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UBC graduate research assistants cross union certification threshold at labour board

More than half of UBC's 3,300 research assistants have signed union cards, which means they will join CUPE if the Labour Relations Board dismisses an objection from the university. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
More than half of UBC's 3,300 research assistants have signed union cards, which means they will join CUPE if the Labour Relations Board dismisses an objection from the university. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

More than 55 per cent of graduate research assistants at the University of British Columbia have signed union cards as of May 11, according to the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

The card signings mean the union — whose CUPE 2278 chapter already represents teaching assistants and invigilators at UBC — will officially also represent graduate research assistants under B.C.'s single-step union certification process, pending an objection from the university at the B.C. Labour Relations Board.

In its submission to the LRB, UBC argued graduate research assistants are not employees in the traditional sense, and that their compensation — in the form of scholarships — do not constitute wages. Union officials have said the work graduate research assistants do help raise the university's international profile.

It is unclear how long it will take for the objection to be resolved at the LRB. Matthew Ramsey, UBC's director of university relations, said it would be providing details of its position — that graduate research assistants are not traditional employees — at the LRB out of respect for the labour process.

"Our position on this matter is based on B.C Labour Relations Code, accurately reflects the circumstances at UBC, and we will be providing further details as part of the Labour Relations Board hearing process," he said in a statement.

The card signings represent a major hurdle that has been cleared by the union organizers at UBC, who say their campaign was one of the biggest in recent B.C. history. CUPE says there are around 3,300 graduate research assistants at UBC who conduct research across different university departments.

Erica Mildner, a PhD candidate in sociology and an organizer of the campaign, said the union drive was necessary amid spiking costs of living and the fact many graduate research assistants are international students who pay MSP premiums each month.

"It's not really a question of, 'why now?', it's more like ... 'this is what everyone else is doing, why shouldn't we have these same rights and protections?'" she said.

Union organizers say graduate research assistants want to bargain as a collective over issues such as wages, rights and a grievance process.

"Research assistants currently don't have any access to things like paid sick leave or paid vacation which you do have under a teaching assistant contract," Mildner said.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Gracy Buckholtz, who has worked as a graduate research assistant in UBC's botany department since 2021, says research assistants do not get wage increases like teaching assistants do, and that they have a greater risk of academic repercussions if they face issues with their work.

She says there have been efforts to get a union for graduate research assistants for over five years at UBC, but the drive to join CUPE officially started in September last year.

According to Buckholtz, the number of workers made organizing difficult initially, but she says there had been a lot of positive feedback leading up to the card signings.

"So many of these positions across universities in Canada have been unionized and those positions have been recognized as workers," she said.