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.


TRAC votes to oppose Bill 62 outright

Contract negotiations for teaching and research assistants union to resume in February

About 60 members of Teaching and Research Assistants at Concordia (TRAC) gathered to discuss the union’s priorities for the winter 2018 semester at a special general assembly on Jan. 24.

The union is in the midst of negotiating a new collective agreement with Concordia and has been working under an expired agreement since April 2016. Bi-weekly meetings between Concordia University and TRAC’s bargaining team started at the end of October and will resume for the winter semester in February. TRAC is entering potentially the most contentious part of their negotiations, dealing with issues directly related to how much teaching and research assistants will be paid.

Prior to the general assembly, TRAC’s executive committee, led by president Alexandre St-Onge-Perron, distributed a letter to members updating them on the status of negotiations and the union’s mobilization plans for the semester.
Although the topics of bargaining and mobilization were expected to take up most of the discussion time, it was the last item on the assembly agenda that garnered the most feedback and debate amongst those gathered—Bill 62.

As The Concordian previously reported, TRAC’s executive team decided to ask their members if they want the union to take an official position on Bill 62, the province’s religious neutrality law, which has been widely derided as openly Islamophobic.

Jonathan Vallée-Payette, the chair of the assembly and a labour advisor from TRAC’s parent union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), reminded those gathered that, as publicly funded institutions, universities and their employees would be subject to the directives of the bill.

The primary point of concern in Bill 62 is Article 10, the notorious clause which makes it illegal for anyone to give or receive public services without showing their face. The bill also states that religious accommodation will be granted under certain rules to be determined by Quebec’s minister of justice. However, those rules have yet to be published.

This undetermined part of the bill led a judge to issue a temporary stay on Article 10 in December, which injected uncertainty into how the TRAC assembly wanted to proceed. Some members thought it better to wait until the accommodation rules had been clarified before taking an official position.

Although that proposal was considered for a moment, a forceful call to oppose the bill outright from member Cameron McIntyre garnered audible support.

“I don’t think asking for clarification is tough enough for what this bill is,” McIntyre said.

A second member followed at the microphone: “I think we should oppose this on the grounds that it is a shameful and racist practice.”

Two other members expressed similar sentiments at the microphone before the general assembly voted in favour of opposing Bill 62 outright. However, the motion did not make specific mention of discrimination as the reason for the opposition.

TRAC’s official position is now more in line with its parent union, PSAC, which released a statement in October calling the bill Islamophobic and discriminatory toward Muslim women.

Disclosure: Kenneth Gibson is a teaching assistant for the Concordia journalism department.

Photo Courtesy of Natalie Greenberg

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