Thursday, January 15, 2009

RSU boad members removed from RSU office by security

Tonight is the January board meeting of the Ryerson Students’ Union. While the meeting itself is sure to be something to watch, events from this past Friday warrant a post.

On Friday, RSU board members Abdul Snobar and Osman Hamid were removed by security from the office of executive director of operations and services, Mike Verticchio. For at least half an hour until they were removed, the pair yelled at staff and executive members accusing them all of corruption.

Once removed by security, Snobar went to the hall to keep yelling at Toby Whitfied, vice-president of finance as security looked on. Hamid sat on a couch adjacent to the executive director of operatons and services’ office staring at it until 7:00 pm (the event started at around 2:00 pm).

Snobar later expressed his concerns in an email sent to the Eyeopener, the Ryersonian, RSU staff and the RSU Board of Directors. While Snobar failed to mention the altercation, he claimed that the RSU is “almost bankrupt” and took issue with how Whitfield and Verticchio were undertaking a request for proposals (RFP) for the health and dental plan.

Claiming bankruptcy not only smacks of political opportunism, it’s also inaccurate. Snobar himself supported a budget that was passed only two months ago. While it did forecast a $6000 deficit, it hardly indicated that the RSU is close to bankruptcy (they receive an annual injection of membership dues and revenue). There is also an unqualified audit waiting to be received by the board. Due to filibustering and agenda amendments at the Semi-Annual General Meeting (SAGM), the audit was pushed too far down the agenda to be considered before quorum was lost.

Snobar’s other claim is that the RFP for next year’s health and dental plan contract is corrupt. He argued that because Hamid or he hadn’t been contacted about an RFP for a health plan, the vice-president of finance and the president must be hiding something.

However, at the RSU’s SAGM, students were clear about who should be responsible for an RFP related to the health and dental plan contract. The motion,

“BE IT RESOLVED THAT the signing officers of the Students’ Union be directed to solicit bids from interested parties through a tendering process before a health and dental plan contract can be signed”

was passed by the membership specifically directing the president, vice-president of finance and executive director of operations and services to begin the process (as they are the signing officers). No where is it mentioned that they were to include Snobar or Hamid (or anyone else) in the process. As a motion passed at the SAGM, by the general membership of the RSU, this has more power than a decision of the board, and certainly more power than a decision of two or three directors.

The story of the health and dental RFP hardly warrants the kind of aggressive behaviour toward staff and executive members that was exhibited, but is more of the same from the hot-headed young Snobar.

With the election looming, it is likely that these antics will continue to escalate as each side tries to convince students of their superiority. The RFP will keep close watch and try to update on these issues as they occur.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Post-Doctoral Fellows: a new frontier for cheap university labour

While students, workers and supporters are watching for improved working conditions at York, another group of workers is quietly suffering on university campuses.

Post-doctoral researchers are like faculty members: they have received their doctorates (PhDs) and conduct high-level research in their fields of expertise. But they have none of the benefits that are afforded to faculty members. Ryerson’s post-doctoral fellow population is approximately 80 and is growing rapidly.

Recently, two unnamed tenure-track faculty members have constructed a website to document the problems facing post-docs in Canada. The authors are anonymous, citing concern of potential reprisals from their current universities for what they have to say about the unfair treatment of post-docs. They draw their expertise from their “ordeals” as post-docs at the University of Toronto and McGill. There are about 500 post-docs working at McGill and between 1,800 and 2,500 at the University of Toronto.

In their website, the authors focus on the injustices faced by foreign and domestic post-docs, poor benefits, the difficulty of starting young families, the question of status (student vs. employee), and post-docs’ unsustainable pay. According to University of Toronto documents, base pay for U of T post-docs is a meager $28,000 despite working hours of 50, even 60 hours a week. In addition to this, stories abound of post-docs being forced to pay for their own travel and accommodations to research conferences. And for the insulting icing on the cake, there is a new move afoot to charge post-docs training fees in order to—get this—classify them as students.

It appears that the University of Toronto is trying to conjure up the image that post-doctoral fellows are in fact students in a training program. This is to try and fool the Canadian Revenue Agency into thinking post-docs are students and therefore eligible for T2202As. They are playing to post-docs’ hopes that their wages will not face income-tax—an unlikely scenario considering the CRA just issued a statement instructing universities, including the U of T, to issue proper income-tax paperwork to post-docs.

But maybe this isn’t the real reason that the U of T and others are interested in labeling post-docs as trainees (students). More people are becoming worried that in the pursuit of more money, universities will start to look for more revenue generating units (tuition fee-paying students). Post-docs at the University of Toronto (excluding those at affiliate research institutions like hospitals) will be forced to cough up $200 this year, which could generate nearly half a million dollars. With no regulations on these fees, they could grow rapidly after their introduction.

There is a growing and strong opposition to the introduction of these fees. CUPE 3902, the union representing a handful of teaching post-docs (and thousands of other instructors) has included the removal of a ‘training’ fee in current contract negotiations. CUPE 3902 at the U of T is trying to negotiate better supplemental job opportunities like teaching.

Foreign workers are especially exposed to the harsh realities of post-doc positions and require special attention. If universities like the U of T are successful implementing their student/trainee post-doctoral model, foreign post-docs could loose their access to public healthcare. Many may also experience bureaucratic turmoil because of inconsistencies that such a change in designation would cause with their current work visas.

CUPE 3902’s negotiations are strong evidence that unionization would stop this cash-grab and other consequences that a student label could lead to. Post-doctoral fellows in Ontario universities should follow the path of their counterparts at McMaster, Western and the University of California to seek the protection of a union. This is the only way to guarantee their status as workers and to effectively bargain for better contracts in the future. Otherwise, post-doctoral fellows will find themselves as another exploited source of cheap and highly-educated academic labourers.