Graduate students at Wilfrid Laurier looking to form a union for teaching assistants

Graduate students at Wilfrid Laurier University have been actively working towards organizing a union for teaching assistants (TAs) to improve their current working conditions — which include better wages and benefits, increased support, transparency with hiring and contracts and addressing ongoing issues with TAs going over hours.

This comes as a result of a group of Laurier students who are pursuing unionization while primarily raising awareness for their cause through their Facebook group, “Wilfrid Laurier TAs United,” having just went public with their cause a few days ago.

Laurier is one of the few universities to not have a union for their TAs, an issue that has come into question over the years but has not received enough backing or support to follow through with changing it. 

Tanya Shoot, a psychology PhD student in her first year at Laurier, is supporting the unionization of TAs, especially after her time at Western University, a postsecondary institution that has a union of its own for their TAs.

“I came from Western [University], which is highly unionized, [meaning] that I get most of my benefits covered through a supplementary fund through my union, as well as I get representation and higher wages too. During my Masters, I was paid roughly 45 dollars an hour when I was TA-ing, and here, doing my PhD, I’m making 26 dollars an hour. So, you can imagine, I would expect with another degree under my belt I’d be getting paid more,” Shoot said.

The pay discrepancy is one of the central aspects of TA work that Shoot hopes to address with Wilfrid Laurier TAs United and recognizes that the dedication and passion of Laurier grad students is what will help make this mission a reality for current and future TAs.

“When I came here, I found out there was a small but strong cohort of students who did want to unionize. And this is not the first year that it’s been happening: it’s been happening for at least a couple of years now, where they’ve tried to drum up enough support and they’ve been unable to. They’ve already approached the union PSAC. So we would be a branch, if you will, off of them. They represent Western, they represent Queen’s [University]— a bunch of different universities in Ontario — so they know the drill, they know it’s important to students,” Shoot said.

Shoot has noticed a pattern that seems to have emerged with TAs who have been experiencing collectively similar issues with their positions, with grad students having little-to-no way of being able to tangibly question or address the problems that they’re facing in their roles.

“I think throughout this process we’ve gained a bigger and bigger group of students, saying very similar things, like: I don’t really know what my responsibilities are, professors seem to use me at will and I don’t think that’s fair, I am going over my hours, there’s nothing HR or anyone can do about that,” Shoot said.

“And it’s not fair: at the end of the day, we are workers, we have rights and a lot of people — putting wage aside from things — yes, we should definitely be paid more, we are skilled professionals, but a lot of non-monetary things we’re asking for is clarification of our job, [it’s] having a recourse if we have issues between us and our supervisor.”

“I think that we have to be realistic in our goals in that, no, we aren’t going to get everything, but at least if we can have a couple of our promises met, that’s going to give everyone a better chance of a better working relationship and a better experience here at Laurier,” she said.

A contention that seems to occur with TAs across different programs is the uncertainty and lack of clarity in regards to their position requirements and specific duties.

“So if you talk to someone, let’s say it’s someone that’s in music, they could be conducting a choir, they could be marking, they could be doing more work with instruments; whereas in science you could be running a lab, you could be doing a tutorial [or] you could just be marking. Right now, they give us kind of a rough breakdown, but I’ve had professors tell me, ‘don’t trust this, I’ve given you ballpark numbers, but it’s not necessarily going to be that’,” Shoot said.

“There feels like, even from my personal experience, an obligation [on the part] of the TA to do anything the professor says, because it is part of our funding package and there’s a worry that it’s going to come back to us if we don’t do everything that they say.”

One of the biggest challenges she claims will likely come with unionizing is the potential for pushback from Laurier.

“The university is going to be very against this. What they’re going to do is be on either side of the spectrum, [with] fear-mongering on one side and bribing on the other — maybe a mix of both. And I know that to be true because, during bargaining when I was at Western, the university would spout lies all the time about what would happen if we went on strike … So I know that the university is going to be against this, it’s just really what form it’s going to take. I’m hoping to debunk myths, get the word out, and get the population of students and workers ahead of whatever the university is going to say,” Shoot said.

A hope that Wilfrid Laurier TAs United has, and what they want the student body to understand, is that they are pushing for unionization so that TAs are given the support they need and have a reliable resource available to them to go to and utilize if they run into any issues. The primary goal of a union is to offer security and protection for workers — which is what is missing for Laurier TAs currently.

“It’s having someone in your corner. So if your supervisor or the admin want to bring you in for disciplinary action, for example, you have someone who’s sitting on your side of the bench who’s arguing for you. And a lot of the time, there’s no one else like that on the university: everyone else has a conflict of interest because they’re paid by the university, whereas a union is a total separate organization,” Shoot said.

With the misconceptions surrounding unions, and what it would mean to have one for TAs at Laurier, it’s important for students to educate themselves about what this union would mean for grad students and the potential benefits it would offer them in the long run.

“A lot of people think that the union is going to be organized by someone else. No, the members are students here, so they’re approachable, they understand what everyone is going through. Because they are a student, and they’re elected, if it really matters to you, you can be a part of the process,” Shoot said.”

“Because of that, our union can be shaped by what our issues are. A lot of people think that we’re going to strike and that’s going to be a big thing that’s somehow going to happen, but what they don’t understand is that there’s so much negotiating that goes on, and a strike is kind of a last-ditch effort.”

Shoot also noted that a lack of a union also impacts undergraduate students as well, as the TAs who work with them aren’t necessarily receiving the support they need in order to help their students succeed.

“I think a lot of people see those really negative experiences and not realize that those are maybe less than one per cent of all of the experiences that you would have with a union. And I think that from the undergraduate’s point of view, unfortunately, a lot of union action affects them and that’s not who we should be affecting, but that’s kind of a collateral that happens when TAs walk out or there are issues,” Shoot said.

“I think that it would be great for undergraduates to understand that we’re working, not only for a better life for us, but it’s so that we’re better equipped to help them.” 

More updates to come.

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