within us, and especially students who come from like a lower-class background. Like they can’t afford to go to Queen’s if they weren’t donning,” Avery explained.

“Because of that situation, they will do whatever Queen’s says because they’re afraid of getting fired for anything. Those dons are freaked out. They don’t want to sign cards; they don’t want to talk about [organizing].”

In an email circulated among residence dons obtained by The Journal, ResLife management responded to efforts to unionize by encouraging residence dons to look to initiatives already implemented by ResLife itself—without the help of a union.

“We are also proud of the advancements that were made over the past few years. Dons have raised several concerns and we listened and responded with various strategies,” the email said.

The email continues to detail the addition of more Residence Life Coordinators (RLC) in residence to support residence dons, the implementation of “additional measures” put in place to mitigate challenging student behavior over St. Patrick’s Day weekend, as well as ResLife’s efforts of “making changes to residence conduct processes to improve response times and hold students more accountable.”

When asked about the email, Avery said while current policies in residence hold dons accountable for handling student behavior, union protection would require the University and ResLife hold students accountable instead of putting the onus on dons.

“The bigger issue and the bigger picture with this is if dons are unionized and we have union protection, that puts the onus of student behavior no longer on dons, but all on Queen’s University, and they actually have to deal with the cultural problem we have here,” they said.

In a written statement to The Journal, Amanda Zakhour, the lead USW organizer for residence dons at Queen’s, outlined the benefits of voting yes in the union vote.

“University is expensive and if you want a position as a residence don you must accept the University’s employment contract for the position ‘as is.’ This type of ‘take-it’ or ‘leave-it’ attitude puts students in these positions at a disadvantage,” Zakhour wrote.

“With a union contract everyone has the same set of legally-binding, negotiated, and agreed to working terms and conditions. And should the employer violate those agreed to terms, the union has the grievance procedure and other legal recourse to fix the problems. With the support of the USW Local 2010 at Queens and the larger USW, students are never alone when addressing issues.”

Zakhour also spoke to the issue of paying union dues should the vote pass. Whereas most unions require their members to pay one to three per cent of their earnings back to the union itself, residence dons will be required to pay $0.50 for every thousand dollars dons make.

When asked about why dons should vote yes to unionizing, Avery said it was a matter of ensuring dons get a “say in our contract.”

“Queen’s technically has the ability to fire a don at any time for no reason and remove them from residence,” they said. “I personally don’t feel comfortable continuing to work in a system like that and continuing to work in a system where Queen’s has the ability to say whatever they want.”

“At the end of the day, we’re students, too. We go to the school; we pay tuition to the school. Yeah, you have to think about us as students, not staff. Because we bridge that gap, and we don’t focus on that student part. When you focus on staff part, it leads to you taking advantage of us.”

“We’re literally the people whose tuition pays for all of their salaries, pays for administration salaries. And this is how you treat us.”

*Name protected to preserve employment with the University.


dons, Queen's, Residence Rules, ResLife, Unionization

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