Union drive rekindled as GSA, admin talks continue
By Colleen MacPherson
Graduate students employed as teaching assistants and in other capacities across campus are once again being asked to signify their wish to be certified as a new local of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) even as talks continue in an effort to address some of their concerns.
Nakul Aloni, Vice-President Operations and Administration with the U of S Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) and a member-organizer for CUPE, said he and organizers have been visiting every department and college on campus encouraging their colleagues to sign union cards. But, as with a certification drive that started in late 2003, there are questions about exactly how many students are eligible to participate.
“The list (of eligible students) is always ambiguous,” said Aloni.
Under Saskatchewan Labour law, if 25 per cent of eligible students sign cards, application for certification can be made to the Saskatchewan Labour Board. If 50 per cent plus one sign on, certification is automatic. Aloni estimated there are 450-550 eligible students, but both the union and the employer must agree on a final number. So far, he said, “administration has not given us a 100-per-cent true list.”
Laura Seibel, a labour consultant with the Human Resources Division (HRD) responded by saying University administration has not provided the GSA or CUPE with a list and, “pursuant to the Trade Union Act, the employer is not required to provide a list before the application is filed with the (Saskatchewan) Labour Board”.
For its part, the union that is helping with the drive declined to specify how many students it considers eligible and therefore, how many cards are required. Rhonda Heisler, a member organizer and first vice-president of CUPE 1975, which represents the University’s support staff, said the union does not want to give any information to the employer until the drive wraps up. The process, which began in mid-November, is allowed to continue for six months.
Wages and working conditions continue to be the main issues of concern for grad students employed by the University, said Aloni. He pointed to his own situation where he is paid $14.63 per hour for seven hours a week to mark a first-year course, “but I usually end up working 14-15 hours”. And he said he has little choice about working the hours “because I really, really need the money”.
Last fall, after the first certification drive failed to get the support needed to proceed, the GSA, HRD and the College of Graduate Studies and Research entered into discussions about the concerns of the students.
In addition to wages and working conditions, a GSA spokesperson said in October that getting detailed job descriptions and signed contracts for students as well as the desire for outside mediators to settle disputes were also issues that needed to be addressed. Also speaking last fall, an HRD representative said the union certification effort “was a signal to the University that we need to find our where their concerns are”.
Those discussions, begun in 2004, have continued on a monthly basis, according to Glen Hilton, an HRD consultant. While it has no intention of interfering with the union drive, the University has talked with the students about three specific concerns, he said, including the need for “a voice” in sorting out employment-related issues. HRD agreed to assign labour analyst Wade Epp as a central contact for graduate students. Epp said his role is to ensure the students’ questions are answered and concerns are addressed by the appropriate party.
The groups are also working together on a standard profile describing “the things you could be expected to do (as a graduate student)” in any college on campus, Hilton said.
The third issue is wages. Hilton said the grad students have not had a wage increase since 2002, so “what I’ve said to them is, “What if I was able to secure you an increase?” He pointed out the groups are not negotiating, simply talking, and if the grad students agree, a proposal for an increase would have to go before the Board of Governors.
Aloni said his current pay of $14.63 per hour “is not bad for Saskatchewan”, but he said his counterparts at the University of Regina receive over $16.00 per hour.
Jon Anuik, who takes over as GSA president May 1, said $15.53 was reported as the proposed new pay rate at the association’s recent annual general meeting, but Hilton said that number is probably simply the top of the range suggested in the discussions.
Heisler said while Local 1975 is assisting grad students with their organizing drive, national CUPE representative would work with them to form an independent local if their efforts are successful.
“I think we’d be heavily involved to the extend they want us to be but we’d like to see all our satellite locals become completely self-sufficient. We want them to direct us as to how much they want us involved.”