Queen’s staff unionizes

Acting Associate Vice-Principal (Human Resources) Al Orth says the bargaining unit includes 1,200 people.
Acting Associate Vice-Principal (Human Resources) Al Orth says the bargaining unit includes 1,200 people.
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After voting 53.8 per cent in favour, Queen’s administrative staff is unionizing with the United Steelworkers (USW).

Pradeep Kumar, a policy studies professor who specializes in unions, said people often join to negotiate better wages and working conditions.

“There is a sense of inequity as [the staff doesn’t] enjoy the same wages as Queen’s faculty does,” he said, adding that the USW is known as a progressive union.

With the staff vote to unionize so close, Kumar said oftentimes individuals don’t want to unionize because they think they have enough individual power or worry about their job security.

“There are a lot of insecurities. People are afraid they may lose their jobs if they sign a unionization sheet,” he said, adding that Kingston’s small administrative and clerical labour market may contribute to this job insecurity.

Kumar said joining a big union is more advantageous than joining a smaller one.

With 705,190 members, the USW is the largest industrial labour union in North America and with 7,500 Ontario university staff members already on board, the USW has experience with other universities.

“They also have a record of representing the University of Toronto, so they have something to show and should be able to fulfill the needs for Queen’s staff here,” he said.

McMaster unionized with the Canadian Auto Workers but Kumar said the USW was a better choice for Queen’s.

“The Steelworkers have a better record in that sense. They have been around for a longer time and have demonstrated a commitment to the staff that is admirable.”

After months of negotiations, the Ontario Labour Board counted the votes last December, which were originally cast in March 2010. The ballots were sealed following the vote as the University and the union needed to agree on a description for the bargaining unit. Discussions were still in progress when approximately 1,600 general staff members voted whether or not to unionize.

Although the negotiations are not yet complete, the 904 votes still eligible were counted on Dec. 13.

Acting Associate Vice-Principal (Human Resources) Al Orth said the bargaining unit includes over 1,200 employees. The University has released a list of positions excluded from unionizing, including persons employed by campus security, persons employed for less than 14 hours per week, persons employed in the Principal’s office and many more. However 120 positions which are identified as “management and confidential capacity” remain in dispute, he said.

“The talks are continuing with Steelworkers. Neither party has gone public with what has been discussed so far,” Orth said, adding that the University has confirmed who is on the exclusion list.

“There are a variety of different positions that need to be looked at due to the nature of the work performed, ” he said, adding that Queen’s is still looking at each of the jobs in question to see if they meet the Ontario Labour Relations Act standard for inclusion or exclusion.

Orth said the USW will be one of many unions at the University. Other unions include the Public Service Alliance of Canada which represents Teaching Assistants and Teaching Fellows and the Ontario Nursing Association representing the registered nurses who work with the Queen’s Family Health Team.

Orth said the majority of the University administrative staff members were formerly part of the Queen’s University Staff Association (QUSA). With the formal unionization, Orth said the administrative staff will be able to negotiate better benefits for their employment.

Orth said negotiations will commence sometime in the near future.

Despite the small margin of votes in favour of unionization, Orth said under the Ontario Labour Relations Act, even a small majority is enough for certification. It is this act that allowed for the voting to commence despite the fact that the bargaining unit’s description was not agreed upon.

The next step will be for the USW to negotiate a collective agreement with the University. Traditionally a collective agreement entails negotiations between employers and unions in reaching an agreement which outlines working conditions, wage scales, working hours, overtime and health and safety conditions.

Further negotiations will allow both the union and the University to set forth agreements in terms of staff conditions of employment. Orth said Queen’s staff will most likely elect their own representatives who will work with union representatives to negotiate with the University.

“It has been a very lengthy process,” Orth said. “These things tend to be lengthy, and we certainly appreciate the patience of the staff. We are certainly looking forward to getting a satisfactory collective agreement.”

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