‘No Work But Safe Work’: Teaching and Research Assistants union demands a safer return to campus
Concordia will not provide N95 masks, among other union demands
The labour union for Teaching and Research Assistants at Concordia sent a letter to the university early Monday, Jan. 17.
Headed in bold “No Work But Safe Work”, the letter demands a delayed return to campus and the provision of N95 masks by the university.
TRAC’s letter is the latest communication from the Concordia community urging the university to alter its response to Quebec’s fifth wave of COVID-19. According to the union, the university has since said they will not be providing N95 masks. This has been confirmed by Environmental Health and Safety Concordia.
The Concordia University Faculty Association sent a letter to Concordia University's President Graham Carr on Jan. 10 opposing a return to campus before the week of Jan. 31. The university has since extended the return to campus date to Feb. 3. CUFA’s letter goes on to say its members “expect [the university] to possibly extend this deadline for as long as it is necessary to ensure the safety of faculty and students.”
On Jan. 13, the Concordia Student Union sent an open letter to the university demanding a detailed plan for the entirety of the winter 2022 semester. Shared on social media by the CSU, the letter has received over 2,000 signatures and continues to garner more.
TRAC’s letter is the second communication the union has sent to Concordia regarding the winter 2022 semester, this time providing more details on TRAC’s demands as a result of a survey of its membership concerning a return to campus.
“We could be serving our members better, we could be preparing for different resources we’d like to set up, but we are stuck asking and pleading and demanding with Concordia to do better,” said TRAC President Bree Stuart.
Safety concerns among members
From TRAC’s poll of its membership—all TAs or RAs at Concordia—78 per cent of 441 respondents said they do not feel safe returning to work on campus before COVID-19 case counts in Quebec are significantly lower. From the same survey, 88 per cent of respondents agreed that the university as their employer should be providing N95 or KN95 masks.
“We are stuck asking and pleading and demanding with Concordia to do better” — Bree Stuart
“Most of the time our surveys only gather about 200 responses. The fact that this [survey] has over 400 shows that the people who care actually do care,” said Stuart.
Jonathan Llewellyn, the vice-president of TRAC and a teaching assistant in Concordia’s department of computer science, said that while many TRAC members want a return to in-person teaching, others are more hesitant because they fear for their safety.
Given the survey results, TRAC is insisting the university “commit to online learning at least until cases and hospitals are under control for a minimum of two weeks”.
“Although the government insists that mental health is their number one priority in pushing for a return to schools, the stress and fear of an unsafe working environment is a far greater burden on our collective mental health,” said TRAC.
One week’s notice is not enough
TRAC’s latest communication to Concordia echoes the CSU’s demand for more than one week’s notice prior to returning to campus. Both unions’ statements are a response to the university announcing it would give a one-week notice should the return to campus date change.
Despite this assertion, the university announced with three weeks notice that it would be extending the return-to-campus date to Feb. 3.
“Universities are facing the same uncertainties as most sectors in society right now. In that context, we have tried to give as much clarity as we could by setting a three-week notice for a return to campus while following governmental directives,” said Concordia spokesperson Vannina Maestracci.
“Although the government insists that mental health is their number one priority in pushing for a return to schools, the stress and fear of an unsafe working environment is a far greater burden on our collective mental health,” — TRAC
Both the TRAC and the CSU continue to demand an extension to the school’s one week notice stated by the university should the date for a return-to-campus change again.
“From a TA standpoint, having a week to pivot everything from online to in-person creates extra work and time management becomes a problem,” said Stuart. “It’s just definitely not ideal.”
In a statement sent to The Link, the university said it has met “regularly with the CSU throughout the pandemic” and continues to have “regular exchanges with faculty associations.”
Overall, TRAC said they are hoping to see the university take a more independent and comprehensive stance beyond what has been specified by the Quebec government for the winter 2022 semester.
“At this point, it’s on Concordia—which is a university full of scientists—to interpret data and understand how this situation might evolve,” said Llewellyn. “They could have done that, they could have pushed back.”