August 27th, 2010
Read your collective agreement. As a new semester approaches that should be everyone’s motto—that is, everyone who is captured by the new collective agreement signed this summer by the University and the Teaching Assistants’ Union of Memorial University of Newfoundland. Graduate assistants, graduate teaching assistants, and graduate research assistants are covered by this agreement. Our graduate school office phones are starting to ring off their hooks as inquiring minds are demanding answers to questions pretty clearly spelled out in the official document. Apparently the TAUMUN cell phone is ringing a lot, too. It’s easier to dial than to read, I guess. Fortunately, if a phone rings in the forest there is a TAUMUN representative to hear it. Unfortunately, the union does not have an office yet (er, what’s up with that? Any other union people around to outfit the office?).
The first couple of years of any collective agreement are generally unstable ones, as all parties involved attempt to interpret and apply—or sometimes apply and then interpret—the clauses in the document. This is proving to be the case again.
TA unions are a commonplace in this country and so Memorial is just catching up to the trend. It’s safe to say that such unions usually end up being endorsed by their constituents after an extended period of dissatisfaction and frustration with current labour practices, not to mention pay rates. In a complex workplace like a university, it is foolish to think that every graduate student is performing the same duties in every department or program, but that doesn’t mean there ought not to be fair and acceptable standards governing all work.
Collective agreements certainly help standardize uneven language usage. As mentioned, graduate assistants, graduate teaching assistants, and graduate research assistants are covered by this agreement, but the document helpfully smoothes out these functional distinctions by referring to the group as a whole as Graduate Assistants–GAs. For years no one at the university could tell the difference between a GA, a TA, or an RA. While we might have agreed that none of these was a BA, we did not have a handle on who was getting hired or paid for what, or how to regulate the activities these hires performed. Moreover, one could always question what was really employment. I know of some GAs in the past who did nothing more than file papers for their prof supervisors for a few hours every week; others who worked like pack horses in labs; others who spent all their time in archives, digging for esoteric material; still others who did and were advised to do nothing—zero, sweet nothing. Things–like the weather in August–were pretty uneven.
Nothing clarifies the workforce quite so much as contract language, and so at least everyone now will be marking from the same page—so to speak. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t wrinkles in both interpretation and application. Arguably, the most disagreeable area and the chief source of complaint has been hiring. Without a sound policy or considered in-writing guidelines, many academic units have often relied on habit or familiarity, and in the worst cases favouritism, to guide their selection of GAs. Reportedly, some are still going about their business in that old-fashioned way. Meaning well is no more acceptable in appointing favoured students to work contracts than it is in taking a decade to finish a master’s thesis.
What really appeals to me about the new TAUMUN-MUN agreement is that assistantships will henceforth be formally determined on the basis of need. Doctoral students receiving $20,000 or less per annum in total funding and Master’s students receiving $16,500 or less per annum in total funding get first crack as assistantships, as I believe they should. Consider what it might be like to be pocketing $20,000 or $16,500 a year in a town whose property values have spiked higher than Lindsay Lohan’s legal fees. Can’t be easy trying to pay the heat and face your supervisor every morning.
It’s new world order. I am counting on a healthier state of the union. Let’s get this party started.