How we began
Imagine that you are a newly hired Teaching Assistant (TA) in the computer science department at UBC. You notice that your friends who are TAs in the sociology department are getting paid much less than you are. You are constantly working overtime, yet you are not getting paid for work done beyond your contracted hours. You cannot report these stressful working conditions to anyone and you are not satisfied at all with your job.
In response to such conditions and many other concerns faced by student workers at UBC, the TAs unionized, forming an independent local called the Teaching Assistants’ Union (TAU) in 1978 and went on strike in order to be recognized by UBC. The TAU went on to become certified as a local of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Canada’s largest public sector union, in March 1979. Presently, CUPE 2278 is the labour union at UBC which represents approximately 3000 teaching assistants and markers (Component I), and English language instructors (Component II). We are also the exclusive bargaining agent for our members with the university, meaning that we represent all educational workers who are part of the union in contract negotiations with UBC.
Our first collective agreement was negotiated in 1981. This agreement alleviated many of the conditions which led to the formation of the TAU in the first place by standardizing TA pay rates across departments, implementing a grievance procedure for TAs, and implementing overtime pay. Subsequent collective agreements of the 1980s safeguarded TAs against arbitrary hiring and firing procedures and provided substantial wage increases for TAs and a modicum of job security. Today, we may take for granted these protections established by the work of the Union in its first few years, but their legacy continues on in the current negotiations to secure better wages, workplace protections and benefits for our members.
What do we do for TAs?
Until a new collective agreement is negotiated, current TAs are covered under the collective agreement which was active from September 2010 to September 2014. Highlights of the collective agreement include wage categories for all members of CUPE 2278. Members fall into one of a few categories based on their duties and previous education: Markers, UTAs, GTA II and GTA I. Markers do objective (multiple choice, true/false) style marking. Undergrad TAs are undergraduate students who do much of the same work as a graduate TA while working on their bachelor’s degree. Grad TA II’s have a bachelor’s degree in their field and are usually enrolled in a master’s program. Grad TA I’s usually have a master’s degree in their field and are working on a doctoral degree. Other aspects of the collective agreement cover a member’s number of working hours, health and maternity benefits and hiring preference, along with benefits for vacation, sick leave, health-care, and academic leave. In addition, members of CUPE 2278 are protected from academic harm: a TA’s academic record cannot be harmed as a result of a workplace issue. This protection is the first of its kind in North America. The union is currently preparing for bargaining with the university to negotiate a new collective agreement.
Our main tasks as a union, other than negotiating a contract with the university through bargaining, include dealing with grievances and lobbying. Any union member who feels their rights have been violated under the collective agreement can approach the union confidentially, who will then deal with the problem through a formal process with UBC if action is requested. Occasionally, we will lobby at the university,provincial, and national levels to take action against university issues such as the rising cost of post-secondary tuition, the rising amount of temporary, short-term and precarious positions in BC universities, and issues surrounding campus safety and culture. This has also been demonstrated by some of our members’ support for the recent #IAmAStudent movement on campus. Our president, Trish Everett-Kabut, is also included in CUPE BC’s Young Workers’ Task Force as well as the CUPE Universities Committee and the Universities Coordinated Bargaining Committee to improve young workers’ representation at universities and within the broader labour movement.
The executive of our union regularly reaches out to our members by attending TA orientation sessions and publishing material on our social media pages to remind TAs of our rights as workers in the university. We host office hours where union members can discuss with a member of the union executive issues or problems they are having at work along with questions and concerns about the bargaining process once it begins. Each department also has a Department Representative, who functions as a shop steward and the point person members can speak with if they have questions or concerns about the union or their employment.
Part of our power as a union is the ability for our members to strike –withdrawing our labour to maximize our leverage at the bargaining table when negotiations stall or the employer is seeking something that is untenable for the members of the union. The union’s first strike was for recognition as the bargaining agent for all TAs at UBC in 1978, but the largest strike occurred in March 2003 under the spectre of Gordon Campbell’s Liberal supermajority and the tuition increases his government presided over. We ultimately defied the back-to-work provincial legislation that the legislature quickly passed. Because we resisted the university’s proposal that included massive concessions, we then got a 11.5% wage increase and maintained our medical benefits, through the help of an external mediator, despite the wage freeze in the rest of the public sector. The most recent strike in 2012, which led to the collective agreement dating from September 2010 to September 2014, occurred after two years of lengthy negotiations. It resulted in substantial improvements in the language of our contract, most notably the protection against “academic harm”. Wage increases were not substantial in this round, being frozen for the first two years and increasing 2% for the latter two year, because bargaining was bound by the provincial government’s Net Zero and Cooperative Gains Mandates which did not allow for any net increases in compensation for two years and severely curtailed monetary proposals in the subsequent two years. This interference in the collective bargaining process was felt by all public sector unions who bargained during this time, and many other university sector locals went on strike as well, including workers at the University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University.
Our context within the Canadian labour movement
We stand in solidarity with the other unions on the UBC campus including CUPE 116 (plant ops workers, food service employees, janitors, trades etc.), CUPE 2950 (library, clerical, and theatre workers), as well as labour advocacy groups across campus. Solidarity means that we stand in support of these other workers in hopes that they will also achieve fair treatment from the employer.
We also stand in solidarity with unions across other Canadian university campuses. In particular, we have expressed support for CUPE 3902 and CUPE 3903 at the University of Toronto and York University in Ontario as they have also faced difficult challenges in their bargaining this year. Members of CUPE 3902 and 3903 are on strike as of March 2nd. Both are using strike action as a means to achieve an equitable agreement for what they contribute to their respective universities.
We also cannot stress how important it is for young workers, including racialized workers, LGBTQ+ workers, and workers with disabilities, to band together and get involved in the labour movement, as more and more young workers face challenging conditions. Issues such as mounting student debt burden, low wages, minimal job security, and underemployment upon graduating university are major issues for young people in Canada and the world today. By organizing into unions, we are able to form a united front against these challenges and provide better conditions in the places where we provide our labour. The fact that our union has existed for over 36 years and has created better conditions for the TAs on campus, despite the fact that many of our members remain in their position for a relatively short time, demonstrates our power. By sticking together, we are able improve our working conditions at UBC. Our working conditions are our student’s learning conditions, and the university only works because we do.
For further information about CUPE 2278 and to stay up to date with our work, please visit our website at www.cupe2278.ca and follow us on Facebook. We also have a YouTube video which outlines our work in more accessible language than was presented in this article. Pertinent union documents such as our collective agreement and our contact information is also available on our website.
Adrian She is an undergraduate mathematics and computer science student who serves on the CUPE 2278 executive.