Support staff struggle to unionize

Administration restricts use of Queen’s e-mail and phone systems for dissemination of information

Brad James, United Steelworkers distrcit representative and Comm ’83, says the Queen’s administration has restricted the ability of staff to exchange information and assemble.
Brad James, United Steelworkers distrcit representative and Comm ’83, says the Queen’s administration has restricted the ability of staff to exchange information and assemble.

University staff members trying to join the United Steelworkers union say senior administrators are blocking them from disseminating information amongst their colleagues and making it difficult for them to meet.

The employees attempting to unionize are non-teaching technical and support staff, and don’t include library or physical plant employees, who are covered by their own collective agreements.

Staff union organizers invited representatives from several unions, including the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Canadian Auto Workers and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, to Kingston to present. Staff decided United Steelworkers would best suit their needs.

Maureen Bartram, administrator for the Queen’s Centre for International Relations, is involved in the unionization initiative. Bartram said senior administrators have told union organizers they can’t discuss the effort with colleagues through the Queen’s e-mail system or hand out leaflets on campus.

“They have expressed their wish that we don’t use the e-mails,” she said. “So no e-mail, no campus mail, no phone.”

Bartram said staff are abiding by the University’s requests.

“You pick your battles, and at this particular stage, we’re not going to pick many small battles to lose the big one.”

Staff don’t have a collective agreement, Bartram said. Instead, they’re covered by a memorandum of understanding, which addresses benefits and yearly salary increases. It’s due to expire on June 30, 2009.

Bartram said the topics on which staff hope to negotiate include benefits, pensions and the introduction of a standardized grievance process.

Bartram emphasized staff aren’t unhappy at Queen’s; but they want the security that a collective agreement would provide.

“Everybody loves working here. People here really love what they do,” she said. “It’s about improving our workplace.”

Karen MacIntyre, administrator for the department of environmental studies, is also involved in the effort to join United Steelworkers.

MacIntyre said some employees are against unionization because they feel their managers are opposed to it.

“There are definitely some staff that feel intimidated.”

MacIntyre said she has been in contact with unionized staff at other Ontario universities. She said her discussions with them have reassured her that joining United Steelworkers is a good idea.

“It’s been great to have that connection because universities are a really unique workplace.”

Brad James, United Steelworkers district representative and Comm ’83, said his union currently represents 7,000 workers at Ontario universities, namely the University of Guelph, the University of Toronto and two of its affiliated colleges, Victoria College and St. Michael’s College.

James said United Steelworkers would likely represent around 2,000 staff members at Queen’s.

Staff hope joining a union would give them a democratic voice, James said.

“Currently, all the terms and conditions of work that the staff work under at Queen’s are under the sole control of University administration,” he said.

James said his organization has never been failed in forming a union at any university in Ontario that wanted one.

“We’ve been successful at every university organizing campaign where the university staff invited us.”

James said the administration is making the unionization process at Queen’s difficult, however.

“Here, the administration has restricted the ability of staff to exchange information about their campaign and they’ve restricted their ability to assemble.”

James said he was disappointed with the University’s unwillingness to allow the staff to organize.

“A university’s a place of free flow of ideas, of give and take discussion. If not in a university, where?”

Rod Morrison, vice-principal (human resources), said the University respects the employees’ right to decide how they want to be represented.

“We respect the right of the employees to determine how they want to relate to the institution.”

Morrison said the workers’ voices are already represented through the Queen’s University Staff Association, but that the administration would work with a union were the staff to join.

“We will respect whatever the result is.”

Dean of Arts and Science Alistair MacLean said he couldn’t comment on unionization.

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