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Consultation between AUGSA bargaining team and existing GRA workforce?

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Consultation between AUGSA bargaining team and existing GRA workforce?

Started by sarah beth April 27, 2012 - 1:00pm Replies (59)

Hi all,

This is a discussion of AUGSA's representation of existing research assistants and potential future TAs and RAs, migrated from where it popped up (in the copyright group), here: I'm moving it here because the copyright issue is a pressing one, and I don't want to hijack the group. :)

After a bit of discussion (please read the original thread), Amanda wrote:

Hi Sarah,

Yep - this is getting long! What's your email address? I'll email you offline. I'm at

We don't have a town hall planned for graduate student collective agreements, though again, you're welcome to send in some feedback if you have specific items or articles you'd like us to consider. We've reviewed a variety of agreements (University of Calgary, University of Alberta, University of Lethbridge, Waterloo, Dalhousie, University of British Columbia, etc) to help prepare; these agreements will all be quite similar to ours in nature. Our hope is to use the University of Calgary GSA agreement as a starting place for ours. We're tremendously fortunate to have outstanding support from our partner student organizations, volunteer legal counsel, and free training and support from AUPE (one of the largest unions in Alberta). 

Looking forward to chatting more over email! A phone or Skype conversation might also be great, if you'd like?



And my reply:

Hi Amanda,

I'd love to Skype sometime, but I think we should have these conversations in ways that are open to as many other existing workers as possible, don't you? I'm so happy that the AUGSA is taking this on, of course, and I'm sure we'll find that everyone is glad to hear your updates, but you really must consult with the workers you're representing before you sign a contract on our behalf!



OK, we're up to speed. Thanks for the discussion, Amanda! I really am pleased that AUGSA is working on this and willing to talk on the Landing. Looking forward to more updates and public consultation (but in the AUGSA group and not the copyright group). :D


  • Bethany April 27, 2012 - 1:50pm

    I'd love to hear more about negotiations between AUGSA and the BOG - particularly, how could/would any agreements developed impact students who are already IN research assistant positions?

  • Heather Clitheroe April 27, 2012 - 3:05pm

    Realistically speaking, how many people would this actually impact?

  • Bethany April 27, 2012 - 3:11pm

    Good question! Amanda, do you happen to know roughly how many AU grad students are currently employed by the university as RAs, and, if different (I know some profs use outside RAs as well, or used to), how many RAs the university emlpoys?

  • Heather Clitheroe April 27, 2012 - 3:14pm

    I suspect that information would come from AU, and not AUGSA at this point, wouldn't it?

  • sarah beth April 27, 2012 - 3:16pm

    If they haven't already done so, I would imagine getting AU to disclose how many jobs we're bargaining for is high on AUGSA's to-do list! And it's definitely a reasonable question from an AUGSA member. :)

  • Heather Clitheroe April 27, 2012 - 3:31pm

    Did I say that it was an unreasonable question?

  • Amanda Nielsen April 27, 2012 - 3:57pm

    Hi everyone,

    Great to see a discussion going here. :)

    I'll try to respond to all of the comments. 

    Sarah - I do believe that it is reasonable for the GSA to make decisions through its elected Council. Our Council consists of a four-person Executive team, and multiple representatives from each Faculty or Centre. This system ensures that we have input from a wide variety of graduate students in our decision-making processes, and I believe is a good system.

    I've sent out emails to our peer GSAs to inquire if they engage in any kind of broader member consultation regarding collective agreements. I've only heard back from the University of Calgary GSA thus far, and they've indicated that they have not engaged in a broader consultation of the general membership for collective agreement negotiations in the past; instead, information is collected from elected student representatives on the U of C GSA GRC (Graduate Representative Council).

    That being said, if you folks think it would be useful, I'm sure the AUGSA can send out a membership survey about collective agreements to get a sense of what the wider membership may have to say, and what the wider membership wishes the GSA to focus on. I understand that this is the process that AUPE follows prior to collective bargaining at some of their locals. AUPE has kindly sent me a template of questions they've asked their members in the past through surveys prior to collective bargaining. If we decide to go ahead with this, you're all more than welcome to assist in drafting the AUGSA survey, if you'd like to get involved.

