Postdocs make a plea for equity

Possible strike on the table for postdoctoral scholars if contract bargaining fails

Post-doctoral scholars protest their salaries through messages written on Mr. Noodles packages
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At 10 a.m. on August 31, a box plastered with Queen’s campaign materials and containing scores of Mr. Noodles packages, were delivered to Principal Daniel Woolf’s office. 

Each package contained a message, personally addressed to Woolf himself. “Your luxury is our poverty,” one pack said. “It’s a dry life,” read another, “like the noodle.” 

The delivery was part of a campaign by the postdoctoral scholars of Queen’s and the Public Service Alliance of Canada Local 901 (PSAC 901), in an attempt to symbolize their poverty and employment instability. 

Postdoctoral scholars, also known as postdocs, are salaried employees who conduct the majority of research done at any given university. 

The average salary of a postdoc in Canada is hardly luxurious, checking in at $44,000 per year. Currently, postdocs at Queen’s make even less: earning only $32,000 per year, taxed. These figures were provided to The Journal by the President of the Queen’s postdoc union, Craig Berggold, and the Vice-President of Postdoctoral Scholars, Silja Freitag. 

 

As of June 30 this year, the previous collective agreement for the postdoctoral scholars of Queen’s expired. When in the process of bargaining to renew their contract, Freitag, Berggold, and their respective groups reached an impasse with the University. 

The pair explained to The Journal that the postdoc groups have six main goals for the new contract. These goals surround salary, healthcare, childcare benefits, professional development, relocation and housing, and tuition support. 

According to figures cited in Statistics Canada, the Queen’s postdoc salaries don’t cover the average living expenses of a household in Ontario. These same expense values are cited on the Queen’s website. 

“If you’re making $32,000 per year and you have one child, you are living below the poverty line,” Berggold said. If the University continues to decline the proposed changes to the collective agreement, a strike has been placed on the table as a possibility. 

“Nobody wants to strike,” he clarified. “Postdocs would only withdraw their labour if the employer continues to treat us as second class.” 

Postdoc strike information sessions have begun to be held at Queen’s, where the alarming reality has sunk in: they would make more money on strike than they would in their usual jobs. 

“The union pays $75 a day for strike. If you make $32,000 here at Queen’s and you divide that by 365, you make $87 a day. And they take your taxes,” Berggold said. A vote is pending on whether strike action will be taken, with a specific date to be determined.

“It’s been a long time since there’s been a strike at Queen’s University, and I don’t think Principal Woolf wants that on his reputation,” Berggold said. 

When approached for comment, Interim Associate Vice-Principal (Faculty Relations), Dan McKeown spoke to the University’s position on the contract negotiation and strike potential. “Bringing in a neutral third party can assist the parties in finding common ground,” he wrote to The Journal via email. 

“The University is committed to working with PSAC to conclude a renewal agreement that respects both our employees and the limitations dictated by financial realities.”

Addressing these financial realities, Freitag noted that according to the most recent Sunshine List  of salaries in Ontario, “995 employees of Queen’s made over $100,000 last year, and 86 of them made over $200,000.” 

For Freitag and Berggold, the discrepancy between the salaries of faculty versus postdocs is concerning. While strike action isn't a first response, it may be the end result for them, depending on the nature of continuing discussion for the new collective agreement. 

“Unless we ask for respect, we won’t get respect,” Berggold said. “In doing so, we need the support of the whole community as we go forward.”

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