CUPA's Unionisation Drive

Why Vote Yes?

The Carleton University Postdoctoral Association [CUPA] submitted our application for certification as a labour union to the Ontario Labour Relations Board on Tuesday, June 19, 2012. All Postdoctoral fellows employed at Carleton University will be eligible to vote and we will post details regarding the time and location as soon as it is scheduled by the Ontario Labuor Relations Board. At this point, we would also like to take this opportunity to explain the motivation for this unionization campaign and the many benefits of unionization.

The Postdoc unionization drive started and ends with Postdocs. Following a request from our membership to examine the benefits of unionization in September 2011, the Executive Committee decided that it was high time to organize against the increasing exploitation of Postdocs at Carleton. In investigating the treatment of Postdocs at Carleton, we discovered colleagues who had been fired for questionable reasons and who had been promised funding that did not materialize. While we attempted to address these injustices, we did not have the legal right to negotiate with the University and we felt that without a certified organization, the University would not take the needs of Postdocs seriously. For example, the University will not even allow us access to the Postdoc mailing list so we can communicate with our members. Similarly, the recent health and dental plan was created without any consultation with Postdocs at large and, as a result, it has a prohibitive monthly cost that is entirely borne by Postdocs themselves. As well, we also know that principle investigators and advisors are unduly burdened with administrative responsibilities and costs that should be borne by the central university administration. As such, the Executive recommended that the CUPA unionize at the 2012 Annual General Meeting in April, which was strongly endorsed by the membership.

Compensation is another issue. The minimum stipend for Postdocs at Carleton is $25,000. If we worked 40 hours a week, this would be an hourly rate of roughly $12.02 an hour. We know that most Postdocs work upward of 40 hours a week, pushing the hourly rate very close to minimum wage. This for academics with PhDs, publications, and demonstrable expertise in their fields doing advanced research! Graduate student Teaching Assistants at Carleton make $38.21 an hour, with no PhDs and for more basic work. Even undergraduate Teaching Assistants make $21.62 an hour. What’s going on?

The Postdocs at McMaster were the first to unionize in Canada and they just ratified their second collective agreement in March 2012. Their first collective agreement was a very significant development and demonstrates some of the benefits that are achievable through unionization: a salary step-up of $1000 in the first year, wage increases of 13%, inclusion in CUPE’s dental plan, 100% employer-paid vision, drug, and health coverage, single and family UHIP premiums paid by McMaster for international Postdocs, protection under McMaster’s Whistle-Blower and Intellectual Property policies, a $20,000 conference travel fund, E.I. top-ups to 95% of salary for 17 weeks for Postdocs on maternity leave, a $400 bonus each year on the anniversary of the signing of the agreement, and overtime pay at a rate of 1.5 hours beyond an average of 44 hours a week. This is an impressive package that was achieved despite “these economic times.”

The success at McMaster tells us that Postdocs can make substantial gains without compromising relationship we have with our advisors. None of the financial gains made at McMaster will come from principle investigator funding. It all will come from the central administration. Indeed, unionization will benefit principle investigators, who will now be able to attract better and better Postdocs into well-paid positions with benefits without having to alter their own research budgets. Actually, principle investigators could likely reduce the monies spent on Postdocs if the University were the entity ensuring health benefits and other contractual obligations. It’s a win-win.

As well, in February 2012 the Ontario Labour Relations Board ruled in a precedent-setting case that Postdoctoral fellows are employees, thereby having the right to unionize. This case emerged in response to the unionization drive undertaken by Postdoctoral fellows at the University of Toronto, when the U of T objected to the application on the grounds that Postdocs are “academic trainees,” similar in status to senior graduate students, whose relationship to the university and to their supervisors is not one of employment. Following two and half years of hearings, the Ontario Labour Relations Board firmly rejected this argument, noting it “must be particularly careful to give effect to the substance rather than the form of the relationship.” Although Postdocs benefit from continued learning and mentorship, the board reasoned, this is true of many academic posts. Continuing education and professional development do not preclude an employment relationship. Further, various hallmarks of employment exist, such as remuneration (as opposed to funding), direction and control by a supervisor, and the university’s ability to terminate the engagement, even if it does not classify Postdocs as employees or issue their stipends as employment income. As a result of this ruling, Postdocs are indisputably employees of Carleton University and the time is right for us to unionize and improve the experience of Postdocs.

There are, of course, many benefits to unionization besides money, such as access to third-party conflict resolution processes, advanced protection from and recourse for workplace harassment and discrimination, expanded health and safety coverage, and the ability to negotiate collectively with the employer for further improvements to our working conditions, rather than doing this one-on-one in what are always power-imbalanced situations. We hope that we can count on your vote, and of course if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch: