UBC objects to research assistants' right to unionize at Labour Relations Board
The University of British Columbia has argued against allowing graduate research assistants to unionize, claiming they are students and not employees.
CUPE 2278, which also represents teaching assistants at UBC, filed to expand its bargaining unit by including graduate research assistants. UBC graduate assistants are set to cast ballots in a union representation vote on Monday.
Both the union and university attended a certification hearing before the B.C. Labour Relations Board this week, where the university argued against graduate research assistants' right to unionize.
"The monies they receive are scholarship awards and are treated as such and do not constitute wages received for work performed," said Matthew Ramsey, director of university affairs, in a statement.
CUPE 2278 says there are around 3,300 graduate research assistants at UBC who conduct research across different university departments.
The union says research assistants are fighting to unionize to bargain as a collective over issues such as wages, rights and a grievance process.
Largest organizing drive in years: union
Gracy Buckholtz has worked as a graduate research assistant in UBC's botany department since 2021. She says research assistants are all compensated differently depending on their department. In her case, she says she is paid through her supervisor's grant.
She says research assistants are currently forced to deal with issues about their work individually rather than as a collective.
"I think people join for a variety of reasons and, for me, it was getting representation for everyone on campus," she said. "The goal of this is to leave UBC better than I found it."
Buckholtz disagrees with UBC's classification of research assistants as students and not employees.
"To call us students doesn't really recognize the fact that we are producing things that raise the university's global standing. It makes it an elite research institution to come to," she said.
"That isn't possible without the work researchers are doing."
CUPE 2278 president Emily Cadger says it's the largest organizing drive in years in B.C.
"We've made a really big statement about what actually needs to be protected labour in the workforce," said Cadger.
In B.C., the Labour Relations Board can automatically certify a union if 55 per cent of its employees sign valid cards. If a union has between 45 and 55 per cent of support, the board can order a representation vote.
Cadger says the union has collected enough support for a vote.
The union's position that university research assistants are employees isn't unique. Across Canada, research students at several universities have unionized, including at Simon Fraser University, and Concordia and McGill universities in Montreal.
Meanwhile, Ramsay says the university supports people's right to organize, adding that of the past eight certification applications since 2013, the university has only objected to one — the application by the research assistants.
The certification process remains before the board and it's unclear when a final decision will be made.