Have you been concerned about running out of money to buy food?

This question is put to University of British Columbia (UBC) students every year as part of an academic experience and affordability survey. Since COVID-19 hit, a growing number of people have answered “yes.” 

In 2021, one third of respondents said they’ve worried about their ability to feed themselves in the previous year. The 2022 survey found that 40 per cent of students had worried about buying food—and that percentage rose to 50 per cent for graduate students.

The survey isn’t the only indicator that food insecurity is an increasingly urgent issue for UBC students. Since the beginning of the pandemic, visits to the campus food bank have risen by nearly 500 per cent

With rising costs driven by increasing tuition rates, as well as record inflation that’s driving up the price of food and housing, students who work at the Vancouver-based university are pushing for a solution: unionization.

On campuses across Canada, the skyrocketing cost of living has breathed new life into organizing campaigns for higher wages and better job security for student workers, many of which have been years in the making.

A banner drop by union organizers at University of British Columbia. Photo: CUPE 2278

Tuition goes up, wages go down 

At UBC, students have contended with regular tuition increases, of two per cent for domestic students and four per cent for newly-enrolled international students, throughout the pandemic. The university solicits student feedback every year on tuition increases, which most students have opposed given COVID-19 financial pressures and increased at-home learning. 

In September, CUPE Local 2278 went public with their campaign to organize more than 10,000 student-workers at UBC. While teaching assistants (TAs) have been represented by the union for more than 40 years, research assistants (RAs) and students working on campus through a “Work Learn program” have remained unorganized.

Student-workers are hoping to bring the wages of RAs and Work Learn students in line with those of TAs, standardize their working conditions, protect themselves from harassment, and more effectively advocate for tuition freezes. 

Phyllis Pearson, president of CUPE Local 2278, told The Breach that organizing RAs and Work Learn students has been talked about for years, but this year seemed like an opportune time.

“​​I think a lot of things just kind of aligned and we had a good solid group of people who are really willing to put in the time and so we thought, this is the moment.”

Gracy Buckholtz is completing her master’s degree in botany at UBC. She got involved in the union when she was working as a TA, and has since become an organizer with CUPE 2278. 

Buckholtz has been watching advances in the labour movement closely. She’s fascinated by the efforts to unionize Amazon warehouses and the differences in organizing strategies at the mega retailer’s New York and Alabama facilities. Seeing the challenges those workers have faced, and the successful union vote at the JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island, has been a “huge inspiration,” she said.

“Sometimes there’s strict ideas about organizing, but what they found in New York was that people know their area and they know how to connect with people and it really just means being there and being visible,” explained Buckholtz. “I remember hearing about that and I thought, ‘Okay, this is possible.’” 

She said that seeing students’ raises get clawed back by the university through a tuition increase made her want to get involved in organizing RAs.

“We’re in a unique position where we pay our employer, and even if UBC gives us raises, if they raise tuition more, it doesn’t matter,” said Buckholtz.

Student workers organizing for a union at the University of Waterloo. Photo: Organize UW

The ‘Wild West’ of employment

On the other side of the country, student-workers at the University of Waterloo are dealing with similar issues, and are also organizing in response.

Joan Arrow, a PhD student and teaching assistant in the Department of Combinatorics and Optimization at Waterloo, joined the OrganizeUW campaign in September 2021, after it had been organizing virtually for a year. She said the return to campus after COVID-19 shutdowns has been a time of immense growth for the effort.

“All I had heard were the stories of how challenging it had been to get in front of people and to get cards signed during the pandemic, but when we were able to get in front of people, all of that flipped around,” said Arrow.

Nolan Shaw has been working and studying at Waterloo’s Cheriton School of Computer Science for five years. He said that when student-workers have received raises in the past, their funding was adjusted to account for the extra pay.

“When we saw this TA pay rate go up, other sources of our funding were clawed back to make sure that whatever you were given in your initial offer was what you would receive,” Shaw said. “So in that way we haven’t actually seen pay increases.”

