Teaching and Research Assistant Union Elect New President

Internal Confusion Results in Confusing Election

  • Alexandre St-Onge-Perron, the new TRAC President, posed with his predecessor, Nader Jafari Nodoushan, after a general assembly on Feb. 26. Photo Kelsey Litwin

When a special General Assembly was called to elect a new president and vice-president last week, Teaching and Research Assistants at Concordia union members began questioning why it was necessary.

This story has been updated.

The union already had a president and VP, and there are only three months left until the end of the current executive’s mandate. Nonetheless, Nader Jafari Nodoushan and Meysam Salari were stepping down from their positions ahead of schedule. Fifty-odd TAs, RAs, and invigilators had gathered in Concordia’s Hall building on a Monday evening to choose new ones.

That evening only heard Jafari Nodoushan say that he was “eligible to stay in [his] position until [his] mandate terminates,” which is on May 31, 2017. He continued to explain that resigning from his post was a benevolent decision on his part, and that it’s what’s best for the union.

This is when the rumours started that Jafari Nodoushan was resigning because he graduated last semester. But that wasn’t the case. Rather, it was just an example of murky bylaws and a murkier Collective Agreement.

TRAC has bylaws which clearly outline who is and who is not eligible to hold a seat on the union’s executive committee. Their bylaw details that, except for invigilators, a member must be in good academic standing, according to Concordia University regulations, and that they must be able to remain a member of the union—so be a TA, RA or invigilator—for one full year following their election. If they are finishing their program, they must prove that they have been accepted to Concordia for the following semester.

The term “member” itself is less clear. Particularly because it includes a clause that says, “they must always be enrolled at the university or on a temporary absence authorized by the regulations of the university.”

Gounash Pirniya, TRAC’s Labour Relation and Grievance Officer, explained that to be a member of the union, one does not need to be enrolled at Concordia University. If they are elected onto a committee, such as the executive or bargaining committee, she said, their membership is guaranteed until the end of their mandate, even if they do not have a TA, RA or invigilator contract for the upcoming semester. Such is the case for Jafari Nodoushan, she explained.

It’s defined in TRAC’s collective agreement as union leave. Essentially, the university dedicates a specified number of paid hours to be allocated to working on union business. It says individuals are not required to be teaching assistants to also be members of the union. Jafari Nodoushan has not been a teaching assistant since 2015.

Jafari Nodoushan acknowledged that there had been questions surrounding his resignation prior to the special GA. When Amit Chandra, a Research Assistant completing his PhD at Concordia, asked during the opening comment period why they were all gathered, the president said it wasn’t the first time he had been asked this.

Graphic Carl Bindman

His answer, ultimately, did not explain much. Jafari Nodoushan responded that there were some issues at play in the background, without disclosing what they were.

Instead, he said that by resigning earlier than the end of his mandate, the incoming president would be better prepared to face the challenges ahead. The early election would allow himself and Meysam Salari, the outgoing VP, extra time to training their successors, Jafari Nodoushan explained.

“We are not here to fight each other. We are here to understand what is in favour of the union’s functionality, and what is in favour of the members,” he said while explaining his early resignation during a point of order at the meeting.

The idea, Jafari Nodoushan said, was that when the rest of the newly-elected executives are brought in later in the year, the two people in charge would already have a clear idea of how the committee should function. This would effectively minimize the learning curve. A full transition, meaning one in which the current executive team were to give way to a completely new team all at once, would “shut down” the union, Jafari Nodoushan said.

A Battle Ahead

An executive team who is ready to be on the frontlines is needed, as they’re about to head into another round of Collective Agreement negotiations.

In December, Jafari Nodoushan and Concordia President Alan Shepard sat side-by-side in a boardroom, both smiling for the camera as their pens rested over the pages of TRAC’s latest CA for TAs—a document outlining the university and the union’s relationship, and pay rates of employees.

This signing was considered an accomplishment by TRAC. In a previous interview with The Link about a month after the photo was taken, Jafari Nodoushan and Pirniya repeatedly referred to it as their success.

