Did you know that, like many staff positions on campus, the UBCO RAs are attempting to unionize? Unfortunately, it is not all rainbows and butterflies for this team of 85 hard working part-time employees. As I’ve been told, the team is going through a tumultuous time; a rift has separated those who are with and against the attempted unionization. Not everyone is satisfied with their current work conditions and seek to enact change. On the other hand, not everyone wants that change and fear a union might alter their job for the worse.
According to one of the main organizers, this is how the unionizing process unfolds:
“The process starts when workers notice workplace issues and form an organizing committee to work with a union organizer to help the union come together. We’re working with the BC General Employees’ Union (BCGEU), which represents most other employees here at UBCO, and their role in this is simply to provide us with resources and expertise to help this come to fruition. The organizing committee talks to other workers on the team, and if at least 45% of workers sign union representation authorization forms (AKA “cards”), we can file with the BC Labour Relations Board for a vote. Majority support is needed in that vote to win representation. After this, bargaining begins, where a bargaining committee (made up of union members) will be elected by the workers to speak to the university on their behalf to negotiate workplace conditions. Finally, a Letter of Understanding is agreed upon and the negotiated changes take effect.”
Okay, so let's break this down.
The process starts when workers notice workplace issues and form an organizing committee to work with a union organizer to help the union come together.
Some of the issues the organizers outlined for me were as follows:
“We noticed that 66% of UBCO Residence Life staff pay more in housing fees than they make with their salary. Only RAs in two out of 10 buildings, and employees on the leadership team (Program Resource Advisors and Senior Residence Advisors), make more than they pay in housing fees. RAs have also reported noticing drastic differences in work expectations between area teams (the entire Residence Life team is separated into 3 area teams); hopefully a union allows us to outline more concrete guidelines for both RAs and managers, therefore reducing these differences. These are some of the main reasons why we decided to unionize, however this is not a comprehensive list, and we’re trying to make sure that we advocate for different concerns that all RAs have.”
An Ra mentioned that,
A union is needed when the workplace is unfair or when it is a hostile environment. Now, I guess the term fair is subjective. I feel like a union is a good thing when the workplace is hostile. But, I do not think that the current climate we work in meets that criteria.
Other RAs mentioned that they feel like they are getting paid fairly for the work that they do. The RA position is a part-time job after all. RAs are only expected to work 12 hours per week. As one of the RAs stated,
It’s become clear to me that a lot of people feel as though they have a right to this job. I don’t feel like anyone has a right to any job. I think having a job is a privilege.
The RA, who has worked in Residence Life for three years, believes that enacting change is good. However, he feels like a union is not the way. He mentioned that there are other ways to enact change, such as taking the issues to the RAs’ bosses, the RLMs (Residence Life Managers) and working it out with them. This RA has discussed his issues with his RLM and they have taken the input and made changes accordingly. He thinks that going together to discuss with RLMs and make change in this manner will be beneficial without going through the efforts of unionizing.
Another RA, who is supportive of the union, claimed that RAs have told her that the vibe of the job changes a lot depending on the RLMs. She understands that the current RLMs will eventually be replaced and it will change the conditions of the workplace as everyone has different managing styles. She mentioned that what she would like to see put in writing is to maintain some of the aspects of the job that are really important so that it doesn't change no matter who the RLMs are. Currently, the RAs’ salaries are adjusted according to inflation out of good will, not because of a requirement. However, it would be nice to put something like that in writing so that it stays.
An RA who is also a Teaching Assistant (TA) commented that she is unionized as a TA by the same union that is trying to unionize the RAs. She thought that if the union is being organized for better worker representation, then she understood. However, as a unionized TA, the job is very systematic because the workers are represented formally. She does not believe that the RA job can be encapsulated within those rigid terms which is why she doesn't know if the RA job can be unionized.
Another RA, who has been involved with the process from the beginning, believes people have come into the idea of unionizing for a variety of reasons. But, overall, she thinks that there are some valid reasons why people think the RAs should unionize even if it is just for the benefit of future RAs to permanently be able to have a say in their workplace conditions.
We’re working with the BC General Employees’ Union (BCGEU), which represents most other employees here at UBCO, and their role in this is simply to provide us with resources and expertise to help this come to fruition.
As previously mentioned, the BCGEU represents many staff unions at UBCO such as the TAs, food service workers, and library employees.
One of the organizers mentioned that BCGEU has been helpful. Another RA commented that at the end of the day, a union is a business. So you can’t be 100% sure that the BCGEU is in it for your best interests. They don’t know about the RA job.
The organizing committee talks to other workers on the team, and if at least 45% of workers sign union representation authorization forms (AKA “cards”), we can file with the BC Labour Relations Board for a vote. Majority support is needed in that vote to win representation.
Some RAs believe that the organizing committee has handled the process of “talking to other workers on the team” quite poorly. The organizers started out with a group chat. They would approach a person about their thoughts of unionization in general and if they matched with their agenda then they would add them to their group chat. Slowly, more and more people were added to the group chat.
Apparently, the group chat, or group chats, were being inappropriately used for gossip, according to some RAs.
One Ra said, “I understand why they needed to keep things hush hush, but it was wrong to say they needed to secretly organize and build their numbers. They only need a few people to organize, not 30+ people. Maybe five people who are seriously dedicated to making sure they have one clear message and then present it to the whole RA team rather than picking people off one by one.”
Another RA commented that the process of reaching out to other RAs has been turbulent because she thinks the people organizing have trouble articulating what they want. And, a lot of people aren’t willing to listen.
The main problem permeating the team since the attempted union has gone public is a loss of cohesiveness with each other. That is, as one RA mentioned, it has gotten to a point of contention between RAs and a lot of strong emotions are surfacing. When you work and live with the same people, this rift, this divide, can make the job a lot harder.
The organizers say, “We’re trying to make sure that it’s a democratic process. Unionization is a democratic process in and of itself, but we’re trying to make sure we listen to everyone’s concerns throughout this entire campaign.”
An RA doesn’t feel like the organizers are upholding what they've said above. He thinks people are being manipulated under misinformation to sign cards.
One of the organizers commented that, “We have definitely made mistakes along the way. We don’t really know what we are doing. We are doing our best. Overall, the majority of the people who want to unionize have good intentions.”
After this, bargaining begins, where a bargaining committee (made up of union members) will be elected by the workers to speak to the university on their behalf to negotiate workplace conditions.
The bargaining process involves a give and take. The RA union gains something while possibly losing something in return. One RA commented that
The campaign is advertised with all these potential benefits without informing the RAs of all the potential costs. Anyone making a decision should be informed of not only the benefits but also the costs.
Another RA mentioned that if, during the bargaining process, the two sides cannot come to an agreement, it will be defaulted to what the current conditions are and nothing will really change. The benefit is that in the future, if RAs have something they want to change, they can go back to the bargaining table.
Finally, a Letter of Understanding is agreed upon and the negotiated changes take effect.
An RA mentioned that since UBC Vancouver has just unionized. Maybe we should take a step back, look at them as a case study, and draw parallels. If we see what we like, we should go to the RLMs and upper management, talk to them, and if they don’t agree, then let's unionize.
Another RA said that, “Even if nothing changes at all, we would have in writing what the current work conditions are so we can maintain those. It gives us a permanent voice through which we can enact change. Even if in the future, if the future RLMs create different job conditions that the RAs don’t like, they have the avenue through which they can renegotiate the contract. Even if we think the job is perfect now, that could change in the future. Setting this up for them in the future is helpful. It makes it so they don’t have to go through the whole process of unionizing. It would be much simpler for them.”