TAs & TFs campaign to unionize

After previous attempts to unionize, TAs and TFs hope third time’s the charm

TAFA organizers Krystle Maki, MA ’09, and Andrew Stevens, PhD ’10, say unionization will give TAs and TFs both financial and non-financial benefits.
TAFA organizers Krystle Maki, MA ’09, and Andrew Stevens, PhD ’10, say unionization will give TAs and TFs both financial and non-financial benefits.

Teaching assistants and teaching fellows at Queen’s are trying again to move toward unionization, said the Teaching Assistant and Fellow Associates (TAFA).

Krystle Maki, MA ’09 and TAFA organizer said TAFA’s main goal is to unionize graduate teaching assistants and teaching fellows at Queen’s, securing both financial and non-financial benefits.

Maki said there are key problems some graduate students encounter at Queen’s, including ambiguity in their contracts.

“A lot of our campaign has been education and outreach. We’ve spent hours and months listening to grad students. Even though our departments may be great, not every department is,” she said.

“Some of the main issues we can identify are the following: there are no policies regulating TFs. We need better grievance procedures. We just really see the importance of collective representation and involvement in the policy making process,” she said. “Many TAs work outside their contract hours, it is supposed to be 10 hours; per TA [per week]. Often there is no contract, so it can be very ambiguous. We want individuals to work with the department to outline issues by TAFA.”

The unionization of university staff is not a new idea, Maki said. “The faculty at Queen’s is unionized. [Professors] are being protected and have very good benefits. Queen’s is one of the only universities in Ontario without unionization for TAs and TFs. It’s an exception,” she said. “Unions have a long standing presence on university campuses across Canada, representing staff, TAs, TFs and faculty.” The decision to unionize will be made by TAs and TFs after bringing the case to the Labour Board, Maki said.

“TAFA’s first step is establishing goals. Then we need to have 40 per cent of the bargaining unit sign union cards. Then we go to the Labour Board. They review our case and agree if the number has been sufficiently reached.”

Voting is the final step of the process, Maki said.

“There is a ratification vote and majority rules. After [all members] come to vote, it feeds into collective bargaining. We are in the first part of the process with getting our cards signed.”

Collective bargaining involves negotiations with the university to reach a contractual agreement, Maki said.

“After the bargaining unit us formed, TAs and TFs will bargain for a contract. There will be intense rounds of consultation with membership as well as negotiations with the University,” she said. “[This] could entitle us to employer contributions to supplemental health and dental plans, UHIP reimbursement, establishing forms of protection for TAs and TFs in the grievance procedure and anti-discrimination and anti-harassment clauses. The collective agreement is voted upon by the membership.”

Maki said TAFA has not formally discussed the process of unionization with Queen’s University administration.

“Discussion with the university wouldn’t be appropriate at this point in the process. We don’t have anything to talk to them about,” she said. “If any dialogue takes place at this stage, it would likely involve a concern over interference in TAFA’s campaign, such as banning events on campus or an anti-union campaign.”

The Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS) issued a survey to TAs and TFs to learn about their experience at Queen’s, Maki said.

“Several TAFA organizers have been involved with the SGPS for years outside the union campaign. A survey on the condition of TA-and-TF-ships at Queen’s has been considered for some time now, and individuals associated with TAFA were consulted, mainly due to their experience and familiarity with related policies here at Queen’s,” she said. “TAFA’s only real and formal involvement was getting the word out about the survey and encouraging people to fill it out.”

Sean Tucker, PhD ’09 and SGPS vice-president internal (graduate), said via e-mail that the SGPS survey aimed to “find out which TA issues are more, and less, important to our members.”

He said the survey also provided information on issues affecting TFs.

“With our survey we also wanted to gather information about issues affecting teaching fellows. Teaching fellows are instructors who are graduate students,” he said. “No one seemed to know anything about their experiences and the University has no employment policies for TFs.”

Although TAFA wasn’t directly involved in the survey, the results were shared with the organization, Tucker said.

“Our survey asked questions about a wide range of TA and TF issues such as work hours, office space, pay satisfaction and grievance procedures,” he said. “We shared the survey results and a draft of our final report with the rector, the SGPS Council and representatives from the SGSR, TAFA and the AMS. In the final report on our survey, we make 21 recommendations. We intend to raise these issues on the TA Committee this year.” Examples of the issues highlighted by the survey include the lack of training for TAs and TFs and the lack of standardized policies regarding all TA and TF appointments.

Tucker said the SGPS supports TAFA’s goals of unionization.

“The SGPS position on unionization was clarified at our spring council meeting when Council unanimously passed a motion supporting the unionization efforts of TAFA. Since then the SGPS has provided information to our members about unionization,” he said. “Further, to help our members make an informed decision about unionizing, the SGPS is hosting a Town Hall meeting.”

Andrew Stevens, PhD ’10 and TAFA organizer, said TAs attempted to unionize twice before at Queen’s. The two previous attempts occurred during the 2003-04 school year and in 2005-06.

“There was an anti-union campaign in both cases,” he said. “The first time around, we had signed cards and submitted them to the Labour Board, but it turns out we didn’t have the requisite 40 per cent.”

Stevens said the University won’t release the number of total TAs and TFs currently employed, so reaching a requisite number of union cards is based on estimation.

“It’s guessing based on past numbers we have,” he said.

The second failed attempt at unionization resulted from an oversized bargaining unit, Stevens said.

“Before the bargaining unit included a bigger group of undergraduate assistants, graduate assistants, teaching fellows and administration assistants,” he said. “We don’t know by how many people the vote failed. There was a lack of communication about who could vote.”

TAFA has been campaigning for four months, so this time there is more awareness about the process, Stevens said.

“We have a stronger communication strategy. We’ve had a lot of public events,” he said. “We’ll be part of the town hall SGPS is organizing.”

TAFA was created in May for the purpose of campaigning for the unionization of TAs and TFs, Stevens said.

“The issues of 2003 have not been resolved.”

The SGPS will host a Town Hall meeting on TA and TF unionization on Tuesday, Sept. 23 from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. in Ellis Hall auditorium

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