Concordia University’s teaching and research assistances stand together as they accumulate signatures to create a new union before the April 3 deadline that advocates for better pay and benefits
On March 24, the Concordia Research and Education Workers Union (CREW) held a pizza party at the university’s Loyola campus to bring together TAs and RAs to express their support for leaving the Teaching and Research Assistants at Concordia Union (TRAC). The CREW campaign is optimistic about change thanks to the overwhelmingly positive response of TAs and RAs who are choosing to make the switch.
As people started to trickle into the meeting room in the Richard J. Renaud Science Complex, the overall attitude of attendees as they started eating was that they were done with TRAC. The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), the parent union of TRAC, failed to support its members in meeting their demands for a collective agreement with Concordia University that included a pay raise above inflation, better benefits for international students, improved protection against overwork, paid training, and better job security.
The main topic people discussed was their unfair salaries. According to the TRAC 2023 Demands Draft Points on the CREW website, TAs and RAs at Concordia University are paid by tier, making between $17.24 to $29.81 an hour. TAs in other universities like McGill make a minimum of $33 an hour. CREW wants to abolish the tier pay rate and establish equity amongst their members. Biochemistry TA and RA Frances Davenport emphasized that PSAC doesn’t have their back.
“PSAC didn’t even try to refute the salary issue. One of the talking points that they put on their website was that McGill students technically do more work, so TAs at Concordia don’t deserve more money. That’s so wild to me because there are people on CREW’s campaign team who say, ‘I TA at Concordia and my partner TAs at McGill. We have the exact same job,’” Davenport said.
CREW is confident that its new potential parent union, the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), will help them win their fight. They’ve seen CSN’s support for the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM), McGill’s TA and RA union, who is a local union of theirs.
“AGSEM has been helping us campaign as well. We have come together to compare job descriptions and responsibilities and they are the same. The only difference is that for AGSEM, it is outlined in a contract, PSCA won’t even give us a contract.” Davenport said.
Former TRAC President Sam Thompson was also in disbelief at PSAC’s response.
“It’s an amazing illustration of how little understanding PSAC has of the valuable work that the teaching assistants do at Concordia. We are absolutely essential to the very functioning of the university,” Thompson said.
“Without us, it would simply fall apart. So, the idea that our work is less valuable than what McGill does is laughable.”
CSN allows their unions to be autonomous, meaning that if CREW officially signs with them, they will be able to have the final say when CREW brings their issues to the bargaining table. PSAC’s diplomatic structure doesn’t provide this.
Joey Ricardo, a research assistant in Concordia’s biochemistry department, thinks that PSAC has neglected its members in the past and didn’t try to help TRAC negotiate for a better salary and benefits. This is the fundamental reason behind the switch, giving TAs and RAs more control over their situation.
“CSN is less involved as a parent union and will let CREW do what they want to do. TRAC was at the mercy of PSAC. Now if someone is saying, ‘No, you can’t negotiate pay,’ CREW will be able to decide whether they want to renegotiate or not. CSN will only be there for support,” Ricardo said.
This is why CREW believes that for real change to happen, they need to put the pressure on. They think they deserve a better deal than what PSAC is willing to offer.
“PSAC has made the claim that CSN comes and raids their unions, bringing PSAC’s unions over to CSN. CREW’s campaign team did their research and reached out to CSN for help. This movement is a grassroots movement, started by graduate students,” Davenport said.
She says that CSN supports CREW’s principles, like how CREW stresses that TAs and RAs are university employees. According to Davenport, Concordia University emphasizes that they are students first, denying TAs and RAs employee benefits.
Thompson says that the CREW campaign has spoken to thousands of TAs and RAs who have made the switch from TRAC to CREW. The relationships that the TA and RA community has formed over the last couple of weeks have never been in a stronger position. They have received support from every single department at Concordia University.
“It’s so amazing to see members so excited by a project that fills them with the hope that contains the promise of real dignity at work,” Thompson said.
“It’s also been an incredible opportunity to build momentum in the lead-up to negotiating with the university. Members look at the deal that they’ve had for 15 years and know that it can be better. They want the opportunity to fight for that positive change.”
For the switch to officially comply with Quebec’s labour union laws, CREW needs to have 50 per cent of TRAC members sign a petition stating that they want to resign from TRAC to join CREW.
Towards the end of the pizza party, Ph.D. candidate Victor Quezada, who’s been working as a graduate student for Concordia since 2019, commented that he thinks the switch will officially happen. He has noticed how the TA and RA community has become more tight-knit because of CREW’s encouragement and people have been participating to get the word out.
“I have good expectations. We have good representatives who are fighting for change. CREW are very involved, engaged, and have put everything that they have into this,” Quezada said.
PSAC was contacted for comment but didn’t respond in time for publication.