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Postdocs unionize at two Ontario universities

They say their ambiguous status at universities leads to low pay and other concerns

by Rosanna Tamburri

Postdocs unionize at two Ontario universities
Postdocs: are they university employees, contract workers or students?

Efforts to unionize postdoctoral fellows at the University of Western Ontario and McMaster University have gained momentum.

The Ontario Labour Relations Board recently certified the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) to represent some 30 postdoctoral associates at Western, where the unionization drive had been underway for more than a year. Earlier in 2008, a majority of voting postdoctoral fellows at McMaster elected to join the Canadian Union of Public Employees. These are believed to be the first two unions of postdoctoral fellows in Canada

“Postdocs feel like they are in a precarious position,” said Peter Ferguson, a former postdoc at Western who spearheaded the unionization drive. He said many postdocs feel they are underpaid and are not in a position to negotiate better salaries. “I’ve seen pay rates as low as $24,000 or $26,000 for people who have a PhD and several years of experience.”

What’s worse, he said, is that the length of a postdoctoral tenure has increased. “In the good old days it would maybe be a two- or three-year rite of passage. Then you had a good shot at being hired as a faculty member.” But, over the years, postdocs have found themselves in an increasingly long “holding pattern.”

Dr. Ferguson, now a PSAC local organizer, ran unsuccessfully as the NDP candidate in the federal election in the riding of London West. He is a founding member and former president of the Postdoctoral Association at Western, an advocacy group that supported the unionization campaign.

Helen Connell, Western’s associate vice-president, communications and public affairs, said the university hopes to have a good working relationship with PSAC, as it does with the other unions on campus.

But a major dispute between PSAC and Western remains unresolved over how the university classifies postdocs. One group is made up of about 30 members who are known as postdoctoral associates and who are considered university employees. The other group includes about 200 people who are known as postdoctoral fellows. Western considers them to be contractual employees and therefore not eligible to join a union. PSAC had argued that a majority of the latter group should be eligible to join. Under the terms of the Ontario Labour Relations Board ruling, Western and PSAC have agreed to negotiate criteria to determine how postdocs are classified.

At McMaster, more than 100 postdocs (excluding those in health sciences) joined CUPE local 3906 in April. The move was uncontested by the university. Bargaining for their first collective agreement was expected to start in late October.

It isn’t known yet whether postdocs at other Canadian universities will follow suit.

There have been efforts to unionize postdocs in the United States as well. Recently, more than 5,000 postdocs in the University of California system opted to unionize.

National advocacy group

In Canada, meanwhile, efforts are under way to form the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars, or CAPS, a national advocacy group loosely modeled on the U.S. National Postdoctoral Association. Marianne Stanford, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Ottawa Health Research Institute and chair of CAPS, said the association will work to address some of the discrepancies among universities on how postdocs are classified and how they are paid.

“As a group, we’d like to lobby both government and funding agencies to recognize us as distinct from students and distinct from faculty,” she said.

Postdoctoral fellowships are generally regarded as temporary training positions for PhD graduates. Postdocs typically conduct research but, with some exceptions, don’t teach. She estimates that postdocs in Canada number about 5,000.

Their ambiguous standing has raised other concerns, most recently over their tax status. According to news reports, the Canada Revenue Agency, in a letter to Université Laval and the Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities, said postdoctoral fellows are not students and thus must pay income taxes on the fellowships they receive. Recently introduced income tax changes made student scholarships, fellowships, bursaries and study grants tax exempt. Many postdocs receive fellowships but they don’t pay tuition.

Dr. Stanford said that as a result of the income tax changes, universities in Quebec had issued tax forms to postdocs in the province that allow them to claim the full amount of their postdoctoral stipend as a tax exemption. Several other universities elsewhere in Canada have done the same thing or are in the process of doing so, while others have been denied permission by the revenue agency to issue the forms needed to claim the exemption.

“The way it stands now, there are postdocs working side by side with graduate students who are making more than [the postdocs] because of the differences in taxation,” Dr. Stanford said.

The reason the revenue agency has given universities different responses is because institutions classify postdocs differently, explained Carole Workman, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Business Officers, or CAUBO. Universities classify postdocs variously as employees, contractors or students depending on the duties they perform and other factors.

Ms. Workman said CAUBO is working with universities and the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies to help the institutions clarify and interpret the relevant income tax provisions, ensure they are complying with the law, and figure out under what circumstances, if any, postdoctoral fellows could be considered students.

Once CAUBO is able to clarify this matter with the Canada Revenue Agency, it will be up to individual institutions to ensure that they meet the necessary criteria, she added. “If [universities] want to be competitive and it’s possible to meet the law, then it’s up to each institution to make it so that they meet the requirement.”

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