Research assistants eligible for automatic union certification, organizers say

The BC Labour Relations Board has ruled enough graduate research assistants (RAs) have signed union cards to join CUPE 2278 without a vote, according to the union. 

The union certification will not be immediate, as UBC has challenged RA's status as employees to the labour board. 

CUPE 2278, the union that currently represents teaching assistants at UBC, launched the union drive in September 2022 with the intention of including all student academic workers in the local. The current certification application, filed on April 28, only includes graduate research assistants — around 3,200 people. 

In BC, groups that get 45 to 55 per cent of eligible union members to sign a membership card must conduct a vote to certify themselves as a union. If 55 per cent of eligible members sign though, the union is automatically certified. 

The LRB was not able to determine if threshold for automatic certification had been reached within give days of CUPE’s application.  As such, a verification vote for RAs was called by the labour board, which ran from Monday May to Wednesday May 10.

CUPE 2278 President Emily Cadger said the union was informed by the labour board on Thursday that organizers had actually reached 55 per cent. 

The union informed supporters of the campaign of the news, but objections from UBC have stopped the union from certifying. 

As first reported in The Tyee, UBC is challenging the certification on two grounds. First, it is arguing that RAs are not employees, but rather receiving scholarship money for their academic work.  

“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,” wrote Matthew Ramsey, director of university affairs at UBC Media Relations, in a statement to The Ubyssey.

“As such, the monies they receive are scholarship awards and are treated as such … and do not constitute wages received for work performed,” he continued. 

A lawyer representing CUPE 2278 told The Tyee that UBC’s position contradicts precedent set in other provinces. 

UBC is also objecting on the grounds that many RA contracts expired at the end of April. 

It will be up to the labour board to decide whether either of these factors prevent RAs from unionizing. After an initial hearing earlier this week, further hearings are scheduled for June and July. 

Liz Locke, a CUPE national organizer, told The Ubyssey that if UBC’s objections are overturned by the board or withdrawn, the ballots from this week’s vote will likely be destroyed following automatic union certification.  

Cadger said the speed at which the organizers were able to file for union certification showed a desire among research assistants to unionize. 

“I think it’s really important to underscore how fast and how great this has been, which speaks to the demand — that the unionization campaign is really wanted by the people who signed cards.”

This article was corrected at 2:00 p.m. on May 15, 2023 to clarify that CUPE 2278 did not apply for a certification vote, rather the LRB called for one. The Ubyssey regrets this error.