RAs in the News
Additional Reading & Research
Rogers, Eaton & Voos, 2013, Effects of Unionization on Graduate Student Employees: Faculty Student Relations, Academic Freedom, and Pay
“In the unionized departments we surveyed, students reported better personal and professional support relationships with their primary advisors than were reported by their nonunion counterparts.”
“More than 90% of faculty members did not believe graduate student collective bargaining inhibited their own ability to advise or instruct their graduate students, and 88% felt that collective bargaining did not negatively impact…mentoring.”
“Perhaps [Graduate Student Employee] unions strengthen the relationship between students and faculty advisors by pushing potential employment-related conflicts up to the university bureaucracy.”
Kroeger, McNicholas, Wilpert & Wolfe, 2018, The State of Graduate Student Employee Unions: Momentum to Organize among Graduate Student Workers Is Growing Despite Opposition
“The effects of this changing academic economy are twofold—graduate students not only find themselves in challenging economic circumstances while they are in school, but their economic prospects once they have completed their degree are affected as well.”
“It is clear that graduate teaching and research assistants play an integral role in the internal economy of a university by helping to produce research and provide quality education. And yet the pay they receive rarely rises to the level of a living wage.”
“Graduate student workers should have the same rights as any other employee, including the right to organize in unions and bargain for higher wages and better working conditions.”
“Collective bargaining can improve graduate students’ pay and benefits. Collective bargaining through a union would give graduate students power over their employment. … [It] would also help graduate students gain workplace protections and control over their working lives.”
“Graduate work has long been plagues by undercompensation. It is easy to grasp, from a management perspective, the benefits of using graduate students, rather than permanent faculty, as instructional and research labor: the former are incredibly cost effective.”
“As for other contingent employees, graduate assistants’ work responsibilities are often ill defined, so that they find themselves open to exploitations and working well over their designated time … they assume much unpaid work in hopes of building their value.”
“Graduate working conditions [often consist of] short-term contracts with no benefits, vulnerability to arbitrary termination, no minimum wage (much less a living one), and no overtime protection.”
“Since [RAs] typically lack formal collegial protections and (at least for the nonunionized majority) recourse to due process, they often struggle around issues of professional respect and fair treatment in the workplace. Research has long shown environments that lack or impede collegiality, [RA] exclusion from departmental communities, poor mentoring, high pressure to publish, and climate of hyper-competition, all of which degrade the graduate experience and strongly contribute to doctoral attrition.”
“Both working conditions and financial struggles are important influences over the health and well-being of graduate students … It is a well-established fact that prolonged exposure to poor working conditions can degrade mental health. By pursuing a path of optimal efficiency and maximum extraction, universities not only undervalue graduate work but often demand so much of students that [RAs] feel perpetually overloaded. The toxic culture and working conditions in many graduate programs can take a serious psychological toll.”
SFU & R-50
SFU internal regulations and guidelines are designated with a letter and number combination and policies governing research fall under the R heading. Most relevant for research assistants is R-50 which concerns research personnel. Though they might appear at first glance to be neutral, these policies are actively producing precarity for RAs at SFU.
Though ‘research assistant’ is a phrase often applied without distinction, there are four specific kinds of research personnel. Those typically referred to as Research Assistants fall under R-50.02, which governs the employment of personnel funded by research grants.
R-50.02 Breakdown: Personnel Funded from Research Grants
In R-50, grant-funded employees (referred to as Research Assistants with no distinction) are defined nature of their funding. In this subsection, grant holders are outlined the employer, regardless of regulation or legal precedent – offloading SFU’s responsibility as the employer to professors and other members of the academic community.
Click here to see the exact policy language.
1. Policy Purpose – 3. Policy Applicability
The term “grant holder” shall refer to any University employee who is the recipient of grant or contract funds for research purposes.
“Grant funds” shall refer to any grant or contract funds which have been acquired for research purposes by a grant holder, and which have been placed under the custodial and administrative care of the University.
A “grant employee” shall refer to any person who is employed by a grant holder to provide research services, and who is paid either wholly or in part from grant funds.
