Slow going to unionization for research assistants

PSAC and University are still working to determine eligibility of some voters, months after vote was cast

Lorne Beswick, who served as an organizer for the RA drive, wants to see graduate work recognized as work and students and researchers protected.
Lorne Beswick, who served as an organizer for the RA drive, wants to see graduate work recognized as work and students and researchers protected.
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The votes cast almost a year ago by Queen’s graduate research assistants (RAs) in a union certification vote still have yet to be counted.

Approximately 600 graduate RAs cast a ballot in an April 2014 vote to determine whether the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) will become the RAs’ legal representative in negotiating a first collective agreement with the University.

After the vote, the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) ordered the ballot box to remain sealed due to questions over the eligibility of some RAs to become members of the potential union.

On Oct. 2, OLRB Vice-Chair Brian McLean decided on a method for determining which individuals could be counted as part of the bargaining unit. According to the University, RAs are eligible voters and members of the potential union if they were considered employees of the University on the date the union submitted its certification application. The eligibility of 10 people in the union is examined at a time.

PSAC 901 President Craig Berggold said 10 RAs provided written evidence as part of the OLRB hearings, during which Queen’s “conceded that what was being described in the written statements was research assistant work”.

“We’re a bit confused what’s going on, in terms of why the employer is delaying and delaying and delaying the counting of a democratic process, really,” Berggold said.

“We think they’re afraid of losing.”

Berggold said the PSAC’s position on unionization is that “work is work is work”.

“You can dress it up however you want, and you can claim it’s education, you can claim it’s a scholarship, you can claim it’s voluntary, but at the end of the day, the people doing the work — the research assistants — know it’s work.”

He said the unionization process for research assistants is part of a continuous struggle where “people who do teaching, that provide analysis and research, have had to struggle to be recognized as contributing members to society”.

“We begin to see that as academic workers such as TAs and TFs have struggled to be recognized as workers also, we are winning those battles and we are changing people’s mindset,” he said.

“The same thing is happening with research assistants.”

Lorne Beswick, a PhD student in the Department of History, said he was recently called to the OLRB after having served as a labour organizer for the RA drive between Oct. 2013 and April 2014.

Beswick, who said he was speaking as an individual and not in his role as SGPS Vice-President of Campaigns and Community Affairs, didn’t provide details as to what took place at the Board.

Beswick, PhD ’16, said intellectual labourers were working to be protected in the potential union, adding that steel or factory workers — rather than academics — normally come to mind when thinking of unions.

“You don’t necessarily think of graduate students and researchers needing to be protected as well,” he said.

“I think the work that we’re doing needs to be recognized as such, and it needs to be kind of protected as such and also compensated as such.”

Dan Bradshaw, associate vice-principal of faculty relations, said Queen’s has maintained its position of support for its employees’ right to “make a decision as to whether or not they wish to be members of a bargaining unit”.

“In tandem with that, though, is the critical question of whether or not the individuals who cast ballots are in fact appropriately members of the bargaining unit as described in the union’s certification application,” Bradshaw said.

He said a graduate student isn’t an employee if the money they receive is “part of their funding package in support of their role as a student doing their graduate studies”.

“The Public Service Alliance, in their step of the process, identifies the ten people and then indicates why they say those ten people are in the bargaining unit,” Bradshaw said, adding that this process takes place through a “will say” that acts as written evidence.

“Once they do that, the University is provided those ‘will says’ and we have to respond,” he said, adding that once an agreement is reached on the eligibility of those 10 members, the two parties ask the OLRB to deem this a “Board order”.

“In other words, this settlement is something that the Board would then essentially make their decision,” he said.

“And then having done that, we’ll then go move on to the next 10.”

He expects it to take “a while”. As of Wednesday, when the Journal spoke with Bradshaw, the first 10 had “just” been completed.

“At some point, the Board needs to establish which of those individuals were appropriately in the bargaining unit,” he said.

“And then once that is established, then those are the votes that are counted.”

On Thursday, a representative of the OLRB said the next hearing was scheduled for Friday.

— With files from Chloe Sobel

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