Q: What is SWAG trying to accomplish?
A: SWAG (Student Worker Action Group) wants proper union representation for graduate workers at the University of Alberta. Labour representation is the right of all working people, and as graduate student workers it’s no different for us!
SWAG knows that graduate students are employees as well as students. We require proper representation to support us as we engage with the University in both of these distinct roles. As research assistants, teaching assistants, and instructors we provide academic labour that is crucial to the University of Alberta’s academic mission. Our labour makes the University possible.
Q: But don’t we already have a union?
A: Not exactly. Recent legislation changes by the Government of Alberta now means that academically employed graduate students have most rights under the Labour Relations Code.
What is still lacking is the right to choose how we want to be represented. The law currently designates the Graduate Students Association (GSA) at U of A as the only body that can represent graduate student workers at U of A – even though the GSA is not designed or prepared to be a labour union. As a grassroots organization, SWAG objects to this administrative designation. We believe that graduate student workers at U of A have the same right as other academic workers across Canada to choose which union will represent them.
The GSA is a student representative body. It represents both employed and non-employed graduate students at U of A as they move through their academic programs. While they play a role in university governance and academic advocacy, they do not have the resources, expertise, or services of a labour union.
On other campuses across Canada, graduate student workers have representation from a separate and independent labour union while still maintaining membership in a GSA for social life, academic advocacy, and university governance. Their labour unions can focus on providing expertise on labour relations, collective bargaining, and services and education mainly relevant to academic workers.
Q: Does the university already have a collective agreement protecting our rights similar to those at other universities across Canada?
A: The collective agreement for graduate student workers at U of A does not come close to offering the protections and benefits typically secured through labour union collective agreements. It exists, but it is weak.
While universities across Canada have collective agreements that include language that protects workers from sexual harassment, from religious, gender and race-based discrimination, as well as safety issues and pay equity, the University of Alberta currently includes no language outlining these protections. Other teaching and research assistant unions have also been able to negotiate childcare benefits, financial assistance, specific benefits for international students and much more.
Q: Who cares? Why not just let the GSA act on our behalf?
A: The GSA currently does excellent work in a number of areas, as mentioned above. However, in order to continue to provide good representation on our behalf, they have to balance labour issues with everything else. Unfortunately, this creates two substantial issues: 1) conflict of interest; and, 2) being spread too thin to work effectively.
Because GSA representatives often hold seats on the University’s Board of Governors there is a conflict of interest when representing issues specific to our labour relations. Labour issues – such as disagreements that arise during collective bargaining – could make this relationship much more complex. Should issues occur, the conflict of interest is so significant that GSA representatives may have difficulty deciding whether to side with the workers they represent and the Employer – the Board of Governors. It is clear to us that our labour representatives should always side with their rank and file members.
If all of these labour issues sound like a lot of work, that’s because they are. Our GSA, at its core, is a relatively small organization and relies largely on graduate students to do much of the work while continuing their studies. Most GSA representatives are new to labour issues and labour law and, as graduate students, have extensive research responsibilities outside of the GSA. Like most of us, they’re spread very thin! Elsewhere in the country, where separate labour unions are in place, GSAs can focus more on academic and quality of life issues. A focused and well-structured GSA benefits us all, and a separate union helps do just that. A strong labour union means a strong campus!
Q. But what about union fees? My budget is stretched thin enough without making another payment.
A: We wouldn’t be doing this if we thought we’d be undercutting students’ pay. Looking at other unions teaches us a few important things. First, any union worth it’s salt negotiates with union dues in mind, meaning that a collective agreement should not be ratified without raising the wages enough to cover the fees. (Incidentally, we are paying fees for the GSA to do labour work now, but without the expertise and benefits that come with an established union. It is likely they will begin charging union dues in the near future). More to the point, an established union nearly always increases the overall wages for graduate student workers, further benefiting the workers on campus.
Q. Is it all about money with you?
A: No, of course not. As we look at other universities, we find other tangible benefits to unionization that includes, but not limited to, things like anti-discrimination policies, increased transparency in all aspects of labour, child and health care benefits, among others. That said, transparent contracts, tuition caps, and higher wages are key issues that impact us. In our research we have found that unionized graduate student workers across Canada make $12-20/hour more than we do at the U of A.
Q: Does unionization jeopardize my research and degree progress?
A: No. Unionization will support you in your research program by ensuring that your employment conditions are conducive to your academic success. As graduate students, we want to maintain positive and collegial working environments on campus. We know how important our relationships with our students, supervisors, faculty and the university at large are. Unionization will reinforce our professional relationships by protecting our rights of employment in a ways that is productive for everyone involved.
Typically, unions create protection policies in the event of a strike that would enable students to tend to their research commitments, if being away from their research would result in irreparable loss of research materials. There are many templates available from other campuses in Canada where academic workers have been on strike. This is especially pertinent for sensitive laboratory experiments or data.
Q: How can I participate or lend my support?
A: We need volunteers in many different areas! We encourage graduate employees to join the mailing list on the website at www.studentsareworkers.com. Doing so will keep you informed and up to date on the process and help measure the level of interest in and support for union representation. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions, ideas, or concerns.