Little Progress for TRAC Union
Members Discuss Possible Strike With Contract Negotiations Ongoing
A general assembly for the Teaching and Research Assistants at Concordia quickly became a hotbed of discontent and cries for action on Nov. 7 as members vocalized what they consider to be shortcomings in adequate compensation and a crawling pace of negotiations for a new labour contract.
A scheduling conflict forced the general assembly to move to a new location and delayed the meeting by a half-hour.
Delays were also a major concern for union members once the meeting was underway, particularly the delays in negotiations for a new labour contract for the union.
A meeting between the university’s and the union’s negotiators was planned for Nov. 5 but was bumped back to Nov. 22. This is one of several times the university has delayed meetings, citing reasons such as printer problems.
“Concordia is notorious for negotiating like this,” bargaining officer Erik Chevrier told union members.
“The payment in my opinion is disrespectful,” said one union member, who could not be identified before the meeting was moved to closed session. “[TAs at McGill and UQAM] get paid $900 a month; at Concordia, we’re paid $360.”
This echoed a general sentiment of dissatisfaction and frustration with the way the university treats its employees. According to union president Adam Szymanski, cuts in the number of hours teaching assistants are contractually required to work have been seen across all departments.
Szymanski said the engineering department was the most severely hit, with the hours of teaching and research assistants cut systematically.
He added that the reduction in hours means that TAs are expected to perform the same duties in a shorter period of time, and consequently are not being paid for all the time they spend working.
“TRAC is not okay with these cuts, and we’re working to find a solution,” Szymanski assured disgruntled members.
TRAC met with the university’s human resources department and explained that the cuts were unacceptable.
According to union bargaining representatives, either the former hours could be reinstated, or each teaching and research assistant with reduced hours should be told duties they are exempted from because of their lessened hours.
“No one is supposed to work more hours than they’re paid to work on their contract,” said Szymanski.
The union is also concerned that Graduate Student Support Program funds, which are engineering bursaries meant to support a student’s independent research, are being used instead of research assistant contracts.
This is not permissible in the eyes of the union, not only because they say anyone doing RA work should have an RA contract, but also because they say it drains funds for students’ independent research.
As the meeting went on, and frustration with the lack of progress in negotiations surfaced on all sides, the conversation turned to the tactical options available to the union.
“I think we have to be one step ahead and be prepared in case the Nov. 22 negotiations are cancelled,” said a member who identified herself as Audrey.
This was met with universal agreement, and many people asked the executive members of the union what measures could be used to achieve results in case conventional negotiations continued to drag on for an excessive length of time.
“There is a panoply of pressure tactics available to us, and the union isn’t averse to using any of them,” said chairperson Roddy Doucet.
“Labour unions are legally allowed to go on strike when they have an expired collective agreement,” Szymanski added.
TRAC’s agreement expired in April.
Members actively discussed actions such as sit-ins, protests, strikes and strike mandates. As the discussion became more oriented towards practical actions, the members voted to move to a closed meeting, at which point the two journalists in attendance were asked to leave.
“If you’ve ever played poker, you know you don’t show your cards before the hand,” Doucet said in explaining why specific actions that could be taken by the union shouldn’t be discussed in front of members of the press.
If precedent is any indication, the discussion behind closed doors was far from empty talk.
The Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association is currently in negotiations, and has held a strike mandate since November 2012.
A strike mandate allows workers to stop working at any time as long as they inform the university 48 hours in advance.
Last February, in an unprecedented move, the Concordia University Faculty Association, which represents the full-time professors and librarians at the university, voted for a strike mandate. They have since came to an agreement with the university.
Concordia has made progress in its contract negotiations in the past few months. At its meeting on Oct. 16, Concordia’s Board of Governors ratified agreements-in-principle that were reached with USW Local Section 9538, Sir George Williams; USW Local Section 9538, Loyola; and the Concordia University Professional Employees Union.
The board also ratified two agreements-in-principle reached with the Concordia University Union of Support Staff – Technical Sector and the Concordia University Library Employees’ Union on Sept. 19.
Some deals that have been approved must still be voted upon by the unions’ memberships. Each collective agreement will only be made public once both the university and the union in question sign onto it.