Academic assistants attempt to unionize

U of W one of few universities in Canada without an academic assistants union

Claire Morrison, a lab assistant at the U of W, wants better representation for her position in the form of a union for academic assistants. Cindy Titus

The students who mark your exams and teach your labs are about to get even more organized.

Efforts are underway to certify the University of Winnipeg Academic Assistants Union (UWAAU) to provide fair wages and support for academic assistants.

The U of W is one of the last universities in Canada that does not have a union for their academic assistants.

Subsequently, the benefits of being an academic assistant at other universities are much higher and, in some cases, students are paid double the U of W’s rate.

U of W teaching assistants make $10.23, but could make $22.71 working at the University of Ottawa.

“(We want to) implement general guidelines as to how working conditions should be established,” said Veronique Allard, acting regional organizer of the prairies for the Public Service Alliance of Canada. “One of the things is wages; ... unless you’re organized as a union, individuals can’t ask for more money because these are university guidelines.” 

Allard was a founding member of her academic assistants union at Concordia University five years ago. Now she’s working with the UWAAU to help assistants get representation on campus.

Claire Morrison, a lab assistant for the Spanish department at the U of W, understands the need of the UWAAU very well.

Aside being paid just over minimum wage to instruct labs, she has faced issues within the job that she doesn’t feel comfortable bringing up to her superiors.

“There are so many practices within the lab assistant model that need to become more legitimate. ... The person who hired me is on maternity leave now ... but she didn’t make an announcement to her staff that she was leaving. We had to find out through her students,” said Morrison.

Practices like this are not uncommon within an academic assistant’s life and often create concerns for future employment.

“Having someone to represent (academic assistants) in case something goes wrong in your employment is touchy ground when you’re a student,” said Trisha Roche, a U of W biology lab instructor.

“You don’t want to dissent because you need those references and a good word from your professors, so maybe the union will help mediate that.”

The University of Winnipeg Students’ Association supports the creation of the UWAAU, citing that they support fair labour practices and students’ right to organize and protect themselves.

In January, the university raised concerns over the UWAAU trying to attract members by tabling in Riddell Hall.

Legally, the university cannot interfere with the formation of a union, but claimed that it was business solicitation and therefore not allowed.

When asked to comment about the forming of the UWAAU, the U of W was tight-lipped.

“The university has nothing to say about that issue,” said Diane Poulin of communications at the U of W.

Some professors, like Mark Golden, a classics professor at the U of W, sympathize with the union’s cause.

“(The university’s) response was that they said it would give one group an advantage over another group that was doing an organizing drive, which to me was bogus; ... in general employers don’t like unions,” said Golden.

The union hopes to be certified by this summer, but first they must individually track down academic assistants and get them to sign membership cards.

To get involved with the UWAAU, look for them on Facebook or email [email protected] for details.

Published in Volume 65, Number 22 of The Uniter (March 10, 2011)

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