    The AUGSA bargaining team will use the input from our elected Council to hopefully craft a robust collective agreement with AU, and we'd be happy to also consider any feedback we receive via email, via the Landing, via a survey, or through any other medium.

    I have no idea how many people Athabasca University currently employs as Teaching or Research Assistants. There are risks to hiring people without a collective agreement in place, and anecdotally, I'm heard the number is quite low. We intend to ask AU this question when we officially begin our negotiations, and will work with the university to ensure these people are treated fairly as we move towards a standardized graduate student agreement. Yes, some Faculty members do hire graduate students from outside Athabasca University; these individuals would not be affected by the AUGSA-BoG agreement.

    Hope this answers some questions, and look forward to continuing the discussion!



  • Bethany April 27, 2012 - 4:07pm

    Thanks for sharing, Amanda! So the way I read it, that means that any agreement between AUGSA and the Board wouldn't be binding on non-AUGSA members.

    Would AUGSA ask that AU show preference to members when seeking RAs? And if so, how do you imagine that this would affect graduates of AU programs who have continued on as RAs? (ie, if an agreement between AUGSA and the BOG did stipulate a hiring preference for AUGSA members, would that mean inadvertant discrimination against AUGSA alumni in favour of current students?)

  • Amanda Nielsen April 27, 2012 - 4:30pm

    Hi Bethany,

    Yes, that is correct; the agreement would only relate to AU graduate student employment with the university.

    The question of preference is an interesting one. My inclination would be that yes, we would ask that AU attempt to hire AU graduate students whenever possible. However, we haven't formally discussed this particular question as a negotiating committee yet. Ultimately, the number of TA or RA roles available will depend on a number of factors (budgets, necessity, interest from Faculty, student expertise, etc) which are often beyond our control. However, our goal in proceeding with agreements is to create an opportunity for meaningful employment for our membership that will contribute to a positive overall graduate student experience at Athabasca University.  TA or RA work looks great on a CV, and can be an asset in efforts to advance one's education even further. 


  • Amanda Nielsen April 27, 2012 - 4:42pm

    Hi all,

    Just uploading the collective agreements of our peer GSAs in Alberta, in case you're interested.

    University of Calgary BoG-GSA Collective Agreement:  University of Calgary GSA-BoG Collective Agreement

    University of Lethbridge BoG-GSA Collective Agreement:  University of Lethbridge GSA-BoG Collective Agreement

    University of Alberta BoG-GSA Collective Agreement:  University of Alberta GSA-BoG Collective Agreement

    In all likelihood, ours will look quite similar.

    Hope everyone has a wonderful weekend!



  • Bethany April 27, 2012 - 4:49pm

    Thanks Amanda! And thanks for the extra info, too. I completley agree that wherever possible, meangingful employment should be preferred on those with a meaningful connection to AU. I just wasn't sure it it would be possible to also extend this preference to those who have already deeply invested themselves in AU and completed their degrees here :)

  • sarah beth April 27, 2012 - 4:57pm

    Thanks, Amanda! As an RA that you represent, this is exactly the kind of information I was looking for. Please keep it coming, as much as possible, as bargaining progresses. :)

    I would also like to know if any other RAs who are already working have labour issues that might be addressed in the bargaining process. What do we need: tuition waivers? A grievance process? Some way of protecting job security through seniority? How are communications with our supervisors? (My job is awesome -- I'm just asking because I'm curious to know what others' working conditions are like!) Maybe these are questions that can be included on a survey?

    GSAs at face-to-face schools have different ways to get their members together to talk about working conditions and to make sure any issues that come up make it to the Council to be addressed; AU students are diverse and distributed, but we have communication strengths that are all our own because we are distance students. I hope we can take advantage of them to make sure that students already working as TAs and RAs, as well as the rest of the AUGSA membership, can stay informed on the Council's initiative to get us a collective agreement. 

