Research assistants bargain against two-year wage freeze, lack of intellectual property

Union campaigns on campus, sends hundreds of postcards to Principal Woolf

Students send postcards to Principal Woolf.
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Queen’s research assistants have spent five years fighting for fair wages—but they might not see any improvements for another two years.
 
At a bargaining meeting on Monday, the University’s first wage proposal for research assistants included a two-year freeze, meaning assistants who currently hold contracts with Queen’s wouldn’t receive any pay increases or health and dental benefits until 2021. 
 
The problem, according to Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) Local 901 President Craig Berggold, is many research assistants will have graduated by then.
 
“Asking us to wait another two years for a wage increase is unacceptable because we’ve already waited five years to get to this point,” he said in an interview with The Journal on Wednesday.  
 
In 2014, approximately 600 research assistants at Queen’s voted on union certification, but the ballots weren’t counted until 2017. 
 
According to Berggold, the University contested the employee status of research assistants after the vote, prompting the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) to freeze the ballot count until it made a ruling on whether they were students or employees.
 
The University declined a request for confirmation of its contestation.
 
“The current negotiations between the [U]niversity and PSAC are in respect of a first contract for graduate students employed as research assistants,” Director of Faculty Relations Michael Villeneuve wrote in a statement to The Journal. “Given that we are in negotiations, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.” 
 
“The [U]niversity remains committed to the collective bargaining process.”
 
After around 50 research assistants came forward as witnesses to the OLRB, the Board made a ruling classifying them as employees on Feb. 16, 2017, allowing them to count the ballots and unionize.PSAC has had 15 meetings with the University’s faculty of relations over the past 10 months, bargaining for its first contract with research assistants. They’re hoping to eventually be paid the same rate as teaching assistants, who currently earn an hourly wage of $41.37. 
 
“This is our first contract, and that’s what makes this a really exciting round of organizing and bargaining, because the bargaining team is trying to ensure the standards for our first contract represent what we need,” Berggold said.  
 
Vice-President of PSAC Local 901 Suhaylah Sequeira told The Journal one of the Alliance’s biggest concerns going into bargaining was differentiating research assistant employee work and Graduate Research Assistant Fellowship (GRAF) work—which is work related to a student’s thesis. 
 
“What we found is that, in the sciences, a lot of people who are under GRAF contracts are also conducting employee work,” Sequeira said. “As we went into bargaining, that was our first really big discussion—how to draw that line.”
 
GRAF students receive their funding in funding packages, while research assistants usually receive contracts in addition to their packages. 
 
According to Berggold, however, many GRAF students perform work unrelated to their theses. 
 
“A lot of the GRAF [students] were also being asked in the labs to supervise undergrads, which isn’t related to their theses,” he said, adding other non-thesis activities included fixing machines and cleaning labs.
 
“Nobody’s doing a chapter in their thesis on how to clean a lab.” 
 
Another surprise at the most recent bargaining meeting was the University’s position on intellectual property rights.
 
“It’s one of the hurdles that was unexpected at the table,” Berggold said. “They tabled very limited intellectual property language and we were quite surprised by that.”
 
He added getting credit for work is “very important” to a research assistant’s success.
 
“We say publish or perish. If we can’t achieve that recognition in this contract, it’ll be very difficult for our members to ratify any deal, no matter how much money is on the table.”
 
According to Sequeira, while not every research assistant contributes original ideas to the research they’re working on, many of them do.
 
“Quite a few, especially Masters and PhD students [who’ve] been in their field of study quite some time, do contribute original ideas,” she said. “We were very taken aback to basically hear from the University that intellectual property rights and language didn’t really apply to research assistants.”
 
The University declined a request for comment on its discussion of intellectual property rights at the meeting.
 
Berggold stressed, however, the biggest issue PSAC’s facing is the potential two-year wage freeze. 
 
Several other Ontario universities pay research assistants the same hourly wage as teaching assistants, according to documents obtained by The Journal. The University of Ottawa pays both its teaching and research assistants $43.98. At Carleton, teaching and research assistants are both paid $41.70, and at McMaster, both are paid $43.63. 
 
At McGill, research assistants earn $34.61 an hour, more than its teaching assistants who earn $29.33. 
 
According to Berggold, many research assistants at Queen’s only earn minimum wage.
 
Adriana Zichy is a research assistant in her final year of law school. When she graduates, she’ll be $85,000 in debt. 
 
She makes $14.50 an hour. 
 
“I think it’s frustrating, because research assistants contribute so much to the publication process and support so much of the faculty’s work,” Zichy said in an interview with The Journal. “I think we should be paid fairly for that time and effort.” 
 
Along with other research assistants, Zichy’s been campaigning with PSAC across campus for fair wages. As well as handing out over 500 comic books, the campaigners 
are inviting members of the Queen’s community to send postcards to Principal Daniel Woolf.
 
Zichy said hundreds of students and faculty have sent postcards to Woolf, including one professor who wrote that “no research assistance equals no publications.” 
 
“We have professors coming and signing all the time, sharing their thoughts,” she said. “There’s a lot of broad support on campus for the campaign.”
 
PSAC will meet with the Faculty of Relations again on Mar. 25 for the next round of bargaining. 
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