After spending more than two years at the negotiating table, the tentative agreement between the Teaching and Research Assistants Union and Concordia University was unanimously rejected at a union members’ meeting Jan. 21. As it stands, the agreement 8212; which some TAs have called poorly written, ambiguous and elusive 8212; is in arbitration.
Though TAs said “poor communication on the part of the union” left them with only three days to organize themselves for last week’s vote, over 100 members of the union were present.
Their list of objections to the agreement and the process that led to it was long.
But the most common complaint, above feeling uninformed throughout the negotiations, concerned the potential pay cuts many TAs could face 8212; especially when Concordia’s TAs are already among the lowest paid, they said.
“How did it get to a stage in the negotiations where the union’s best option is a pay cut?” asked Greg Beaudoin, a TA in political science at the graduate level.
Though there are no explicit pay cuts, the tentative agreement was “so poorly written, it left all kinds of potential loopholes,” Beaudoin said.
Currently, Concordia’s TAs and research assistants are categorized in three levels according to workload, and paid accordingly. The agreement that was struck between TRAC and the university, however, collapsed two levels into one.
As a result, TAs at the Master’s level who were earning an hourly wage of $22, $16 or $11 could have been cut to wages of either $17 or $11.30.
“The story the administration tells us is that some of us moved up into the first bracket, which means we get a small raise from $16 to $17,” Beaudoin said. “But the wording in the agreement is so ambiguous that we can’t trust it. We could just as easily fall into the lower category and take a $5 pay cut. That’s unacceptable.”
Many of those who voted against the agreement said they were shocked when they first read it. “We didn’t know about this, even though it was singed months ago,” said Thomas Leonard, president of the Political Science Graduate Students’ Association and one of a handful of TAs who recruited the high turnout Jan. 21. “We can’t put all the blame on the union, but it is their job to keep us informed and get us involved. And now we’re shit out of luck,” he said. “Now it’s up to a judge to decide.”
Some TAs could stand to benefit from the agreement. Undergrad TAs who lead tutorials or labs, for example, could have potentially benefited from having job security and, possibly, a raise of about $1 per hour.
Liam McCarthy, one of the union’s negotiators, said simply, “This is what we were able to get out of the negotiations and the bargaining with the employer.”
As such, the union’s negotiating tactics have been called to question; TAs and RAs were never given the option to use either hard or soft pressure tactics, such as striking or giving As to all their students.
Robert Sonin, a TA in the philosophy department, said the process was “at best unprofessional, and at worst dishonest and deceptive.”
“According to what we were told, the union went in seeking parity with McGill, while the university went in demanding the status quo,” Sonin said. “Yet the union managed to negotiate a contract with lower pay than the status quo – they did the employer’s job for them.” Sonin personally would have seen a pay cut of over $5 per hour.
Mohammad Sabr, a John Molson School of Business RA representative on the bargaining team, admitted he was displeased with the agreement, but that the union’s hands were tied.
“We didn’t think striking or walking out would be effective as a pressure tactic,” he said, pointing out that the union’s semiannual general meetings were often very poorly attended.
Still, TRAC members are unhappy. “I’m very discontent. They’re not representing us very well,” said Beaudoin. “This is just beyond the logic of what a union should do for you.”
Contacted Monday morning, the university was not available for comment before press time.