    Thanks again,


    On edit: and thanks for the sample agreements. I googled the U Calgary one, but I will look at them all next week. 

  • Amanda Nielsen April 27, 2012 - 6:57pm

    Hi all,

    Bethany - no problem!

    Sarah - Sure. We can easily do a survey. You're even welcome to take a first stab at it if you'd like. Interested? :) Once we have a draft, we can discuss editing or adding questions.

    Our timelines are quite tight (again, I expect we'll begin in May), so if we'd like to do a survey, we'll need to move quickly.

    All the best,





  • sarah beth April 27, 2012 - 8:07pm

    Hi Amanda,

    Sure, I'll make a draft on Tuesday. If anyone has suggestions for questions, for either current RAs and TAs (are there any TAs?) or for the general AUGSA membership, this would be a good place to collect them!

    Can the survey be set up so only grad students can reply, but the replies are still anonymous? 



  • Amanda Nielsen April 27, 2012 - 8:16pm

    Hi Sarah,

    That's awesome - thanks!! I appreciate it, and we'll include the survey in our next e-newsletter.

    We can use the AUGSA Fluid Survey account for the questionnaire, and see if it can perhaps be posted on the MyAU portal as well. Our e-newsletter automatically sends to all AU graduate students, and we can restrict the MyAU portal post to only students registered in graduate-level classes. I think this should work well. Students would be able to visit the link repeatedly and answer the survey as many times as they please, but I don't think this is a huge deal since we're just collecting feedback anyway.  Students would not need to provide their information in order to answer the survey, but we may want to give people the option of leaving their name and contact information in case they would like someone from the AUGSA to follow up with them regarding their ideas for the collective bargaining process.

    Thanks again, Sarah. :)



  • sarah beth April 27, 2012 - 8:22pm

    Awesome -- sounds like a plan.

    Unless there's any reason not to (I can't think of any, but if I stand to be corrected, so be it), do you want to tweet a link here, so as many grad students as possible can make suggestions for the draft? I'll think of everything I can that I might want to know about folks' working conditions, but of course the best ideas will come from workers as a group. :D

    (Of course "as many as possible," in all likelihood, will still be just a handful. But a handful is still much better than just me and you!)

  • Amanda Nielsen April 27, 2012 - 8:27pm

    Hi Sarah,

    Of course -- that works completely.  We can direct people to the draft through our other social media accounts as well to alert folks to provide their comments.

    The only thing we really need to be cautious of is timelines - it would be great if the survey could go live late next week. 


  • sarah beth April 27, 2012 - 8:39pm

    That sounds fair. We could start taking suggestions now, I can write the draft survey on Tuesday, and we could finalize any time Wed-Fri, maybe? (I am moving on Monday and haven't taken any time off anything, so Tues is the first day I have available to write a draft.)


    To recap:

    We are seeking suggestions for survey questions on the topic of TA and RA work at Athabasca U. Students who currently work as TAs or RAs may have ideas of what we can ask our colleagues about their working conditions and needs. Students who have not worked as TAs or RAs, but would like to in the future, may have questions for current workers about what is needed in a collective agreement. We might have questions for all AUGSA members about what grad students want out of TA and RA positions. Please suggest these questions here. (The actual survey will provide a place to comment on your working conditions in detail and, if you choose, anonymously.)

  • Amanda Nielsen April 27, 2012 - 8:57pm

    Hi Sarah,

    Sounds great! I can help with editing and such too.

    To get us started, here are some of the questions that AUPE has asked in questionnaires in the past prior to collective bargaining:

    Length of Contract

    What should the length of the contract be? (2 years, 3 years, or 5 years)


    What range of wage increase do you feel is reasonable for each year of a new contract? (1.5%, 3%, 5%)


    Using a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = lowest, 5 = highest), please rank the group of issues below according to their priority to you. Do not assign the same priority to more than one issue.

