Research assistants join PSAC Local 901

Unionisation wins majority vote as ballot box is opened after two years

Research assistants at a PSAC meeting on Thursday
After two years of campaigning for unionisation and attending hearings to prove their job status, research assistants at Queen’s have won the right to unionise effective Feb. 16, 2017.
Approximately 600 research assistants voted on union certification two years ago — on April 30, 2014 — however until the Labour Relations Board deemed them eligible to join the union, the ballot box remained sealed. 

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) Local 901 President Craig Berggold explained that the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) viewed those who voted as students, not research assistants.

“The union was asked to provide proof that the people who voted do work,” Berggold said. Over the two years, research assistants were asked to make statements to the OLRB describing their work.

“At the end of the process the Labour Relations Board said ‘sounds like work to us’ as defined by the provincial law, therefore we can count the ballots. They opened up the box, we won the vote,” Berggold said.

Berggold explained that defining what a research assistant actually is can vary depending on the employer. PSAC sent outa survey to all research assistants asking them to “describe their RA contract work.”

Some of the responses that they received read, “I help put together an upcoming conference for my professor,” or “I do lab equipment setup for classes,” and even “I run background simulations for a 500-litre super heater liquid bubble chamber dark matter detector.”

Prior to unionising, some research assistants would get a T4 and some would get a T4A, Berggold said. A T4A is given when the money received was defined as a scholarship, whereas a T4 is given when the money is defined as employment income.

“This [unionising] will ensure that they move to T4s and they will have the same rights as all other workers in Ontario under provincial labour law.”

This includes entitlement to unemployment insurance, pension contributions and collective bargaining to improve wages.

Berggold explained that one of the biggest issues in academia is overtime. “We self-invest because we want to do a good job,” said Berggold. 

He further explained that often many more hours are allocated to work as a student, as they aren’t usually trained ahead of time. 

“With a union we can start advocating for training to be paid, and we can begin to ensure that research assistants work only for the hours they’re paid,” said Berggold. 
The union, he said, wants to create what is called “the minimum standard of fairness.” Now that research assistants are represented by PSAC Local 901, this allows them to begin to negotiate a first contract. 

“Traditionally there is a certain amount of time taken to begin to define the job, see who the employees are, form the bargaining committee, figure out what the demands are going to be, go through a process of negotiation, and then have the members ratify the contract,” said Berggold. 

Berggold hopes to have everything “up to speed and running in the fall semester with membership meetings.”

“We can see that in the academic workers there is a trend of unionisation. This progressive movement is not going to stop. People recognize that work should be paid properly,” Berggold said in conclusion.

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