CUPE 2278 president 'optimistic' four months into student academic worker union drive

Four months into a unionization drive, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 2278 President Emily Cadger is “optimistic” about the prospects of the campaign to organize research assistants and other student academic workers. 

Cadger, a Ph.D. art history student, said in an interview with The Ubyssey that the campaign saw a slowdown over the break as students’ attention turned towards exams but expects energy to return following organizer meetings held at the start of the semester.

Cadger said that the campaign has been aimed at students working in medicine, engineering and science, mainly because their positions are easiest to locate within labs and other in-person research facilities.

“We are trying to get more involved with some of the arts and humanities and social sciences, with the understanding that a lot of those departments rely heavily on [teaching assistants] not necessarily [research assistants]," Cadger said. "So we don't want them to feel like they've been left out. It's just harder to find them.”

She explained that organizers have also struggled to connect students working in off-campus facilities or remotely, and 2278 is currently strategizing on how to connect with them further.

Local 2278 currently represents “more than 2,000 academic workers at UBC, including teaching assistants, tutors, markers, and English language instructors.” In November, exam invigilators working for the Centre for Accessibility unionized and joined CUPE 2278 following a three-week campaign.

The local’s president says they’ve been primarily engaging people through social media and campus postering, and reaching out to eligible workers based on department. Social events have also been organized, which Cadger said has worked well to connect student workers with the campaign as well as each other, countering pandemic isolation.

"[Events] been a really good way for departments to just connect a lot of their grad students together ... [in COVID] interrelations seem to have dropped a bit," she said.

CUPE National and CUPE BC have given their support to 2278, but the campaign remains student-operated and oriented, Cadger said. Cadger added that she is happy to have the support of the AMS and GSS.

The current campaign, which was launched last September, has six months under the Labour Relations Code to obtain signatures that represent 55 per cent of eligible workers to be automatically certified as having formed a union. If the drive returns at least 45 per cent but less than 55 per cent, the Code requires a representation vote to be held among workers to make a decision. 

The Code was amended last April to allow for this certification process, which, according to a Ministry of Labour press release, enables “workers to join a union when a clear majority of employees indicate they want to, as is the case in jurisdictions such as Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and federally regulated workplaces.”

When the local announced the campaign, UBC said in a statement to The Ubyssey that the university “respects the right of individuals to organize pursuant to the provisions of the Labour Relations Code and the university’s labour relations environment.”

With the halfway mark behind them, organizers are confident that the campaign will achieve its objectives.

“I do think we’re definitely going to succeed in this,” Cadger said.