    Overtime Reimbursement

    Acting Incumbency Pay

    Employee Training and Education

    What are the specific issues that made you select your highest priority?

    Job Security

    Using a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = lowest, 5 = highest), please rank the group of issues below according to their priority to you. Do not assign the same priority to more than one issue.

    No Contracting Out

    Seniority Recognition

    Abolishment Provisions

    Enhanced Severence


    What are the specific issues that made you select your highest priority?

    Workplace Quality of Life

    Using a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = lowest, 5 = highest), please rank the group of issues below according to their priority to you. Do not assign the same priority to more than one issue.

    Harassment Protection

    Illness & Disability

    Grievance Procedure

    Disciplinary Process

    Position Opportunities (Guidelines, transparency, transfers, appointments, etc)

    What are the specific issues that made you select your highest priority?

    Benefits (Leaves)

    Using a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = lowest, 5 = highest), please rank the group of issues below according to their priority to you. Do not assign the same priority to more than one issue.

    Casual illess

    General illness

    Long-term disability


    Special Leave (elder care, compassionate leave, wellness days)

    What are the specific issues that made you select your highest priority?

    Overall Priorities in Bargaining

    Using a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = lowest, 5 = highest), please rank the group of issues below according to their priority to you. Do not assign the same priority to more than one issue.



    Job Security

    Workplace Quality of Life

    Illness & Disability

    Benefits (Leaves)

    Please indicate any other issue(s) you feel should be addressed in the contract.

  • sarah beth April 27, 2012 - 9:06pm

    Great stuff! My suggestions are to ask about:

    • how do members prioritize things like health benefits, tuition waivers, professional development funds
    • do workers know how to file grievances; are existing structures acceptable?
    • are existing structures for communication with supervisors working well?
    • are existing training practices working?

    Does AUPE have a sheet of definitions for their questions? (Or could we make one for ours?) I don't recognize some of the terms AUPE uses, so I imagine others might also not know what they mean. 

  • Amanda Nielsen April 27, 2012 - 9:13pm

    Great ideas from you as well!

    Some of the questions asked in the AUPE survey will not necessarily be relevant to our members; I just wanted to include a broad list of questions to give a sense of the 'types of things' we may wish to ask. :)

    AUPE does not have a sheet of definitions for the questions, but most of the terms are defined in the actual collective agreements at each Local. You can access the collective agreement for AUPE Local 038 (my full-time day job outside of the AUGSA) here. This agreement is much more extensive than ours needs to be.


  • sarah beth May 3, 2012 - 4:57pm

    Hi Amanda,

    My move turned out to be more strenuous than expected, but I have now completed a draft survey for all AUGSA members and existing GRAs and GTAs. It is pasted below.

    One question: what is the name and location of the document that currently determines GRA wages. It is used for AUPE and exempt RAs, and I think might be included in the AUPE collective agreement, but I can't seem to find it now. 


    Draft Survey


    AUGSA will soon begin bargaining with the AU Board of Governors on a collective agreement for Graduate Research Assistant and Graduate Teaching Assistant positions. This survey is designed to consult with AUGSA members on their bargaining priorities, as well as to hear from members already working as GRAs or GTAs about existing working conditions.


    For all AUGSA members:

    1)      How long should the contract be:

    2 years

    3 years


    2)      Research assistant wages are currently determined by <name of and link to wage schedule> – are these wages adequate for AUGSA members?


    3)      Please rank your compensation priorities from first priority (1) to last priority (4).

    Actual wage

    Tuition waiver

    Health benefits

    Professional development / training funds


    4)      Please rank your job security priorities from first priority (1) to last priority (3).

    Recognition of seniority

    Preference for hiring current AU graduate students

    Preference for hiring former AU graduate students

    Fair grievance and disciplinary procedures

    Availability and accessibility of positions


    5)      Please rank your overall bargaining priorities from first priority (1) to last priority (tk).