This new agreement simplified the pay system for TAs of all levels of education, across all faculties, ensuring that all TAs would receive the same pay for the same work, Pirniya previously explained.

For example, under the old system, an undergraduate TA was being paid $14.47 per hour while a PhD student was being paid $20.01 per hour for doing the same job. Now, both are paid $24.93 an hour.

But, as The Link has previously reported, this agreement is retroactive and is only effective for a year.

Similarly, TRAC has recently begun meeting with the university to settle on a new collective agreement for invigilators. In yellow flyers scattered around the downtown campus, TRAC claims that the university has yet to respond to their proposal for increased wages.

“We are not here to fight each other. We are here to understand what is in favour of the union’s functionality, and what is in favour of the members.” – Nader Jafari Nodoushan

Uncertain Terms

Electing a president and VP now who will continue on through the next year—so for 15 months, as opposed to the regular 12—would help prepare them for these negotiations, TRAC’s executives explained.

It’s something that had been done before, Pirniya said. She recalled that when she and Jafari Nodoushan were elected to TRAC’s executive committee for a second time. It was in March 2015, and their mandates for that year lasted past the end of the by-law-defined term of May 31, extending into the next academic year. Rather, it ended on May 31, 2016.

When Chandra, among others, questioned the length of the terms for the two new executive committee members at the special GA, it became apparent that a repeat of that elections wouldn’t be possible. “It is unclear,” Chandra said at the meeting. “If it is a by-election, the tenure of the incumbent president and vice-president should be ending by the end of the year.”

“Back then it wasn’t against the bylaws, but now it is against the bylaws,” questioned Pirniya. When the executive’s intentions—and the way in which their intentions violated the by-laws—became evident, Vincent-Carl Leriche, a Public Service Alliance of Canada representative sent to chair the meeting, made it clear it wouldn’t be possible to elect someone for that long. PSAC is TRAC’s parent organization, and supervises their proceedings. Leriche suggested that in order to proceed with the election as presented, the by-laws would need to be amended.

But, as another procedural misstep, those amendments would have had to have been presented to TRAC’s members prior to the meeting—which they were not.

TRAC’s executive team was backed into a corner. They would only be able to elect a president and VP for the next three months, which was exactly what the current executives were trying to avoid.

The other election Pirniya was referring to was, in fact, a different situation all together. When she and her team were re-elected in March 2015, it was because they had previously lost control of the union due to internal fighting, she explained.

As a result, PSAC took over the local until an investigation could be conducted. The results of that investigation, which found that Jafari Nodoushan had knowingly and willingly violated bylaws, was later rejected by all levels of the union.

VP Missing in Action

About two years later, Jafari Nodoushan is giving way to Alexandre St-Onge-Perron, an undergraduate student in the School of Community and Public Affairs who was the only candidate for president. St-Onge-Perron has been a member of TRAC for about a year, he said, beginning with a contract as an RA. He was a member of the bargaining committee, helping advise the executives and those negotiating the successful collective agreement. While a student at Cégep Edouard-Monpetit, he explained, he helped negotiate a collective agreement for the school’s student union.

“I think I have a good understanding,” he said of the negotiating process. “I’m not perfect, I still have to learn, that’s for sure.”

As of now, he will be learning with an empty seat beside him, as no VP was elected at the special GA. Mohammad Al-Sharqawi and Natalie Greenberg, the two candidates, faced a tie of 23-23. By the time the votes were counted—almost four hours following the start of the meeting—the group in attendance hand dwindled down to a mere handful, not enough to meet quorum of 30 TAs and RAs, and three invigilators.

Leriche, after some deliberation, decided that another special GA would need to be called to fill the vacancy as quickly as possible, to be in accordance with the bylaws.

His thoughts: “It’s been a very long night.”

This article previously stated that Jafari Nodoushan had not been a teaching assistant since 2013. His last contract actually ended in 2015. The same mistake is made in the timeline. The Link regrets this error.

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