March 10, 2007

UNB Grad Students Start to Unionize

UNB graduate students start to unionize university
Administration may be surprised.

By Chris Arsenault
Published Thursday March 8th, 2007

In 1912, workers at the Pender nail factory in Saint John organized a union to push for a nine hour work-day and holiday pay. James Pender, the factory's owner, was described as a "most excellent citizen" by the Saint John Sun, but he still demanded "confiding dupes" put in more than nine hours a day, six days a week and was incensed by their desire to form a union.

Today, the University of New Brunswick, a respectable institution of higher education with upstanding character, is facing a similar problem Pender dealt with almost a century ago.

For the last three weeks, teaching assistants (TAs) and research assistants (RAs) at UNB have been passing out leaflets, hosting BBQs and conducting a workplace census as they try to get organized. TAs and RAs are graduate students who provide research assistance to professors and teaching help to students.

"We are hearing many students are working more hours than they are getting paid for, so that's likely something we'll be organizing around," said Michelle LeBlanc, a teaching assistant in engineering and president of the union of graduate students.

According to the union of graduate students, student workers at UNB are amongst the lowest paid RAs and TAs in the country, with an average wage of $18-23/hr. Wages are higher at unionized universities: graduate TAs earn $30.46/hr at Carleton, while the University of Regina pays $36.92/hr.

Still, money isn't a main issue in the campaign. Graduate students seem more interested in gaining a stronger, legally recognized voice on university committees, like the board of governors, says LeBlanc.

Currently, the process of who gets funding for research and who receives TA positions, "varies from semester to semester and professor to professor," says LeBlanc. "Thus many graduate students don't know where next month's rent or grocery money is going to come from." Grad student organizers think having a union will make these decisions less arbitrary and haphazard.

UNB public relations officer Natalie Montgomery, wasn't able to comment on the union drive. According to LeBlanc, "The administration hasn't said anything yet and we aren't going out of our way to see what they say."

If 60 per cent of graduate students sign a union card and pay $1, then TAs and RAs will have union representation from the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). Once they're unionized, TAs and RAs will elect a committee to bargain for a contract with the university, which will set out policies for hours of work, benefit packages and wages.

"We've had terrific support from international students in this campaign," said Dave Shaw, Atlantic regional organizer from PSAC. "Some international students come from places like Colombia or mainland China, where unionism can literally get you killed, so it's really amazing to watch them jump into organizing wholeheartedly," said Shaw, who recently returned from Newfoundland where graduate students at Memorial University voted to organize.

Around 30 per cent of Canadian workers are union members, and most people in New Brunswick work for a living, but labour issues receive scant media attention. "I don't think people understand the word 'union' right away," said LeBlanc.

Every daily newspaper has a business section. There isn't a single major Canadian paper with a labour section, even though most of us are workers, not business owners. Strikes, lockouts and contract disputes receive press coverage, which of course stresses conflict, strife and the affect of labor disputes on consumers.

It wasn't always this way. In the 1960s-70s, most major newspapers had at least one reporter specializing in labour issues. Today this isn't the case.

Media stories, perhaps inadvertently, maybe systematically, make one unforgivable mistake when covering labour issues. The union is portrayed as an outside body; a political force separate from the workers themselves.

"Each individual member has a voice in the union," says LeBlanc.

Workers at the Pender nail factory in Saint John, 1912, eventually won the nine hour day and over-time pay on Saturdays. It wasn't an easy struggle, but it made all of us better off. Hopefully TAs and RAs at UNB will achieve similar victories.

Chris Arsenault is taking a six week sabbatical. His column will return in April.

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