TA union drive back in gear

Alex Davis, MSc ’06, isn’t thrilled with his SGPS handbook.
Alex Davis, MSc ’06, isn’t thrilled with his SGPS handbook.

Queen’s University TAs For Unionization is renewing their campaign to convince TAs that becoming a part of CUPE will improve their working conditions and representation.

“We debated about whether CUPE was the right union and decided it was,” said Simon Kiss, a spokesperson for QUTU. “These are teaching assistants on campus that are deeply concerned about working conditions and their representation.”

Last year, the ballots from a unionization vote were not counted because of uncertainties regarding the number of eligible TAs that signed voter cards.

To hold a unionization vote, 40 per cent of all TAs must obtain and sign voters cards.

“Organizationally ... we’re not planning to do anything different,” Kiss said. “There are still basically the same steps-—we’ll still need to get 40 per cent of the TAs supporting a union on campus.

“At that point there will be a vote,” he said.

Craig Davison, leader of Queen’s University TAs Against Unionization (QUATU), said his organization wasn’t anticipating that QUTU would renew their campaign this year.

“Right now we haven’t really come up with any plans,” he said. “They were defeated last year.”

Davison said unlike QUTU, its pro-unionization counterpart, QUTAU has not joined efforts or sought support from other student groups.

“We’re kind of out there on our own,” he said. “The TAs are voting and it’s a TA issue ... it’s not other groups that will be trying to push things through.”

QUTAU will focus on getting information out to TAs, Davison said.

“Our main goal is just to get information out there,” he said. “We provide an alternate view.

“Unlike QUTU we don’t have CUPE backing us so we have very little money.”

Kiss said there is lots of support amongst TAs for the union drive.

“I think there’s a lot of anger on campus about the way the University has handled some issues, particularly the nine dollar raise that isn’t a raise,” he said, referring to the pay increase granted TAs by the University last spring.

“The University raised the hourly rate for grads by nine dollars an hour, but the problem is grad students are funded by two sources —scholarship and teaching assistant incomes.

“Subtracting scholarship income for the same amount [that they raised TA income] means the TAs take home less because they pay more CPP and EI premiums than they did last year,” Kiss said.

Grad students receive a funding package, which is made up of scholarship funding and TA salary. Kiss argued if one portion of the package goes up, the other goes down by an equivalent amount to compensate.

Canada Pension Plan and Employment Insurance is taken out of TA salaries, but not income from scholarships, thus increasing salary pay and decreasing scholarship funding could result in a greater amount of money demanded in taxes.

“A lot of people are really angry about this and they feel they were mislead by the administration.”

In the Senate meeting on May 26, Bill McLatchie, acting associate dean of the faculty of arts and science, was recorded in the senate minutes as having said, “The University need[s] to get the funding issue ‘right’ and to provide positive working conditions for graduate students.”

Alex Davis, a TA in his first year of a masters in mechanical engineering, feels stifled by the publicity of the unionization push.

“The presence of TA unionization is overwhelming,” he said. “Every time I walked into [the school of graduate studies] there were students throwing stuff at me—a bunch of flyers, voting cards.”

Davis said he feels like unionization is being forced on him.

“I think I’m opposed to unionization,” he said. “But it irritates me further because it’s pushed on me propaganda style.”

Kiss confirmed QUTU was handing out literature outside the Graduate Studies building.

“We approached grad students outside the Graduate Studies building,” he said. “That’s a public building and that’s our right to do that.

“We didn’t have to get permission from anybody.”

Davis said the SGPS agenda he received in the mail is also filled with publicity for the mandate of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), of which SGPS is a part.

“The agenda pushes [the CFS] agenda, not my own,” he said.

Inside the planner it says the publication is “a combined service of the Canadian Federation of Students and your campus students’ union.”

Davis said he thinks TA unionization and lower tuition fees are related issues.

“In my opinion it’s all in the same ballpark,” he said. “It’s all about getting more money and lower tuition.

“I don’t think it’s unfair to say tuition reduction, fees and TA unionization are on the same page,” Davis said.

Sam Hosseini, president of SGPS, told the Journal in an e-mail that SGPS supports TA unionization.

“The SGPS Council has voted to continue supporting unionization,” she said. “Last year, Council accepted a report that found unionization to be beneficial to teaching assistants at Queen’s.”

Hosseini said it is the responsibility of SGPS to inform its members about the issues surrounding the union drive.

“We play an important role in informing our students about the union drive, the issues surrounding unionization, and most importantly notifying them about the logistical details of a vote.”

The office will be stocking informational material in their office and sending out e-mails, she said.

“It is very important for all TAs to vote,” Hosseini said. “This is not only their right, but also important to their future careers as TAs and future TAs at Queen’s University.”

Hosseini said although unionization is an important issue for SGPS, they are also concentrating on other issues.

“Another important issue we are currently focusing on, separate from the unionization vote, is addressing TA wages and the University policy on TAs,” she said. “Because the unionization vote is a high-profile issue, the hard work of our staff and volunteers in addressing other matters may be overlooked.”

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