The legal Battle to represent Concordia’s Teaching and Research Assistants

Two unions spent the summer working behind the scenes to be Concordia TAs’ and RAs’ official union

While many Concordians were taking some well-deserved time away from school this summer, two unions were fighting to be the official representatives of Concordia’s Research Assistants (RAs) and Teaching Assistants (TAs).

Despite collecting the membership of a majority of TAs and RAs at the end of their campaign, the Concordia Research and Education Workers Union (CREW) failed to get accredited this summer. The Teaching and Research Assistants at Concordia Union (TRAC) remains the official union, but TAs and RAs will have to vote this fall to choose the group that will represent them. 

CREW was created last March when all members of TRAC’s former executive team resigned to form a new union that was meant to be more independent. In their letter of resignation, the team spoke out against TRAC’s parent union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). According to them, PSAC was hindering the fight for better pay and better work conditions for TAs and RAs at Concordia. 

“The university takes full advantage of these dynamics [between TRAC and PSAC],” CREW wrote in the letter, “exploiting PSAC’s poor results and lack of consultation, not to mention its lack of a participatory union culture […] to push around our members and chip away at our working conditions.”

Bree Stuart, who was president of TRAC until May 2022 and is now their interim administrative assistant, disagreed with the arguments CREW was making in the letter. To her, PSAC had always been present in a supportive role whenever TRAC needed them.

She was also shocked that the executive team would resign while they were bargaining for a new collective agreement.

“That, to me, is just super disingenuous, that you can start bargaining in a union that you’re trying to destroy,” Stuart said.

The campaign for memberships

Before CREW could become the accredited union representing Concordia’s TAs and RAs, they had to campaign against TRAC. Both unions had until April 3, 2023 to collect as many membership cards as possible from the TAs and RAs.

“You could think of it as a referendum, in a way,” explained Stephanie Eccles, campaign coordinator and organizer at CREW. “So folks had to give their allegiance to TRAC or their allegiance to CREW.”

The deadline of April 3 had been chosen by both CREW and TRAC because union raids—the process of challenging an existing union—can only legally happen 60 days before the end of a union’s collective agreement. 

The accreditation 

On April 3, at midnight, CREW filed their membership cards with the Quebec Labor Board (TAT). At the time, they reported having 1,700 members out of Concordia’s 2,100 TAs and RAs, a number confirmed by TAT documentation.

“We were feeling very good about going into the court date on May 30,” recalled Eccles. “And then, on May 26—and this is how we found ourselves in our current situation—PSAC refiled a petition to certify the TAs and RAs at Concordia.”

On that day, PSAC sent the court a new list of their members, one in which they had a majority of memberships for TAs and RAs under contract on May 26. 

The reason they were able to refile despite being past the 60-day deadline was that PSAC had never filed TRAC’s Collective Agreement with TAT. In other words, in the eyes of TAT, TRAC’s Collective Agreement had expired on May 31, 2021.

“We just did a side agreement with the university,” said Eccles. “And so, what that means is that for the last few years, our union has been open to raids by other unions. It has not upheld the legal protections necessary.” 

The Collective Agreement had still been signed by the union and the university. According to Stuart, “even if it hadn’t been filed with the TAT, it was a signed, legally binding contract between Concordia and TRAC.”

As things stand now, CREW had a majority of signatures on April 3, and TRAC had a majority on May 26. There will be a secret email ballot in the fall to act as a tie-breaker and determine which union will be accredited. TAs and RAs should receive more information about who is eligible to vote in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, TRAC is still the official union and collects 1.84 per cent of TAs’ and RAs’ salaries, according to Eccles.

Where we currently stand

Two weeks ago, on August 22, TRAC elected their new executive team during an online General Assembly that student media was barred from attending. The quorum for the meeting was 30. TRAC claims that this quorum was met, at least during the votes at the beginning, but Eccles claims the election was done without meeting quorum.

Xiang Chen Zhu is TRAC’s newly elected mobilization officer. He initially supported CREW, but after the accreditation issues this summer, he started thinking that their campaign was taking time and attention away from bargaining and supporting TAs and RAs. “CREW has basically promised us everything will be transitioned smoothly,” he said, “and you will get a wage similar to the McGill students, which is around $33 [per hour].”

Marcus Granada, an organizer with CREW, disagrees with the idea that his union made false claims during their campaign last semester. He said that while CREW cannot make promises about wages or conditions, they can promise to fight for TAs and RAs. “Part of the campaign is being as transparent and honest as possible,” he said, “and not selling them a dream.”

What to expect in the coming months

Both unions are now turning their focus to the secret ballot this fall and the campaign that will precede it. The date for the vote is not yet set. 

“Of course, CREW is feeling very confident because, when we filed on April 3, we had over 1,700 of the 2,100 cards available,” said Eccles. “We had a strong majority.”

Granada highlighted the importance of mobilizing TAs and RAs to show up for the vote. “If the voter turnout is under 50 per cent of the TAs and RAs, then PSAC automatically wins,” he explained. “So we need to get the votes and we need to get a lot of people to vote as well.” 

On TRAC’s end, Zhu said they are ready to move on to bargaining. “Whoever wins the ballot, they should focus their time and effort on something that students really care about right now,” he said.

On her end, Bree Stuart believes that the secret ballot will give people a chance to express their true opinions about the union.“I just feel like it’s more ethical because people can take the time to sit down, educate themselves, and really make their own decision on what they want, who they feel is more apt at taking their bargaining demands into their own hands,” she said.


Making an investment in legal recognition

The Engineering and Computer Science Association is officially heading into its second week of campaigning in hopes of being officially recognized as a legally accredited student association in the province of Quebec — at an expense of more than $13,000.

The campaign period lasts from Jan. 14 to Jan. 28, with executives from the faculty association visiting around 20 classrooms a day to garner support for the vote. The polling itself will span from Jan. 28 to Feb. 14 where students can choose to endorse the move for accreditation or vote against it.

The entire procedure for the ECA in its effort to achieve official autonomy from Concordia and legal certification from the provincial government cost the student association over $13,000. VP finance Chuck Wilson explained that while accreditation is expensive, it is necessary to spend the money.

“The risk of failure is greatly decreased with an increase in money spent,” said Wilson. “If we have more polling days, we have more turnout and paying our elections staff is pretty much necessary.”

Melanie Hotchkiss, who is co-ordinating the campaign, explained that the university and the student organization have a “good relationship” since it is provided with office space and the fee-levy it collects, something that the administration is not obligated to provide.

“More than anything else, accreditation would be more like an insurance policy,” said Hotchkiss.

The issue is to attract as many students as possible since the provincial government requires 25 per cent of the ECA’s membership to support the motion. Therefore, the faculty association requires a minimum of approximately 900 students to vote ‘yes.’

The ECA is reaching out to students through flyers and information booths located in the mezzanine in the Hall building and on the eighth floor.

In order to ensure that the vote is as accessible as possible to undergraduate students, the ECA invested in having roaming polls with clerks visiting classrooms so individuals can vote before and after courses.

With four clerks, the roaming polls alone are costing the ECA close to $5,600 and the stationary polls amount to more than $3,000.

“We have to hedge our bets and make sure our students get out and vote,” said Wilson.

Overall, the ECA is allotting more than $10,000 to the polling to guarantee a two-week vote provides students with enough time to cast their ballots.

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