The Unionization Movement

May 16th, 2006 by Potato

Today there was a vote on campus today about whether or not graduate students who don’t have teaching assistantships (namely, research assistants) should unionize. I was tired, busy, and completely torn on the issue, so I ended up abstaining.

On the one hand, I liked the idea of forming a union. Graduate students are some of the brightest people coming out of their bachelor degrees (at least academically, since we obviously have no common sense), and spend years — the prime years — of their lives toiling away in research making less than minimum wage. A union might be able to get us some human decency and a pay raise.

However, I also appreciate that the university doesn’t have a whole ton of money kicking around for grad students (and actually recently instituted the minimum stipend support); likewise, research grants only stretch so far — our whole R&D system is predicated on the essentially volunteer efforts of the grad student army. I doubt a union would get much in the way of salary then, though I still hold some hope for a better dental plan and some perks like paid maternity leave and perhaps an injunction against our supervisors saying that they expect us to be in the lab 50+ hours a week, because research isn’t like a regular job.

Even then, I just don’t see an RA union having much teeth: the research we do goes into our thesis, that’s our lives, not our jobs. A job action (which is what’s usually needed to squeeze anything approaching even the rate of inflation out of the university) wouldn’t be well attended — who wants to put their whole lives on hold? So many of us cut our budgets so close to the bone (or even have to rack up student debts for the years living away from home), that even with strike pay a prolonged strike would run the very real risk of not getting the rent paid.

With all that, unions have their down sides too. For starters, what if they tried to equalize the pay for all grad students? Right now, science students have it slightly better than arts or social science students (partly because of the dangerous environments we do our research in, partly due to having funding agencies with slightly deeper pockets). If a union brought everyone to the same level, it’s possible I’d be shooting myself in the foot. Union bureaucracy is well-known, and not usually for the best (whether it’s mandatory advertising and competition for positions, or setting limits about what non-union vs union members can do, and of course, rewarding seniority above any other form of merit).

A memo was sent around:

To: Academic and Administrative Leaders
Date: May 15, 2006
From: Jane O’Brien, AVP, Human Resources;
Subject: Graduate Research Assistants – Certification Vote

I am writing to let you know the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) has made an application to the Ontario Labour Relations Board to unionize Graduate Research Assistants on our campus. This memo provides some information concerning union legislation, Western’s position on PSAC’s application, and an important vote that is happening tomorrow, May 16.

First, under the Ontario Labour Relations Act, only individuals who are determined by the Ontario Labour Relations Board to be employees of an employer can be unionized. At Western, Graduate Research Assistants have never been considered to be employees of the University. For example, the funds Graduate Research Assistants receive are not considered employment income, and are therefore not subject to income tax deductions and deductions for CPP and EI. [emphasis mine, because it’s not true]

Western’s position is that Graduate Research Assistantships are a mechanism to help graduate students academically and financially with the completion of their research associated with their graduate studies. For this reason, the University has asked the Labour Board to dismiss PSAC’s application to represent Graduate Research Assistants. The Board will rule on this request in due course.

However, in the interim, the Labour Board has ordered a vote to be held tomorrow, May 16, 2006 between 10:00 am and 5:00 pm in Michael’s Garden, Room 3320, Somerville House. All Graduate Research Assistants will be eligible to vote and the outcome will determine whether they will be certified as a union under PSAC. The University is encouraging all Graduate Research Assistants to participate in this important vote to ensure their voice is heard.

That’s also contributing to my inclination to just abstain from this vote. Why bother going all the way out there to vote if there’s a good chance it will be determined that we’re not employees after all. Personally, I think we are (while we are here to learn, the vast majority of our day-to-day time is spent working on our own, producing intellectual property or learning on our own without active instruction). However, I can see that the university has a good case here, seeing as how after tuition we make much less than minimum wage, which would probably be illegal if we were employees — though on paper we do make the cut thanks to them paying us enough for tuition then taking it right back. Which is something I’ve always considered a little dubious considering how few classes we take, and how we have to maintain continuous enrollment for all three terms. It just seems like administrative waste to have us pay the tuition then get it right back in stipends/scholarships (except for the few students like me who go over the alloted time for their degree or whose average drops below 78 and have to pay it out of pocket).

I also wonder about some of their statements regarding us not being employees — because we do get knocked for CPP & EI. They don’t take tax off, but that’s only because our income is so low they know we’ll just get it all back at the end of the year anyway (and we can ask to have the tax taken off if we’re afraid other sources of income will put us over and we’d have to pay).

Anyway, as I’m posting this the vote is long since over, so I’ll be keeping an eye on things to see how they go. It could be interesting.

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