The concerns and predicaments of Research Assistants (RA) at Trent will be a thing of the past with guaranteed collective benefits, as they look to become unionized.
The Trent University RA committee has planned to unionize with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 3908. An organizing drive was launched on September 2, and is currently underway.
“Individuals can accomplish more when they work together as a group,” said the President, CUPE Local 3908, Stephen Horner.
This was supported by a statement from the RA committee who said that, “We would like to create a network of RAs having conversation in a union environment to improve and protect the work that they are doing on campus.”
“One of the challenges many RAs face is feeling isolated in their work,” says Ziysah von Bieberstein, an RA who has worked on different projects in various departments over the years.
She said, “like most RAs we have spoken with, my experiences and relationships with my supervisors have been positive.” However, she often had no peers to work with or to share challenges with.
Von Bieberstein was unsure who she would go to if she did encounter a problem at work. She says it is wonderful that so many professors at Trent are ethical and treat their RAs with respect. However, RAs should not have to depend on the good fortune of having a caring supervisor.
Instead, she says, “We need assurance that our rights are protected, and that all RAs will have the same opportunities to have a positive experience.”
Further, there was no clear expectation and standard on either side, both for supervisors and RAs.
She had noticed that it has been stressful for some of the professors that she had worked with, because they wanted to know they were doing the right thing, but really didn’t know what the right thing was. So a more formalized relationship with the union will solve such problems, she said.
One of the founding members of the RA committee, Sean Carleton, said that the RA committee started in 2011.
Since then, they had been working to put RAs across campus into conversation with each other, and conducted a range of surveys to ascertain their working experiences.
Carleton said that it was found that even though the RAs were happy with their supervisors and the flexibility of work, they also expressed fear and desire to have greater protection around the work that they were doing.
Though most RAs were working on short-term contract, many were working for supervisors who were also their academic advisor. So it was felt that this created an awkward power dynamic, that was ultimately imbalanced.
Increasingly they started to realize that people felt unionization would help improve their work. This is not to say that they don’t like their work, but that it will help guarantee some benefits and protection for them, says Carleton.
Similarly, another founding member of the RA committee who was also a former RA, Julia Smith, said that the Trent Graduate Student Association (GSA), who had also conducted their own separate survey, has also concluded that RAs would benefit from unionization.
From the surveys conducted, there were wide varieties of reasons why this would be beneficial, but most common were the hours of work.
Some who were hired to do certain amounts of work would realize when the work actually started that they were working more than the paid hours, explained Smith.
One major issue found from the survey was that the terms of employment changed according to the supervisor’s vagary. That, the RA committee found, was a problem, especially for those whose life was already planned around work.
When such was the situation they had nowhere to go to appeal, and since there are no rules around how changes get made to rules of employment, they felt like they had to accept it.
The absence of a collective voice, able to speak out for the entire RA was another issue. It was found difficult to speak out, particularly for those who were working for someone who had control over their academic life as well as their work life.
Further, according to the RA committee, it can become frustrating when some people have access to good benefits while others do not, even though they are doing similar kinds of work.
The idea is about thinking of RA’s as a whole, they added. If one RA is having a good experience, and if they know another who is not, then the idea is that by working together everyone will benefit, supplemented Smith.
Carleton pointed out how it parallels in some ways to the history of CUPE organization on campus. Previously, when graduate teaching assistants were not organized, there were people questioning why they should benefit when others were having a bad experience, he reminisced.
“The idea we are trying to put forward is a collective benefit for RAs at Trent, current and in the future,” stated Carleton.
“This is an important opportunity for RAs to come together to make a democratic decision about their work at Trent. We really hope everyone will get informed and involved,” added the RA committee.
The Trent University Faculty Association’s (TUFA) Executive Committee has endorsed the campaign initiated to unionize the RAs at Trent. The reasoning stated by TUFA to endorse the campaign was that, “A successful campaign would strengthen the labour community on campus.”
It was further stated that improved terms and conditions of employment for research assistants and post-docs would make Trent more competitive in attracting highly qualified personnel.
Also, TUFA believes they should take a principled lead in advocating for good working conditions for everyone at Trent.
Meanwhile, the RA committee will need at least 40 percent of the RAs to sign a card in order to call for a vote to form a union.
The committee is positive that they are well on their way to getting the number of cards that they need.
After this, a vote will take place, and if more than 50 percent of the vote is in favour, then the RAs at Trent will ultimately be unionized.
[Update: the photo originally used with this article was for illustrative purposes only. The people photographed are merely working in a lab, and are not involved with the unionization movement. The photos were removed from the online article after concerns were expressed by those photographed. We apologize for any inconvenience caused.]