Shaw said the issue is compounded by the rising cost of living, just like it is at UBC. Some estimates show rents in Waterloo have gone up as much as 18 per cent in the last year.

Another issue that has united these campaigns is the increasingly precarious nature of academic work. 

Scott Sorli has been working as a sessional instructor at Waterloo’s School of Architecture for more than a decade. Despite doing the same work as faculty members, sessional instructors are paid less, do not have access to benefits, and work without job security. 

A few years ago, Sorli was part of a group of sessional instructors who submitted requests to the university administration asking for improved contracts, more transparent hiring processes and an equity, diversity and inclusion policy. 

But none of the proposed changes were made. In 2020, when news of a graduate student-worker unionization drive spread, the sessional instructors saw common cause and asked to join. 

Along with bringing wages in line with those at comparable institutions, sessional instructors are looking for transparent hiring processes. Sorli said he’s seen former colleagues lose out on opportunities after getting sick and requesting accommodations, or simply falling out of favour with the wrong person. 

“What we’re looking for is open and transparent policies that we can rely on,” said Sorli.

He notes that Waterloo is an outlier as one of the few public universities in Canada that doesn’t have a union for sessional instructors, TAs or RAs. 

“What we’re aiming to do is to normalize the relationship from something that’s been a little bit of the Wild West,” said Sorli.

Photo: Teaching Support Staff Union

Three jobs to make ends meet

Not long after Jade Ho started studying and working as a TA at SFU’s Faculty of Education, she and her fellow TAs went on strike. Her experience being on the picket line informed how she saw the dual roles she played at SFU: she was a unionized worker when working as a TA but a precarious worker in her work as an RA. 

“Every semester I work three jobs. I’m a TA, I’m an RA and I also try to find something else just so I can make enough to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada,” said Ho.

She and her fellow RAs knew that in their roles as TAs, they had the protection of their collective agreement, the ability to negotiate the terms of their employment and they could advocate—or even strike—for what they felt they deserved. They also recognized that as TAs, they were considered employees of the university, something that RAs lacked.

“It became very apparent that the solution was unionization.”

When the RA unionization campaign started to gain steam in early 2019 under the slogan “Research Is Work!,” Ho was hired as a full-time lead organizer. Because RAs were contractors rather than employees of the university, the process of mapping—figuring out where union-eligible workers were working, and how many of them there were—was complicated. 

After mapping and recruiting a team of organizers, Ho and her fellow lead organizer Vince Tao split their time traveling between SFU’s three campuses, talking to student-workers one-on-one and building relationships. All of this work was done in secret.

Ho underscored the importance of recruiting and training a diverse team of organizers. She said having workers who spoke a range of languages was key to reaching as many workers as possible.

“It’s very effective because people who speak English would go into a lab, and they would come out with zero cards. But when people who speak Mandarin would go into the lab, they would come out with signed cards,” said Ho.

Ho heard students across departments describe inconsistent contracts that barely paid above minimum wage, long hours with no overtime pay, and unclear hiring practices. Because RAs were contractors with no official relationship to the university, Ho said that when student-workers were injured on the job, they struggled to make claims for workers’ compensation. This was especially difficult for international students who either weren’t familiar with WorkSafeBC, or who feared that filing a claim could jeopardize their employment and thus their ability to stay in the country.

“You are getting paid through the university, but we do not count as employees of the university,” explained Ho. “So that means the university assumes no responsibility towards all of the RAs.”

Photo: CUPE 2278

Equal value, equal wages

RAs at SFU have now been working for more than 1,000 days without a contract.

In October 2019, with 500 cards signed, Ho and her fellow organizers went public with their campaign to organize RAs. Momentum built, and with 900 cards signed, something unexpected happened: SFU offered to voluntarily recognize the union.

