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UBC Heads to Labour Board over Student Researchers’ Right to Unionize

CUPE is seeking to represent more than 3,000 research assistants.

Zak Vescera 5 May

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

The University of British Columbia is arguing at the Labour Relations Board that thousands of student researchers can’t unionize because they are receiving scholarships, not employees receiving a wage.

CUPE 2278 applied last week to unionize about 3,200 research assistants at the university, the largest unionization certification in British Columbia has seen in decades.

The students work across the university’s departments conducting various kinds of research under the direction of faculty members. Their pay can vary widely. Some departments pay the same rate they pay teaching assistants; others have their own salary tiers.

The union says it has collected enough signatures to trigger a unionization vote, which if successful would allow the student workers to negotiate a collective agreement. The union says it plans to begin a vote Monday.

But the university is challenging the certification application on multiple counts, including an argument those students are not workers at all.

In a submission to the board the university argued the money it gives those researchers is not a wage for a job being completed but a form of scholarship that supports their academic work.

The school argues this means those students cannot unionize since they don’t meet the definition of an employee under the province’s labour code.

“It is our position that under the B.C. Labour Relations Code the students in question are students, pursuing academic and scholarly activity toward their respective degrees, not employees,” UBC spokesman Matthew Ramsey said in a statement. He pointed out that some compensation those students receive is considered scholarship money for the purposes of filing income tax.

Chris Buchanan, a lawyer representing CUPE 2278, said Thursday that UBC’s position contradicts decades of precedents set at labour boards in other provinces. He called on the school to withdraw the objection.

“UBC’s position today is telling them they’re not worthy of the protection of other research assistants across the country,” Buchanan said.

CUPE 2278 president Emily Cadger said her first response to UBC’s position would be unprintable.

“It is completely wrong,” Cadger said Thursday. “UBC is very happy to talk about all the research these people do, but they don’t want to consider these graduate research assistants who do this work as employees.”

The union drive

The dispute comes after a months-long campaign to organize student workers at UBC.

CUPE 2278, which already represents teaching assistants at the school, said in September it aimed to unionize as many as 10,000 student employees at the school across a gamut of jobs.

Cadger said students are looking to unionization to secure better wages and hours. The Alma Mater Society, UBC’s student union, has reported record uptake at its food bank this year.

“They’ve been houseless. They’ve been hungry. It’s been a big triggering factor to get people to sign cards,” Cadger said. She said research assistants also wanted better protections to prevent overwork and harassment, something she said was very common in complicated, high-stakes research.

The overwhelming majority of union certifications that go to the labour board involve between 10 and 200 workers.

In British Columbia, a union can automatically certify a group of workers if at least 55 per cent sign union cards. If a union gets between 45 and 55 per cent of workers to sign union cards, it instead triggers a vote.

Cadger would not say exactly how many cards research assistants had signed but said it was enough to trigger a vote.

The labour board plans to hold hearings on the application beginning Monday.

But Allison Render, a lawyer representing UBC at the labour board, has argued the union failed to reach the 45-per-cent threshold.

Render said hundreds of researchers’ contracts expired in late April at the end of the academic year. She argued signatures from those researchers shouldn’t be counted towards the final vote.

They “don’t have a sufficient and continuing interest in the bargaining unit and shouldn’t be counted toward the threshold,” Render said Thursday.

Cadger acknowledged some students who signed union cards may have since graduated. But she said many researchers’ contracts automatically renew at the end of April. She added that some graduate students continue to do academic work over the summer.

CUPE 2278’s campaign is part of a wider movement of labour organizing in higher education.

Last year, tens of thousands of graduate students at the University of California went on strike. In Canada, students at the University of Waterloo have been campaigning to unionize student researchers since 2021.

In 2019, Simon Fraser University said it would voluntarily recognize research assistants at its Burnaby campus as union members in the face of an organizing campaign.

But like UBC, SFU has since argued many of those researchers are not actually employees.

SFU would later argue that 800 of the roughly 1,500 student researchers identified by the Teaching Support Staff Union were in fact receiving a type of scholarship and thus could not be unionized.

That led to a Labour Relations Board decision last year that found SFU had made “definitional and other choices” without consulting the union. It ordered the school to prepare and disclose a list of student researchers who it considered employees.

But Amal Vincent, the chief steward of the union at SFU, says the school is still standing by its argument that student researchers in departments like chemistry and mechatronic systems engineering are not employees.

“Research seems to magically happen in these departments without any research employees,” said Vincent, who has been in communication with members of CUPE 2278 on their unionization strategy.

Sara Slinn, a law professor at York University, says a key part of the case will be proving whether the money is a stipend without strings, or pay that comes with expectations

“One of the facts the employer is going to rely on is that if it’s a stipend-type arrangement, the student gets paid no matter what,” Slinn said. But she said most supervising professors probably expect a standard of work from their researchers. She suspects it will be a “messy, complicated” case that may find some students are employees and others are not.

“I don’t not think it’s very likely that UBC is going to succeed and get a board decision that research assistants are not employees,” Slinn said.

She speculated that UBC is worried that unionizing will limit the discretion of its professors in allocating research grants.

“Grants are multi-year grants, so there our be mismatches between what grants require and allow in terms of graduate student funding and what a collective agreement might require. It’s complicated and might turn out to be very expensive,” she said.

And she suggested that if students are found to be employees under the provincial labour code, they may also be entitled to minimum wage and other benefits, which could lead to other problems for the school.

This week hundreds of students and faculty across Canada walked out of classrooms in a mass protest of stagnant federal funding for graduate-level scientific researchers, which has not increased since 2003. UBC’s interim president Deborah Buszard issued a statement in support of those workers.

But the union’s Cadger says the university’s opposition to CUPE 2278’s bid belied its public support of student researchers.

“We understand we are lucky to do this work. We are lucky to get this level of education,” Cadger said. “But it doesn’t mean graduate research assistants need to be treated like crap.”  [Tyee]

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