    Job Security


    6)      Do you have any additional comments? (You may, if you choose, leave your name and contact information here, if you would like someone from AUGSA to follow up with you on your comments. If you choose not to leave your name here, the survey will be anonymous.)


    For current or former GRAs and GTAs:


    1)      Are you employed as a



    For how long?


    2)      What do you like about your working conditions?



    3)      What could be improved about your working conditions?



    4)      Do you know what grievance procedures are available to you, if you have a problem with your supervisor?

    If yes, are these procedures adequate?



    5)      Do you know what disciplinary procedures you may be subject to, if your supervisor has a problem with you?

    If yes, are these procedures fair?



    6)      Are your working conditions safe?



    7)      Are your scheduled hours flexible or inflexible? How does this affect your studies?



    8)      Have you received the training necessary for your position?

    Working with human subjects?

    Using technology?

    Other research or teaching skills?



    9)      What, if any, benefits are included in your current contract?

    Tuition waiver:

    Health benefits:

    Professional development / training funds:


    10)  Are the structures in place for you to communicate with your supervisor and the institution adequate?



    Results of this survey will be posted at <location> on <date> for members to review. 



    Here's the .doc version:  draft survey

  • Amanda Nielsen May 4, 2012 - 9:37am

    Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for putting this together!

    Right now, Research Assistant work is generally covered through the AUPE Local 69 (Athabasca) Collective Agreement. You can read the agreement here. Teaching Assistant work is more difficult to classify, but similar roles would be broadly located within the CUPE 3911 (Athabasca) Collective Agreement, which you can find here

    May I ask - do you currently receive a tuition waiver, PD funds, or health benefits from AU? These types of benefits are not normally provided to graduate students through collective agreements with the instituion. Many graduate students enjoy health plan benefits from the GSA, but our membership decided in March 2012 that they prefer the GSA not offer a mandatory health and dental plan.

    For question 5 in the survey, we may wish to include defintions of 'wages' versus 'compensation'. I assume that by compensation, you mean the overall wage and benefits package, but students might not immediately understand.

    For question 8 in the survey for current Research Assistants, the three follow up questions are, I assume, examples of the types of training someone might need, rather than direct questions we want people to answer. Is this the case? If so, we may want to put the example 'types' of training in brackets.

    I think our survey software will allow us to ask the question, "Are you a current Research or Teaching Assistant?", and only ask the follow up questions if they apply. I'll check with our Operations Coordinator about this to be sure though.

    Lastly - one quick question on wages. Our most recent survey results from the AUGSA and the Athabasca University Faculty of Graduate Studies indicates that most of our members are already working (I've seen numbers between 89-94%). I supect most of our members will be interested in Research Assistant or Teaching Assistant work not necessarily for the extra income (though that is  always nice), but primarily for the experience. RA or TA experience looks great on a CV or resume, and is a necessary prerequisite to complete some further graduate work. It also is helpful to have on grant applications. I wonder if we might ask a question that gets at whether our members prefer us to negotiate 'competitive' wages to make hiring graduate students attractive in order to potentially increase the number of opportunities available, or instead focus on obtaining the highest possible wage for individual students. Obviously, both are priorities, but I'd love to see what students prefer us to focus on, when push comes to shove. Thoughts and any ideas on how we might word this question?



  • sarah beth May 6, 2012 - 11:36pm

    Hi Amanda,

    Your final suggestion -- about whether to bargain for the best contract or a "competitive" one -- surprised me because, following your Twitter and other social media posts, I've known you to be quite outspoken about graduate students' rights and legitimate demands. But what you're proposing here seems to benefit a "cost-cutting" administration, not the membership you represent. I've heard some concern about the proposed survey question from others, and I wonder if we might discuss it further with more graduate students participating, or even ask for input from unions with more experience bargaining with AU.

    First, regarding your other suggestions, I noticed in the U Calgary collective agreement that both a stipend and a tuition waiver are provided to graduate student workers, and here in Ontario, it's common for RAs and TAs to receive health benefits. The AUPE survey asked about professional development and training benefits, and I thought it was relevant because many graduate students would need significant training to be qualified for TA positions.

