Graduate-student employees move to make benefits agreement with university

By in News

After months at the bargaining table, the Public Service Alliance of Canada Local 40004 chapter, formally known as the Association for Graduate Employees, hopes that the University of Saskatchewan Board of Governors will accept the collective agreement detailing employee benefits. 

The union represents all master’s and PhD students working as research assistants, student assistants or teaching assistants. On Oct. 3, the union held elections at their annual general meeting, which welcomed a new executive and officially ratified the collective agreement.

Laura Larson, a sixth-year PhD student in history and newly-elected treasurer of the PSAC Local 40004, discusses why she joined the bargaining team for talks in 2016 and then ran for election on the union’s executive.

“My experience as a graduate student at the U of S has been very good, so part of why I got involved in my union was to make sure that everyone has as good of an experience as I did,” Larson said. “[The agreement] basically makes sure everyone’s on the same page when it comes to what graduate-student workers are supposed to be doing and how their hours, work and everything … [is] going to be handled.”

The agreement only stipulates the terms of employment for any work a U of S graduate student undertakes that does not contribute to their academic program, which ranges from leading laboratory sections to conducting research on their supervisor’s behalf.

Seth Dueck, a fourth-year PhD student in physics and outgoing president of the PSAC Local 40004, explains that the U of S is one of the last universities of considerable size to establish an agreement for its graduate-student employees.

According to Dueck, the agreement will bring the U of S closer to parity with other universities, because the proposal was loosely based on universities of comparable size, like the University of Victoria.

Larson explains that the union’s goal this year is to make sure graduate students are aware of the employee benefits and services they are entitled to through their union. They have office hours on Wednesdays from 12 to 1 p.m., and they are located in Room 131 of MacLean Hall.

One specific aspect of the agreement was to raise the current rate of pay, which is $18.51, by $1.13 per hour and give a retroactive pay increase to any employee still currently completing their academic program of graduate studies. The increase would be 2 per cent per year since 2015, when the PSAC 40004 first became certified by the Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board.

Before this tentative agreement was established, there was no standardized procedure for the terms of employment for graduate students, and departments at the U of S would instead handle employment issues however they saw fit.

Various aspects of employment are specified in the agreement, from transparent hiring practices to vacation time. Dueck explains that health and dental benefits were removed from the agreement during negotiations, yet he hopes they will be implemented in the future.

The current agreement will expire at the end of August 2019, which is when another bargaining team will form to negotiate the next collective agreement.

Larson believes it was important to ensure that the collective agreement thoroughly specifies the terms of employment for student workers, which is why the negotiation process has been ongoing since January 2016.

“It’s really important, because it lays out a basic set of rights for graduate students,” Larson said. “It also brings the wages for graduate-student workers up closer to parity with other graduate-student workers across the country, which is important.”

Nykole King / News Editor

Graphic: Association of Graduate Employees / Supplied