In this subsection, SFU accepts “custody and administration” of grant funds but maintains that the grant holder is ultimately the employer, accepting no responsibility for the grant employee. Though SFU seeks to encourage “equitable compensation,” they give the grant holder final control over all aspects of work, from wages to assignment of duties.
Click here to see the exact policy language.
4. General – 5. Statement of Responsibilities
4.1. It is recognized that funding sources often require the University to accept responsibility for the custody and administration of grant funds.
4.2. When providing custodial and administrative services to a grant holder, the University is subject to specific direction from the funding agency and is bound by the amount of funds made available.
4.3. While the University seeks to persuade grant holders to provide equitable compensation and benefits for grant employees, control and direction over wage scales, the provision of benefits, hiring, firing and the assignment of duties rest solely with the grant holder.
4.4. The University has no commitment to a grant employee beyond the assistance it provides grant holders with the receipt and disbursement of grant funds.
4.5. Personnel whose income is derived from grant funds remain employees of the grant holder and not the University.
5. Statement of Responsibilities
5.1. With respect to grant holders employing personnel who are engaged under grants or contracts, the University shall exercise the following responsibilities:
(a) The University shall provide custodial and administrative services for the receipt and disbursement of grant funds.
Benefits for RAs
SFU explicitly recommends grant holders to be cautious when allocating benefits to RAs and other employees. Beyond the minimum legislated requirements of the province (see following section), grant holders are not required to provide anything to their employees. Grant holders themselves are often busy working academics, and rarely have the time or expertise to fully engage with these employment standards to figure out fair benefits and compensation — in any case, it’s also not their job.
Though grant-funded research personnel often work hundreds of hours doing jobs that, in other circumstances, would clearly confer benefits, the university’s policies, especially the overwhelming amount of power given to grant holders, leaves them in a precarious, uncertain situation, without benefits, and rarely employed for more than one year.
Click here to see the exact policy language.
Procedures for Research Grant Appointments
(a) The grant holder determines the need for employment, confirms that the salary and employer portion of the benefit premiums are reimbursable from the grant, and negotiates the terms and conditions of employment. All employees in B.C. must be provided at least the minimum employment rights legislated by statute or regulation. The relevant provisions are outlined in the attachment entitled “Obligations As Employer”. The costs associated with these are charged to the grants.
2.2. Optional Benefits
In addition to legislated requirements, if the grant holder so elects, the following optional employee benefits could be made available through the University to grant employees who meet eligibility requirements (if the grant terms permit the charging of related costs). These are:
• Medical Services Plan
• Extended Health Dental – after one year of continuous service for a grant holder.
It should be understood that no benefits can carry financial obligations that could extend beyond the period of the funding. Commitments to employees must, therefore, be approached with caution. Human Resources should be contacted for clarification as to which plans apply and the related employer and employee costs.
Obligations for Employers
British Columbia mandates a number of obligations which employers must meet. In this subsection, SFU outlines that grant holders, as employers, must meet these mandates but must do so on their own. Though things like payroll are not handled by the grant holder, SFU requires grant holder to make important decisions regarding their employees – like creating contracts and terms of employment that meet SFU and government requirements, as well as creating their own job expectations. SFU has written into policy that grant holders must go above and beyond their job descriptions.
Click here to see the exact policy language.
Obligations as Employer for Grant Holder
1. Minimum Legislated Requirements
1.1. When you hire individuals to work for you or your research grant or contract there are legislated employment obligations which you have as an employer, and these must be observed. The following brief outline is provided to assist you in establishing the minimum conditions of employment for your employees.
Other RA Unions
RA Union Victories
Research Assistants (RAs) at SFU face a variety of challenges which a union can provide assistance with. RAs are presently included in at least ten Canadian university unions, usually alongside other academic workers like Teaching Assistants and Postdoctoral students. These unions have fought for everything from pay raises to intellectual property protection, bargaining collectively on behalf of their members with the school for improved conditions in many areas.