    Great suggestion about differentiating wages from other forms of compensation. I've changed the wording to "other forms of compensation." I changed question 8 in the RA survey according to your suggestion as well. Thanks for keeping an eye on the details! I included current and former RAs and TAs, since some folks may have worked contracts that have now ended. Please note that I've left space for you to insert how and when you will communicate the survey results to the membership, and to insert links to other GSAs' agreements. These details will need to be filled in as you make the final draft in your survey software.

    A few points of concern about the final suggestion:

    1) Even graduate students employed full-time are not necessarily making ends meet. The AUGSA should not assume the working poor and precariously employed are not graduate students, or that the access to education made available by RA and TA positions is not valuable to all graduate students.

    2) Collective bargaining means that we don't have to participate in this 'race to the bottom' to be "competitive" or "attractive." The AUGSA can negotiate for job availability and job security through provisions for hiring preference, consideration (after merit) of financial need, seniority rights --- these are in keeping with AU's mission to reduce barriers to education, and are our entitlements as workers and AU students.

    3) The deals we make as a student workforce now affect everyone's job security, including our own future job security. Those of us who go on to PhDs will be graduate student workers for a long time, and then CUPE workers who don't want to be replaced by cheaper graduate student labour. Those who go on to other public sector jobs will face similar pressures of privatization and corporatization. We need to protect ourselves long-term.

    For these reasons, I don't think we should include a potentially misleading "choice" that works against our own interests. There are already questions on the survey about how graduate students prioritize job availability and various forms of compensation --- to present it as an either/or question hides the other options available to us. The question should not be included on the survey.




    Updated survey draft:  DRAFT_augsa-gra-survey_may-2012_mann_v2.docx

  • Amanda Nielsen May 7, 2012 - 12:36am

    Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for getting back to me.

    We are hoping to get the survey out sometime early next week as I'd like to give folks an opportunity to complete it soon so that  our team has a chance to consider the results prior to negotiations. This group and conversation is open to all graduate students to participate, and if you're hearing feedback from other members, I'd encourage you to ask them to share their thoughts here. The AU Landing makes a great forum for all of us to meet and share ideas. We have a meeting with the other unions (CUPE, AUFA, AUPE) on May 14th, and i have no doubt that bargaining will be one of our topics of conversation at that time.

    I've updated the draft survey slightly; see attached.  DRAFT_augsa-gra-survey_may-2012_mann_v2.docx I think it would be helpful for folks to be able to see the other GSA collective agreements prior to answering the survey questions in order to allow them a general idea of what we're discussing.

    I agree that some graduate students may need training to complete their responsibilities, so we'll definitely include this important question.

    The U Calgary collective agreement is very much considered the 'envy of Alberta' GSA collective agreements, and is what the AUGSA has asked to be considered a 'starting place' for our negotiations. I'm hoping that we can get much of the UCalgary language in our agreement, but also practically recognize that the first contract is hardly ever perfect, and that external factors do impact what the university is able to agree to at this, and any, time. 

    I suspect the possibility of health benefits is highly unlikely, but am happy to add this as a topic of conversation.

    I'm happy to skip the question re: job availabiity and job compensation. Friendly suggestion - we'll already be able to get a sense of this kind of priority in the existing survey questions.

    One last note of good news: I've chatted with our elections software company, and it looks like they will be able to administer the AUGSA bargaining survey as well. This is great because it will ensure the data is stored in a secure manner, and that only AU graduate students will be able to answer.

    Do you reckon we ought to let students complete the survey repeatedly, or allow one response per student? 

    My early thought would be that one response per student is wise in order to ensure that the results we get are reflective of the wider student body, and not one or two individuals filling out the survey repeatedly.

    I'm chatting with the election software company again on Wednesday to firm out the details.

    Hope you had a great weekend!



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A group for the Athabasca University Graduate Students' Association (AUGSA).