How a grassroot movement may unionize graduate research assistants

The Organize UBC movement is a student-led initiative to unionize student academic workers. 55 per cent of graduate research assistants (RAs) have signed union cards to join CUPE 2278, an initial show of support for the Organize movement

In late April, CUPE 2278 filed a demand to the BC Labour Board to include graduate research assistants into their collective bargaining agreement — the arbitration of which is still ongoing.

How did Organize UBC get there?

Emily Cadger, the president of CUPE 2278, is leading the movement with the help of organizers Tina Rothchild, a PhD candidate in the chemistry department, Sam Connolly, a masters student in physics and medicine and Tatiana Lau, a first-year PhD student in microbiology and immunology.

Since September 2022, organizers and supporters have worked within their faculties and departments to discuss common concerns and the potential benefits or unionization.

In an interview with The Ubyssey, Cadger said the current campaign to include graduate research assistants in CUPE 2278 is the start to the goal of complete student worker unionization.

“It made a lot of sense to start with the graduate research assistants. We knew where they were and we had the numbers and we knew a lot of what their issues are. We are starting with them and we are building up so we eventually get all of the student workers on campus [unionized]” said Cadger.

The call to unionize comes after concerns over the quality of life of graduate research assistants and their ability to produce meaningful research.

Lau said a survey completed in the chemistry department between December 2022 and January 2023 highlighted financial struggles shared by many graduate students.

“Realistically, housing prices are going up, food prices are going up but our stipends have remained stagnant for almost a decade,” added Connolly.

In a written statement shared with The Ubyssey, Matt Ramsey, the director of university affairs at UBC media relations, said the university objects to this union drive as it sees graduate research assistants as students and not employees.

“It is our position that under the B.C. Labour Relations Code the students in question are students, pursuing academic and scholarly activity toward their respective degrees, not employees,” said Ramsey.

Ramsey added that UBC has supported the efforts of "graduate and post-doc students to receive much needed federal funding for their scholarly activities."

Unionizing efforts also focus on establishing stricter working hours guidelines, as RAs have few forms of recourse when working conditions are difficult.

“There is no HR department so there is no way to hold these people accountable. These are tenured professors who don’t have the ability to even be fired so they really wield that power over us. Having a union would be able to hopefully protect us from this type of exploitation in the future” said Rothchild.

Rothchild noted RAs work to uphold the high-quality research that UBC is known for and contribute to UBC's high position in global rankings

“It's hard to do high quality research when you have all these additional challenges. These are things that could potentially damage UBC’s prestige and reputation in the long run if they are not addressed."