The nature of research and funding for these workers makes standardization complex
Student group Organize UVic is campaigning for graduate research assistants (GRAs) to unionize. This would mean GRAs on campus — who hold various positions in all departments — joining the UVic Local sector (4163) of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).
After GRAs at UBC successfully signed enough unionization cards to move the unionization process to a hearing adjudicated by the BC Labour Relations Board, organizers at UVic were motivated to start a similar campaign.
Nell Perry, a master’s student and a member of Organize UVic, says she felt called to seek unionization when she saw discrepancies between the employment of teaching assistants (TAs), who belong to CUPE, and GRAs who do not.
Perry has worked in both roles, and says that the unionization of TAs with CUPE 4163 in 1998 was instrumental in ensuring fair work hours, same rates of pay, and a place for TAs to report inequitable treatment.
In Perry’s TA positions, she receives a contract well in advance of the academic year, and has access to information about her salary, work hours, and who she will be working for. In contrast, with a research assistant position, she explains that workers most often negotiate their own contracts, supervisors often don’t have a lot of control or structure around their roles, and the variables of the job are more “loosey goosey.”
She adds that while her pay as a GRA — which comes from a government grant — is decent, she has heard that GRAs in other departments are making below minimum wage for their work.
Greg Melnechuk, president of CUPE 4163, says “a lot of TAs are also RAs, so they’re seeing this real discrepancy. In one work role, they have a lot of rights, and in another work role, they have very, very few rights.”
Brad Buckham, chair of the mechanical engineering department at UVic, has been a professor in the department for 20 years. He has supervised the research of many GRAs.
Buckham says that the values of unionization — to create an equitable, productive, and fairly compensating work environment — are undoubtedly important in supporting the work of student researchers. However, he also identifies a few key reasons why the consistencies of TAships don’t apply to GRA positions.
The first has to do with funding. A given department’s TA budget is relatively predictable and stable as it is provided from within UVic and based on years of experience running relatively unchanged classes. GRAs in different departments (and even GRAs under different supervision within the same department) are funded by different scholarships, grants, or donations.
Additionally, Buckham adds, the cost of living in B.C. continues to rise, while many of these sources of funding remain near stagnant.
“That’s the square peg we’re trying to round off here,” says Buckham.
To fairly pay GRAs from near-stagnant grant funds as the cost of living increases, supervisors must hire fewer of them, Buckham explains. His research team has already become smaller for this reason. But, he adds, that also means that fewer opportunities exist for prospective GRAs and that the sizes of research teams may shrink, which will cause its own concerns.
These decisions are made by individual supervisors and within departments — they are not one-size-fits-all, top-down decisions made by the university.
“There’s all kinds of ways that a faculty supervisor might try to manage the situation as best they can. But then inevitably, that leads to different solutions,” says Buckham.
The second inconsistency Buckham identifies between possible TA and GRA unionization deliverables has to do with the nature of research.
For Buckham, unionization by definition “means to standardize how, when, and where we work,” and the idea of GRAs unionizing represents a fundamental clash between the ideals of unionization and the nature of the work that GRAs do.
Buckham explains that the research projects taken on by GRAs are all dramatically different in terms of their respective setting, required equipment, research question, and potential difficulties.
The nature of research was also one of the reasons why UBC objected to the unionization of their GRAs.
“[The] objection of UBC is that [GRAs] are not employees, and therefore should not be given the rights and protections of unionization,” says Sam Connolly, president of CUPE 2278 and master’s student at UBC.
A UBC spokesperson confirms that their opposition to CUPE 2278’s platform has to do with the fact that GRAs are considered students under the B.C. Labour Relations Code, and are pursuing scholarly activity. Thus, the compensation they receive is treated as a scholarship award, not a wage for hourly work.
“I think it’s pretty indisputable that graduate students and the research that they perform is a necessity for a university. That’s where the bulk of their research comes from. That’s really how they create value for themselves. So our position is, of course, research is work,” Connolly explains.
Organize UVic will need 55 per cent of GRAs to sign cards in order to automatically unionize with CUPE 4163, or over 45 per cent to sign cards in order for a vote to be held before the Labour Relations Board.
The only problem is, the group won’t know what percentage of GRAs have signed cards unless they have access to the total number of GRAs at UVic — which they don’t.
“That is kind of part of the reason [that] we need a union,” explains Perry.
The university knows how many GRAs there are, says Perry, but because they are categorized under many different titles — like “data analyst” or “program assistant” — it would likely require the university to consolidate that data before they could deliver a figure.
“I would suspect that UVic won’t be releasing those numbers to us. We’ll be on our own to try to figure that out, and it won’t be until the time to certify or have a representation vote that we’ll know what their numbers are,” says Melnechuk.
UVic declined to comment on whether they currently know the total number of GRAs at the university or on whether they plan to disclose that information to Organize UVic or CUPE 4163.
“It’s a bit of … an ambiguous process, but I think things are going to go very well,” says Perry. Organize UVic is sourcing information about the number of GRAs at UVic from the workers directly to build a picture of how many GRAs are employed within each department.
In an email to the Martlet, a spokesperson says UVic has a positive working relationship with CUPE 4163. The university supports their employees’ right to organize and looks forward to discussing next steps with them.
“We had a great discussion with [UVic] and we’re confident that they’ll respect the rights of workers to join a union,” Melnechuk corroborates. However, organizers may still face challenges from UVic like those that Organize UBC faced during their hearing.
Buckham says that if GRAs, CUPE 4163 organizers, and research supervisors can have conversations about the process of unionizing TAs and how that process might apply to GRAs, people in his position are more than willing to do so.
“But we can’t forego that conversation and ignore some of these significant differences between the [G]RA environment and the TA environment,” he says.
CUPE 4163 currently represents over 2 000 workers at UVic, including TAs, ESL instructors, Computer Help Desk workers, sessional instructors, and residence community leaders. The events of the coming months will determine whether GRAs will successfully join this union group.
“Really, [this is] based on the fundamental belief that we all deserve safe, fair, and transparent workplaces, and unionizing is one of the most consistent … ways of making that happen,” says Perry.