Law Students Take on the Dean

We’re once again inspired by the badass ways in which some law students are taking on their institutions. Earlier this month, the Dean of the Faculty of Common Law at the University of Ottawa sent out an email to all the students at the law school warning them that a student Research Assistant had filed a grievance that was against the interests of all other students. As a result, the Dean wrote, there would be less research positions available to everyone this summer. Two Stewards from CUPE local 2626, the Teaching and Research Assistant’s union, then responded to the Dean, calling him out for misleading the student body and for his attempts at intimidation.

We’ve reproduced both the Dean’s email and the students’ letter below. It’s like a lesson in Labour Law, Contracts and Advocacy all rolled up in one.

 

Dear Students,

Traditionally, many law professors hire law students to work as Research Assistants over the summer. These positions are governed by a collective agreement between uOttawa and CUPE. Article 31.1 states that if the funds come from the University Operating Budget, a student may not work more than 25 hours per week or 40 hours in a two week period. This limit is obviously meant to protect graduate students while they are studying, not JD students seeking a summer job. In the past with CUPE’s knowledge we have not followed this article. Summer RA positions have considerable pedagogical value, as well as helping to finance a legal education. However a uOttawa JD student filed a formal grievance last year. CUPE now insists we follow article 31.1. To our great regret, this means that there will be fewer summer hours available for our law students this summer

 

 

Dear Dean Feldthusen,

On March 5, 2013, you sent an email to the student body, essentially (and somewhat bitterly, it seems) accepting defeat in a grievance which in fact remains unresolved. We hope that your concession will translate into the timely resolution of the matter. However, your choice to use your access to law students’ emails to paint such a strange and unnecessarily inflammatory picture of the issue at stake, has compelled us, as the two CUPE 2626 shop stewards for English Common Law, to write this response. While CUPE 2626 does not have email access to the entire student body, we hope our response will nevertheless have a similar reach.

As you know, the Union is a democratic institution, and it is the Union membership that decides what it would like to include in the collective agreement. As a union, we chose to include article 31 in order to ensure tha more students had access to the limited jobs available. We understand that enforcement of the clause will mean that the handful of privileged students carrying multiple contracts will no longer be able to do so. It also means, however, that unless the Faculty really is cutting total hours for some other reason, there should be more research jobs to go around. Your claim that article 31 was crafted for grad students is misleading; it is divisive and presumes to know the Union membership’s intention when it instructed the bargaining committee to include article 31.

Your announcement attempts to blame the Union’s enforcement of article 31 for a threatened reduction in available research assistantship hours this summer. Article 31, however, does nothing to limit the total number of hours available. If the University or Faculty has decided to reduce the number of hours available, that is an unfortunate decision for which you, the employer, are solely responsible.

We find your public acknowledgment of an outstanding grievance to be in bad faith, and the personal targeting of the griever to be particularly distasteful. There was no reason to announce a reduction in research assistantship hours and then blame the reduction on a student’s grievance. You could just as easily have accomplished the same ends without referring to a student’s grievance at all.

Publicly blaming the Union and the grieving law student has sown discord in the Faculty. Since a grievance is normally a private matter, you made your announcement knowing the griever was unlikely to publicly defend herself. For the record, Miriam Martin, as the griever, is quite comfortable standing by the grievance and explaining as necessary. It seems perhaps that you were hoping otherwise; you must admit, your announcement has that unpleasant scent of an intimidation attempt.

Violating the collective agreement with the Union’s knowledge is not the same as violating it with the Union’s consent. It is the membership that decides what provisions to include in the collective agreement, and it is the responsibility of the Union to enforce those decisions. We did not agree to the Law Faculty’s violation of article 31. We are therefore delighted to know that you plan to respect it from now on.