“We were completely caught off guard, because we planned for everything, but that was the one thing we didn’t plan for,” said Ho.

SFU and the union—the Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU)— signed a memorandum of understanding of voluntary recognition in November 2019, with the administration pledging to “act in good faith” and take reasonable steps toward a collective agreement.

Derek Sahota, a member representative of the union, said they were surprised when instead, the university administration seemed to be trying to delay the process as much as possible. 

The TSSU has involved a mediator from the BC Labour Relations Board multiple times over the past three years—seeking to get the university administration to provide their data on the number of workers involved in RA labour and to bring the university administration to the bargaining table. 

In September 2022, they won an arbitration against SFU after the university attempted to exclude RAs who are funded through grants or scholarships from the collective agreement.

Sahota said SFU’s initial proposal included a wage floor of $17 per hour for RAs, significantly lower than the $25 an hour that TAs earn. The union wants to see equal wages for RAs and TAs to reflect the equal value of teaching and research work.

“If it’s good enough for a TA, an RA should have that same basic level of pay and benefits,” Sahota said.

Student-workers with CUPE 3912 at Dalhousie University in Halifax are fighting a similar battle. Along with demands for higher wages and increased job security for part-time instructors, TAs are fighting a policy that splits their work. 

Many TAs also work as markers or demonstrators. Instead of signing one contract with one salary, Dalhousie splits these roles into two contracts with vastly different pay, with marker/demonstrators making $7.80 less per hour.

When negotiations with the university administration broke down on Oct. 18, the student-workers went on strike.

Gabor Lukacs, the communications officer for CUPE 3912, said abolishing the marker/demonstrator role is one of their key demands in bargaining. He said while the splitting of the TA and marker/demonstrator role may have made sense in the past, workers believe the university is abusing it in order to pay student-workers lower wages. 

Lukacs said progress has been made during bargaining with regard to wages, but the university appears unwilling to make concessions on the role of the marker/demonstrator.

“That’s one point on which we have really been completely stonewalled,” said Lukacs. 

On Nov. 9, a tentative agreement was reached between the union and Dalhousie’s administration. Two days later, with more than 1,600 votes cast, the new collective agreement was ratified by 77 per cent of membership. Student-workers returned to work on Nov. 14.

Their new agreement raises part-time instructor and teaching assistant wages by more than 20 per cent, and marker/demonstrator wages by almost 45 per cent. Though the marker/demonstrator position will remain, the difference in wages between teaching assistants and marker/demonstrators has shrunk from 32 per cent to 20 per cent.

In a Nov. 12 press release, Cameron Ells, president of CUPE 3912, acknowledged that while the union was able to win significant raises for its members, some of their demands remain unaddressed. 

“We have goals that have not yet been achieved and there is more work to be done. Now we begin preparations and planning in support of our next round of negotiations.”

Photo: CUPE 2278

One win inspiring others

Meanwhile, organizers at UBC have been watching the fight at SFU closely. Pearson said the successful RA unionization campaign and arbitration win have been motivating for organizers at UBC. 

Also encouraging is a recent change to B.C. labour law. In April, the province introduced single-step certification, meaning that if 55 per cent of employees in a workplace sign union membership cards, the union is automatically certified. This removes the need for a vote and could prevent employers from running anti-union campaigns and intimidating workers.

Back in Ontario at UW, organizers are keeping a close eye on successful student-worker unionization campaigns across the continent. Though their campaign is public, they’re careful not to share too much information about its progress. They know to expect some pushback from university administration.

The campaign’s mascot, Gizmo the Goose, provides some inspiration. Arrow said the goose was a natural choice given the animal’s presence on campus and their reputation for aggression. Just a week after public school education workers went on strike across Ontario, Arrow said battles for fair working conditions in education are being fought on many levels, so she and her fellow organizers feel they can relate to the goose’s nature.

“You can’t fuck with us, we’re geese,” she said with a laugh.

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