Strike mandate vote pending for graduate student workers at Queen’s

EDITOR’S NOTE – Queen’s University provided a statement late Wednesday, included in full below the story.

Graduate students working at Queen’s University look to be headed towards a strike mandate vote. 

Queen’s administration, led by Queen’s Director of Faculty Relations Michael Villeneuve, has been meeting with PSAC 901, the union of Graduate Teaching Assistants, Teaching Fellows, Research Assistants, and Postdoctoral Scholars.

The two sides have several meetings planned, and on Tuesday were joined by a conciliator.

PSAC 901 President Astrid Hobill says the school’s bargaining team hasn’t been very clear about why they disagree with the union’s demands, and don’t seem to be close to an agreement. 

“We’re kind of a little bit at a loss to why they won’t agree to a lot of our demands,” Hobill said. “They just kind of say they won’t engage with it, at this point it seems like they won’t engage with the most simple things that would make student lives on campus better.” 

PSAC 901 has been working on the list of demands since October 2020 through consultation with graduate students, surveys and town halls. Chiefly, the union is looking to address equity gaps, financial hardship and lack of mental health care. 

Hobill says the pandemic exposed longstanding issues in these areas, bring things like mental health and housing to a tipping point of immediate crisis. 

With Bill 124 suppressing wage raises in the public sector, PSAC 901 is demanding the following from their employer:

  • Paid and mandatory sexual violence prevention and anti-racism training
  • Clearer and more accessible accommodation practices
  • Better mental health supports
  • An additional year of employment contract guarantee
  • Hardship and professional development funds
  • Expense reimbursement for remote work

Recently, Kingston has been identified as the city in Canada with the fastest rising cost of living. As rent prices in the city continue to outpace wages across most sectors for young professionals, grad students are among a bounty of young adults forced into more precarious living situations than they’d like whether that be due to the number of tenants, building conditions or otherwise. 

Hobill says wages that are not in line with the city’s increasing cost of living is a problem that most, not just some, members of the union are having to grapple with.

“For [an] overwhelming number of members of the union the cost of living in Kingston is becoming increasingly a problem,” Hobill said. “Most of our funding packages put us well below the poverty line, and as we see rent increase it basically becomes impossible to keep up.”

Hobill said that with Bill 124 driving a stake in financial negotiations, things like hardship funds and better mental health supports can go a long way for working grad students. 

Hobill herself said she’s working four jobs to make ends meet. She doesn’t feel she’s unique in that, and says that can have a negative impact on the students’ research which is their primary reason for being here. 

While hopeful for an agreement ahead of time, the union is prepared for a strike vote on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022. 

Queen’s bargaining team was not able to provide comment in time for the deadline.

Statement from Queen’s Director of Faculty Relations Michael Villeneuve:

“Queen’s values the work of all of its employees and respects the collective bargaining process including the obligation to bargain in good faith.

“The University is currently in collective bargaining with the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) Unit 1, which represents University Graduate Teaching Assistants, Graduate Teaching Fellows, Graduate Research Assistants, Law (Juris Doctor) and Medical (Doctor of Medicine) Teaching Assistants. That process also includes a conciliator recently appointed by the Ministry of Labour.

“The majority of the bargaining unit members are graduate students who can work no more than an average of 10 hours per week, and are paid an hourly wage. The university values the contribution of all members of the bargaining unit and remains committed to the collective bargaining process.

“In respecting the parties involved, the University will not engage in speculation or negotiation outside of the bargaining process. Once a tentative agreement is reached, and ratified successfully by the parties, the details of that agreement will be shared publicly.

“We want to reach a fair agreement, and we will continue to work with PSAC’s representatives, and the conciliator, with that objective in mind.”

This article was written by Owen Fullerton as part of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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