‘It’s time for UBC’: Research assistant, student academic worker unionization effort comes after years of discussions

Research assistants and student academic workers at UBC are trying to unionize following years of complaints around pay inequity, bullying and harassment from supervisors and unrealistic work expectations.

While conversations have been ongoing since 2018, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 2278 President Phyllis Pearson told The Ubyssey that the creation of additional academic assistant (AA) positions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic at UBC galvanized CUPE 2278 — the union that represents teaching assistants (TAs) — to fight for unionization for all student academic workers.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, UBC created many new AA positions — although these positions have existed long before the pandemic, UBC Media Relations said in a statement sent to The Ubyssey. According to UBC Media Relations, AA positions are those that are “not academic in nature, not performed by a TA, and not directly related to students’ field of study.”

“In principle, this was a great thing that the university did because it gave people money when they really needed it,” Pearson said.

But soon after UBC created these additional positions, in summer 2020, AAs began to approach CUPE 2278 with concerns around pay.

“[Some departments] basically created TA positions but called them [graduate academic assistant] positions instead,” Pearson said. “There were hundreds of these positions created, and they were paid at $25 an hour, a full $10 an hour-ish less than people make as TAs as graduate students. In some cases, it was to do literally the exact same job like they were previously [doing as] a TA.”

UBC Media Relations said the university was not aware of these instances.

On September 1 this year, CUPE 2278 soft-launched a union drive for RAs, AAs and any other student workers who are not yet unionized. The campaign was formally announced on September 6, with the support of CUPE national.

The exact number of eligible student workers is unknown — Pearson estimates there are upwards of 10,000 students — but organizers hope to submit their signed union cards in six months, as signatures expire after that time.

Gracy Buckholtz, a CUPE 2278 department representative and master’s student in the department of botany, said the key issue of this campaign is ensuring that “everybody’s getting paid fairly and everybody’s being compensated for their work fairly.”

As part of their collective agreement with UBC, TA salaries follow standardized pay rates determined by seniority, program of study, and type of work required.

“If you get a wage increase and tuition goes up more than that, it means nothing,” she said.

Another priority of the campaign for Buckholtz is to fight for UBC to cover the international student MSP fee for international student workers.

“I'm originally from the United States, I'm here on a student permit. And that became a huge burden to have to pay that as well,” she said. “So it'd be awesome if the university could provide some support there and make it so that like all the students here, international or domestic, are not really having to cover that extra fee.”

Following in SFU students’ footsteps

If CUPE 2278 is successful in this campaign, UBC would be the second university in Western Canada to have unionized research assistants. They’re following in the steps of SFU’s Teaching Support Union, who unionized research assistants in 2019. Organizers at CUPE 2278 said they’ve spoken with the SFU Teaching Support Union often to share tips and discuss common issues.

Yi Chien Jade Ho, one of the lead organizers at the SFU Teaching Support Union, said she thinks their campaign was successful because they were able to “build up a collective power.”

“It really comes down to organization and then really showing that there's a collective will and there's a collective power behind doing this and behind doing something that will at the end give the worker a voice to direct their own working conditions.”

Outside of Western Canada, research assistants have successfully unionized at the University of Toronto and the University of Regina and are in the process of unionizing at the University of Waterloo.

“It definitely feels like it's time for UBC,” Buckholtz said. “This isn't a super radical thing, it's happening in other places.”

But, at SFU, the process has not been straightforward since the successful unionization vote. The union has still not received its first contract, due to delays in collective bargaining.

Ho said the Teaching Support Staff Union will keep fighting to get a contract with SFU, as she believes this will encourage researchers at other universities, like at UBC, to stand up for their rights.

“I think a lot of times people will feel like there's nothing much they can do,” Ho said. “But the thing is … [often] the only way for us to be able to have good working conditions is if we have a say, and that's through unionization.”

The road from here

CUPE 2278 plans to use this term to drum up support for the drive, and encourage as many student workers as possible to sign a union card.

Thanks to a new amendment to the BC Labour Relations Code, the new union can be automatically certified if 55 per cent of eligible employees sign a union card. Previously, a potential union needed 45 per cent of employees to sign union cards and then have a vote among all employees to decide whether or not to unionize.

Under the amended BC Labour Relations Code, a vote can still take place if only 45 per cent sign on to the campaign.

Pearson said she hopes unionization brings clarity around work hours and expectations. She also believes a union will make student workers feel more comfortable to come forward with their concerns — a point Buckholtz echoed.

“Right now, like, if you end up running into any sort of issues in your employment, you are going to be one person and trying to argue with UBC about that,” Buckholtz said. “What the union gives you is a group that can go argue on your behalf.”

Buckholtz said she’s not expecting a crackdown from the university on the unionization effort. UBC said it respected the rights of individuals to unionize in a statement to The Ubyssey in early September.

Excitement already seems to be building among eligible students.

“I immediately signed my card as soon as I saw [the campaign], because I was so thrilled that this was finally happening,” said Katelynn Kowalchuck, a political science PhD student and research assistant.

She also said unionization would help solidify the importance of student work.

“Specifically because they're temporary roles is one of the driving reasons why they need to be unionized. Because a lot of the time, unfortunately, employers, whether in the university or otherwise, can look at temporary employees as disposable.”

Kowalchuck appealed to all eligible employee’s sense of solidarity to support the drive.

“Even if you personally haven't had any negative experiences, I think having a sense of solidarity for your fellow workers would be really fundamental to this.”

For those unsure about whether they’re eligible to join the union, Buckholtz said to reach out to the campaign via email or social media.

“If you are a student worker, especially if you're getting paid through Workday … just contact us and we can let you know if you're eligible to sign a card.”

A previous version of this story linked non-student research assistant pay scales when referencing student pay. This article was updated on September 27, 2022 at 3:50 p.m. to reflect this change.