This is an open letter to TAs and the UBC community about the looming strike by CUPE2278, UBC’s TA union. It was written by David Klonsky, a professor in the psychology department. This letter was posted on the CUPE2278 facebook group, then promptly deleted by the group admin.
I am a young faculty member here at UBC and this letter represents my personal opinion and my opinion alone. I write as a strong supporter of TAs and the TA union membership, but as a strong critic of the TA union leadership.
While I believe in unions and the right of unions to strike, I also believe a strike vote is a serious matter – it must be based on open, objective, and rational discussion among union members. I believe the TA union leadership has failed badly in this regard.
Union leadership provided members with a detailed comparison of TA compensation at UBC and the University of Toronto. It is indeed sensible to compare UBC to other top Canadian institutions. Why did union leadership not provide similar information about McGill University? Why did union leadership opt to keep this information from membership?
UBC operates in the province of British Columbia, which places UBC under very different governmental and financial restrictions compared to Ontario or Quebec. Why did union leadership not provide its membership with information on other British Columbian universities such as UVic and Simon Fraser?
Strikes happen rarely, perhaps once every 10 years. Timing is everything. Timing should be selected to yield maximum improvements in salaries and benefits. At present UBC is hindered by stringent, unusual, and temporary BC governmental restrictions (e.g., “net-zero”). This is precisely the time when UBC has the least they are permitted to offer TAs. A strike next academic year after the “net-zero” restriction is lifted could yield far more benefits for TAs. Why was this issue of timing never introduced to membership for formal discussion? Why was there no discussion of pros and cons for striking now vs. after “net-zero” is lifted?
Union leadership has made no effort to reach out to faculty. Graduate students and faculty are partners. We work together on almost everything. You help our labs run and our scholarly work happen; we help you grow and learn and produce, we write you letters of recommendation and support, we help make sure your theses and job applications are successful. We are allies and friends. Why has TA union leadership made no effort to reach out to us? Obviously a strike affects us tremendously. It would be common courtesy for union leadership to reach out to faculty, perhaps through an open letter or through our union leadership, to explain that a strike might be coming, that you understand the effect this has on us, that you sincerely prefer to avoid a strike, and that you will do your best to keep us posted because you value our relationship.
A Rush to Strike
Many TAs felt the information provided by union leadership was misleading, that union leaders were more interested in achieving a strike than facilitating an open and thoughtful dialogue among TAs about whether and when to strike. For example, TAs expressed to me personally that they felt the pre-strike-vote meetings were more like “cheerleading sessions” based on limited information rather than open, honest discussions. Other TAs told me that in an effort to ensure a positive strike vote union leadership repeatedly emphasized that a positive strike vote did not mean there would be a strike. This sentiment was also apparent in posts by TAs on the TA union Facebook page, for example: “it was heavily implied before the vote (though in a conveniently non-binding way) that there would not necessarily be a strike.”
Other TAs expressed to me that union leadership went out of its way to emphasize the pay available during a strike but never explicitly mentioned that receiving strike pay requires working for the union and picketing. If you don’t picket, you don’t get strike pay. You have a doctor’s appointment and can’t make it? Too bad. You don’t come to campus on Wednesdays? Too bad. In short, it seems union leadership was selective and biased in the information they provided to TAs in an effort to achieve what they wanted: a positive strike vote. This is not how union leadership should serve its members. TA union members deserved an open and honest conversation based on comprehensive information.
In a March 22 post on the CUPE2278 blog, union leadership noted that a different UBC union, CUPE 116, received a mandate to strike. Specifically, 75% of CUPE 116 members voted, and 89% were in favor. This means that 67% of CUPE 116 members voted to strike – a true mandate. The corresponding numbers for the TA Union strike vote are quite different: only 35% of TA union members voted, and 81% were in favor. In short, 67% of CUPE 116 voted to strike compared to only 28% of TA union members.
Based on results from their respective votes, CUPE 116 leadership can be certain that an overwhelming majority of its membership support a strike, but TA union leadership cannot. It is quite possible that the majority of UBC TAs do not want to strike. Instead of acknowledging this very real possibility, and instead of acknowledging the disparities between the two votes, TA union leadership claimed a “positive strike mandate” within minutes of the vote closing. If union leadership first and foremost cared about ascertaining the consensus among its membership, the result would have given them pause. I might suggest that union leadership cared more about claiming a positive strike mandate.
In closing, I reiterate my strong support for UBC TAs. I was moved to write this letter precisely because I feel TA union leadership prioritized their own opinions and aims over the opinions and best interests of UBC TAs. UBC TAs deserved comprehensive information and a balanced, open forum for discussion. In this respect union leadership failed its members and failed UBC. UBC TAs deserve better.