TAFA union causes confusion

Graduate teaching assistants and fellows vote 454-351 in favour of unionizing

Graduate teaching assistant Katrinka Kocha says she’s surprised the Labour Board wasn’t checking IDs at the polling stations on Tuesday.
Graduate teaching assistant Katrinka Kocha says she’s surprised the Labour Board wasn’t checking IDs at the polling stations on Tuesday.

Eight hundred and six graduate teaching assistants and teaching fellows voted in the Teaching Assistant and Fellow Association’s (TAFA) Union drive on Tuesday, with 454 students voting in favour, 351 voting against and one spoiled ballot.

Many students, however, are questioning the vote’s legitimacy.

Paula Mosbrucker, MSc ’10, said she’s working with other students to bring issues people have had with voting to the University administration and to the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB).

“We have received some complaints about irregularities in the voting and those complaints have been forwarded to the University,” Mosbrucker said. “Specifically a number of people noted IDs were not checked, so some people said when they went to vote, a vote had already been cast in their name or their vote was segregated.”

She said many students were also unhappy with the ways in which TAFA contacted people about the union drive.

“I received a number of complaints from students feeling that they had been harassed based on visits made to their homes and phone calls made to their homes and their parents,” she said. “Many students felt they were unduly bombarded with information even when they requested they not be.

“I spoke to TAFA and they said it had to do to with how they kept track of who they were contacting,” Mosbrucker said.

Katrinka Kocha, a Master of Science in Biology student and a TA for a first-year biology course, said she had a confusing and unpleasant experience voting. Kocha said she was coming back to Kingston from a funeral in Toronto so that she could make it in time to vote before the polls closed at 6 p.m.

“I went up to the polls and when I got up to the polling station and told them my name, I looked down at the list of names and saw a big check mark next to my name,” she said, adding that her name was checked off in red ink while the others checked were in black.

She was still allowed to vote, but her vote was segregated and so it was placed in a sealed envelope with her name and area of study on the front, she said.

“I was too shocked and confused to really start questioning them at the time,” she said. “I heard about so many people who were not IDed at all. Who knows how many of these votes were [from] random people off the street? I’m sure this vote will be overturned ... it has to be.”

Kocha said she also noticed the promotion for this year’s union drive was much quieter.

“When I was there for the last union drive … there were posters everywhere.” “Everyone knew the vote was coming up weeks ahead,” she said. “This time we got an e-mail about it at around 5:30 p.m. Friday... so basically one business day’s notice.

“I think it’s completely legal what they did ... after they have the requisite number of union cards they have to hold a vote within seven days. It was just borderline under the table,” Kocha said. Forty per cent of students have to sign union cards in order to hold a vote.

The issue of ID checking during the vote is concerning, she said.

“I can’t believe that the Labour Board wouldn’t check IDs. It baffles everyone I’ve spoken to.”

Kocha said she was also confused by the methods in which TAFA contacted students to advertise the drive.

“They called my parents’ house three to four times including over this past weekend. My parents gave them my cell number and they called me two to three times,” she said.

Kocha said she wishes her vote had counted, especially because they only needed a 50 plus one majority.

“I’m pretty upset because this was an important issue to me.”

MaryAnne Laurico, a TAFA organizer and a PhD Candidate in the Department of English, said voting eligibility was decided according to the OLRB policies.

“When the vote happened, whoever was on the employer’s list had to be a current graduate student TA or TF,” Laurico said.

“We encouraged everyone who thought they were eligible to vote. Voters who did not appear on the list had their ballots segregated,” she said, adding that they didn’t need to count the segregated ballots because the number of votes for unionization was larger than the number of segregated ballots.

“It’s actually Ontario Labour Relations Board policy that says they can’t turn voters away because they don’t have ID,” she said regarding the questions about lack of IDs, adding that TAFA messages to students asked voters to bring valid photo IDs. She said representatives from Queen’s, the OLRB and The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) were each present at the polling stations, but no one from TAFA was there the day of voting.

In terms of the last-minute location change of the vote to McLaughlin Hall, Laurico said that was an issue TAFA and Queen’s had no control over, but rather the OLRB.

“They saw it was unfit so they changed it at the last minute.”

Laurico said TAFA also notified students about the vote as soon as they could.

“We received the employer’s list on Thursday night, and on Friday, when the OLRB ordered the date, location, and time of the vote, we sent out mass emails with that information.” Contacting students about the vote more than once was also unintentional, she said.

“We were just trying to reach as many graduate TAs and TFs as possible – to keep the process democratic ,” she said. “Under those conditions, we may have contacted people more than once. But in the larger picture, it’s a positive thing because we were able to get more than 60 per cent of graduate TAs and TFs to vote.”

Laurico said she thinks the vote’s success will allow TAs and TFs to have a more meaningful say in their work conditions and she doesn’t think the vote will be discounted.

“It was pretty clear by the amount we won by that the ballots wouldn’t be contested.”

Queen’s Vice-Principal (Academic) Patrick Deane said complaints that are raised about any voting inaccuracies fall under the jurisdiction of the OLRB.

In terms of the impact the union will have on their negotiations with the University, Deane said the University will always respect the rights and interests of any of their employees.

“We are committed to working with them,” he said.

“I think the administration expects that the employees will seek whatever representation seems appropriate for them at any given time,” he said. “We respect their right to organize in this way.”

David Thompson, SGPS Vice-President (Graduate) and a PhD Candidate and teaching fellow in the history department said he’s happy the TA/TF union will relieve the SGPS of some of the responsibility in dealing with graduate student work-related issues.

“It will allow the SGPS to devote a lot more of its time and energy toward other extremely important issues that face the graduate student membership,” Thompson said. “Our professional students are not TAs and TFs so they’ve had to spend a lot of time hearing issues about TAs and TFs in council and having these things brought up in discussion. This will now open the space for us to deal much more commitedly towards issues that affect our entire membership.”

—With files from Holly Tousignant and Rachel Kuper

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