Monday, February 4, 2013

Labour issues at Queen's University

In my capacity as President of PSAC local 901, I wrote this op-ed for the Journal, the student newspaper at Queen's University. You can check out the article on the Journal's website and read all the wonderfully ill-informed comments and unsubstantiated allegations against the union and its supporters which stem from the union drive and first round of bargaining in 2009-2010. Such comments are posted anonymously be people claiming to be union members and who have yet to raise any of these concerns and allegations with the union through its democratic structures (or simply getting in touch with the executive) and back them up with documentation. Some people just don't understand that democracy requires responsibility and accountability.

Collective bargaining is necessary
by Doug Nesbitt
Published by the Queen's Journal, February 1 2013

When it comes to bargaining, a union offers a highly democratic space for Teaching Assistants (TAs) and Teaching Fellows (TFs) to collectively set their agenda for how to improve working, living and learning conditions for ourselves and others at Queen’s and in Kingston.



It’s in this spirit that Queen’s undergraduate TAs and Research Assistants can consider the Queen’s TA/TF union an organization they can turn to for advice regarding workplace issues especially in the wake of legislation like Bill 115.

Queen’s University TAs and TFs, represented by the Public Sector Alliance of Canada (PSAC) local 901, will be renegotiating their collective agreement for the first time this spring. Queen’s Post-Doctoral Fellows are also currently bargaining their first contract with the University.

While the labour environment at Queen’s is fairly peaceful, the wider education sector in Ontario is fairly shaky.

The passage and use of Bill 115 allowed the Liberal cabinet to impose concession-laden contracts on 136,000 teachers by suspending Charter-protected collective bargaining rights, and barring their unions from appealing any part of the process through the Ontario Labour Relations Board or Human Rights Code.

Shortly after the passage of Bill 115 in September, the “Protecting Public Services Act” was drafted. The draft legislation would impose similar contracts enforced by similar ministerial powers on 500,000 public sector workers, including Queen’s TAs and TFs, and anyone else on campus working with a collective agreement.

Fortunately, Queen’s TAs and TFs can bargain freely as Premier McGuinty’s four-month prorogation meant this proposed bill was shelved. Hopefully the new Ontario premier, Kathleen Wynne, won’t revisit this legislation. Premier Wynne has distanced herself from Bill 115, but she has yet to convincingly explain why she voted for it.

Four days before prorogation on October 15, PSAC local 901 elected a bargaining committee at a general membership meeting.

The committee has yet to finalize its bargaining proposals, but priorities are being set by the issues and concerns raised by TAs and TFs about their work experiences.

In our first contract, the union secured a $100,000/year benefits fund from the University. The amount was too little to form an independent benefits plan, so PSAC local 901 and the Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS) negotiated a joint PSAC local 901-SGPS health and dental plan.
The $100,000/year was added to the existing SGPS health and dental plan and benefits all SGPS members regardless of whether or not they’re in the union. The joint plan includes a new emergency dental fund of $15,000/year, and an international student fund of $15,000/year.

The latter plan is to help international students who are covered by the University Health Insurance Plan, which is more expensive and has less coverage than the Ontario Health Insurance Plan enjoyed by Canadian students.

Many union members have expressed a desire for our benefits package to be expanded to improve eye care coverage. PSAC local 901 recently conducted a membership survey in which 66 percent of respondents said they wore eyeglasses or contact lenses. We intend to bargain for an increase in benefits so we can improve the existing eye care coverage of $115 every two years for both frames and lenses.

Another concern raised by members is the replacement of what was once considered a Teaching Fellowship with a Teaching Assistantship. This has resulted in a loss of wages and employment credentials associated with a TFship.

A clarification of TA/TF job descriptions through bargaining is required to prevent members from losing wages and valuable job experience.

TFs in particular have expressed dissatisfaction with the University’s job training standards. The University and union agree that TA/TF training should be compensated.

However, the norm at Queen’s is that only departments have mandatory and paid TA/TF training session.

While the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) offers a wide range of invaluable training sessions for TAs and TFs, only some departments make CTL sessions mandatory, and thus compensated. The uneven nature of TA/TF training from department to department should be of special concern to Queen’s undergrads.

The union is committed to raising the minimum standards of paid TA/TF training at Queen’s and is open to proposals of how this might be addressed, whether in bargaining or by other means.

By allowing TAs and TFs recourse and oversight over the past couple years, PSAC local 901 has been able to build a strong health and dental plan and identify and begin to address a series of minor and sometimes major problems regarding TA/TF work at Queen’s.

Open communication between the membership, departmental stewards, and the executive is essential for the union to function most effectively in this manner.

Departmental stewards are critical in this process, providing the union the eyes and ears to observe the operations of their department and speak with their colleagues about workplace matters, grievances and the union itself.

Queen’s TAs and TFs have a real opportunity to improve our working conditions as well as undergrad learning conditions through the collective bargaining process and the union’s democratic structures.

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