Originally published in the Queen's Journal, October 1 2013
I post it here with the title I proposed.
At the moment, both bargaining units of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) Local 901 are engaged in negotiations with Queen’s University.
Unit One, representing 1,300 graduate teaching assistants (TAs) and
teaching fellows (TFs), started bargaining their second contract in May.
Their first contract was signed in 2011 after they unionized the year
Post-doctoral fellows, represented by Unit Two, are bargaining their
first contract and unfortunately, this process has taken almost three
years. Queen’s has recently added three new conciliation dates to
negotiate with PSAC.
In November 2010, Queen’s post-docs voted 66 per cent in favour of
forming a union. However, the ballots weren’t counted until eight months
The ballot count was delayed because Queen’s University launched a challenge at the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB), arguing that post-docs were independent contractors, not employees of the University.
Having finally unionized, bargaining for a first contract only started in April 2012.
Earlier this month, after eighteen months of bargaining, Queen’s
post-docs delivered a 92 per cent strike authorization vote. While
providing a legal mandate for a strike in order to achieve a fair and
reasonable contract, the vote also provides more leverage for the
post-doc bargaining team at the negotiating table.
The need for such leverage isn’t simply a function of a long
bargaining process. It also stems from the unwillingness of the employer
to offer a wage increase for all post-docs. They are offering small
increases for some post-docs, but only after 2015.
Between 2011 and August 2013, the Consumer Price Index, as defined by
Statistics Canada, increased 2.7 per cent (and 5.9 per cent since the
vote in 2010). Assuming inflation will continue to climb, post-docs face
the prospect of a decline in real incomes if there’s no increase in
compensation equal to or above the rate of inflation.
The University has advanced two arguments for why post-docs can’t have a wage increase sufficient to protect against inflation.
The first, according to the post-doc bargaining team, is that much of
that money would come from faculty members themselves. However, the
Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA)
has endorsed the post-doc bargaining efforts specifically its efforts
“for protection against inflationary erosion of compensation,” as well
as compensation for the University’s mandatory training required of
In its second reason for no compensation increases, Queen’s
University has cited a 2012 letter circulated to public sector employers
by Dwight Duncan, the Ontario Minister of Finance. The letter, which is
a non-binding and non-legal document, recommends zero per cent wage
increases in the public sector.
Duncan had also made the same recommendation in 2009. In both cases,
legislation was never passed and numerous employers and unions,
including universities, bargained together without incident to achieve
wage increases that protected against inflation.
It’s unfair for Queen’s to cite this letter as a rationale for no wage increases when the document has no legal weight.
The letter of support from QUFA also
explicitly endorses health and dental coverage for post-docs. Queen’s
post-docs don’t have automatic dental coverage from the University, nor
do they have child care benefits. They are the only full-time employees
on campus without these benefits.
Post-docs can buy into existing plans, such as the joint Society of Graduate and Professional Studies (SGPS)-PSAC 901 health and dental plan. However, buying into a plan is very costly and dependent on two factors.
First, until a contract is signed, post-docs depend on a supervising
faculty member who is willing to pay. This is unfair to both faculty and
Second, the University as an employer has no system to ensure all
post-docs are informed about their health and dental options, options
which are not uniformly accessible.
Only by forming an organization have post-docs been able to develop a
system of information sharing in order to identify common concerns and
address them in bargaining.
The specifics of post-doc bargaining may seem distant from the
immediate concerns of undergrads at Queen’s. After all, there are only
about 200 post-docs compared to about 16,000 undergrads. However, the
University’s position on compensation will have wider ramifications when
it comes to bargaining between TAs and TFs.
Will the University also insist on a zero per cent increase from TAs
and TFs? This would be doubly damaging to TAs and TFs, who also have to
pay tuition fees out of their grants and employment earnings.
This would be further compounded by the School of Graduate Studies
new restrictions for Ontario Graduate Scholarship applicants and the
increasingly punitive and unrealistic time-to-completion rules.
These are unfortunately the new realities of the post-secondary
education sector; realities which have seen Queen’s TAs and TFs,
post-docs, academic assistants and administrative staff unionize in the
past four years.
While Queen’s retains a reputation as one of Canada’s premiere
universities, it hasn’t escaped the two-decade restructuring of how the
post-secondary education sector is funded.
Tuition fees have come to comprise ever-greater proportions of
university revenue, which has contributed to ballooning student debt.
Labour costs are being restrained through the massive growth of
short-term faculty contracts and a downloading of marking and other work
to graduate (and even undergraduate) TAs.
Unionization and collective bargaining are responses to these general
trends as they manifest themselves in immediate “bread and butter”
issues, like health and dental coverage and protection from inflation.
In doing so, collective bargaining is an opportunity that helps
funding get directed to the people who do the work that makes
undergraduate education and world-class research possible.