Carleton University – CUPE 4600
Carleton’s CUPE 4600 faced a dramatic situation in Fall 2018: without notice, the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs cut off benefits claims for TAs and RAs because the budget had been depleted. Advance notice of such a freeze was part of the collective agreement and was not given. By February 2019, the union had negotiated for an additional contribution by the school to the benefits plan and resumed the claim process.
For more on the sudden freeze of benefits claims and the union’s efforts to end it, see The Charlatan’s coverage and visit CUPE 4600’s website here.
Concordia University – TRAC
Teaching and Research Assistants of Concordia (TRAC) began as two Units, splitting TA and RA contracts. Merged in 2016, the 2018 collective agreement covered both positions, and as a five year deal, provides long-term stability and regularity for students.
Unions often run campaigns to educate workers about their rights under the law and regarding their particular collective agreement. You can check out some of TRAC’s employee awareness campaign here.
Lakehead University – CUPE 3905
Unions often administer bursaries and awards to support members and their work. CUPE 3905 awards 15 (sometimes more) $500 Professional Development Bursaries each year to assist with important expenses like conference and event travel, in addition to $1000 Graduate Awards.
You can read more about benefits like the Professional Development Bursary here.
McGill University – AMURE
The Association of McGill University Research Employees (AMURE) has negotiated for entry into a variety of university plans, including group life insurance, long-term disability, pensions, supplemental health and dental plans, and the short term disability policy. Though access to these plans is often based on the length and total wage of one’s salary, the union fought for wage increases even for casual research assistants, who are largely not eligible for benefits.
You can read more about the union’s fight for increased pay and better benefits here.
McMaster University – CUPE 3906
CUPE 3906 Unit 1, TAs/RAs, is presently in bargaining, operating from a set of priorities passed by membership in a vote before negotiations began. These include greater funding, more paid training, better representation of Indigenous members, expanded health and wellness support, and improved working conditions.
Negotiations with the administration show just how important the union’s ability to bargain collectively is: McMaster has repeatedly insisted on working as if the unpassed Bill 124 is law, which would limit yearly benefits and wage increases to 1%, and has tabled proposals to terminate the minimum length for contracts and end guaranteed TAship for graduate students. Without union representation, these policies could have been implemented without resistance.
Read about the process of ratifying the bargaining team’s priorities & check out the unions’ summaries of the first months of bargaining here.
Memorial University of Newfoundland – TAUMUN
Unions like the Teaching Assistants’ Union of Memorial University of Newfoundland (TAUMUN) often negotiate for and manage discretionary funds which they use to assist their members. Starting in 2019, Memorial University of Newfoundland pays $20,000 into both a travel and employee assistance fund operated by TAUMUN. This money allows the union to subsidize conference trips and other important travel, as well as support members in crisis situations or with unexpected needs.
Listen to several TAUMUN members describe what the union has done for them here.
University of Ottawa – CUPE 2626
CUPE 2626 recently secured paid training for all its members – approximately $200 per person for mandatory Health and Safety time. In the last round of bargaining, the administration sought to remove tuition increase limits, which the union was able to preserve at 1.5% a year. The union also went through extended arbitration to assert the membership rights of co-op and work study students, who were often working for a rate well below union employees. Ultimately CUPE 2626 was able to ensure fair pay, access to benefits and funds, and union representation for research workers of both types.
Read a summary of CUPE 2626’s bargaining priorities and results here.
Queen’s University – PSAC 901
RAs ratified their first collective agreement as part of PSAC 901 at Queen’s University in April 2019. Throughout the campaign for unionisation, the precariousness of research work was a recurring issue, and wage parity with TAs for RAs was ultimately achieved — $42.73/hr. Another major demand was for clarified and strengthened rules around RA’s intellectual property and recognition of their contribution to research, which was implemented in the first collective agreement.
You can read more about the first collective agreement for Queen’s RAs here.
Ryerson University – OPSEU 596
Ryerson’s recent collective agreement includes several important gains, including clarifying and strengthening policies related to harassment and bullying in addition to ensuring union representation and assistance during the grievance process.
You can read more about OPSEU’s gains in their 2018 collective agreement here, including extended health coverage, increased pay, and a variety of other benefits.