 

Sincerely,

 Daniel Tucker-Simmons & Miriam Martin

Stewards, English Common Law

 

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Comments

  1. The Union’s response seems self-serving and whiny to me. I have no view whether it makes sesne to require a prof to hire two or more students for the same work because a single student may not be given more than X hours a week. So I don’t know if it was necessary in some sense to cut the number of posts rather than multiply them but for part-time appointments.

    It makes sense to me to have different rules for term-time and summer, but if the collective agreement does not make that distinction, then that’s up to the parties.

    The Union has the right to start enforcing a provision that they have not enforced before, though the line between ‘consent’ and ‘knowledge’ is not a particulary meaningful one in the context. Pretending that they didn’t change their mind is disingenuous, though they had the right to do so.

    It is not clear how well known the identity of the grievor was before the Union outed her, while accusing the Dean of singling her out, though her name and sex were not mentioned in his email. It seems appropriate to me for the Dean to say why there was going to be a change of practice.

  2. John,

    “It seems appropriate to me for the Dean to say why there was going to be a change of practice.”

    But the Dean was essentially victim blaming and intimidating. The student’s grievance is not at fault for the hours cutback, she was just asserting her rights. The blame lies squarely with the faculty’s violation of the rules.

  3. Surely the most astonishing thing here is that a law professor is admitting in writing to knowingly not following the terms of a collective agreement.

  4. I read the Dean’s note as saying ‘the rule in the CA didn’t make much sense for summer work, so we have been interpreting it as not applying there, and the Union knew this and had not previously complained. However there was a grievance that was upheld, and we will comply with the ruling on the grievance so we won’t be able to pay summer students – individually – as much as we used to.’

    The Dean does not say that the student had no right to grieve, or that the Union had no right to support the student, or even that the arbitrator was wrong in the ruling (though I suppose the faculty had submitted that the CA should be read the other way). He just points out the consequences of the ruling, which is that a number of students who were making enough in the summer to make a serious contribution to their expenses would be earning less because their hours were capped by the CA’s now being applied to that work. Without the grievance, that would not have happened, since the Union on its own was not complaining.

    Presumably the students whose earnings will be cut will be less happy than the students who find there are more jobs available, though paying less per job in total.

  5. Does this mean that some RAs who are now hired watch the clock and, when they reach 25 hours in one week, or 40 hours in a 2 week period, stop working? Does time spent discussing what one has done with the professor, and asking questions, so that one can do one’s job better count in the permitted time?

    I was a summer research assistant once upon a time. I suppose that if my job had been only looking up cases and summarizing them, or updating citations, I could have used that approach. However, it wasn’t, as I understood it. I can’t imagine doing what I was asked to do, adequately – at least as I define adequately – if I was told that I could only work at it for 25 hours a week or 40 hours over two weeks.

  6. It appears that the dean is regretting loosing the power of assigning more hours to “the handful of privileged students carrying multiple contracts”(Union response, para. 2). His last statement, if not misleading, at the very least, is ambiguous. If you do the math, the total number of hours remains the same. The difference lies in the number of students being hired as research assistants. It is not less hours available to law students as suggested by the dean. Rather, the adherence to the Union rules means more students working up to 25 hrs/week, or less than 40 hrs/2 weeks.
    In essence, the dean is regretting (his term, not mine) having to spread the available hours over the greater number of students.

  7. Surely John is right in that as far as summer jobs go the Dean’s difficulty is that 20 hours a week likely won’t cut it for most JD students, unless they can find other half time work or are well-enough off not to mind. It may be that the summer job market is so bad that half a loaf is better than the alternative — I’m in no position to judge. But I do know that poor students need to find as much income over the summer as possible, making these mini-jobs relatively unattractive.

  8. Then the Dean should be taking issue with the faculty’s budget or the collective bargaining agreement, not the student who is simply seeking to enforce her rights.

  9. Jamie, my reading of the Dean’s letter is that he was doing exactly that, i.e. regretting that the CA had been interpreted as the arbitrator did. He did not ‘take issue’ with the grievor, he just pointed out that prior to the grievance, both the faculty and the union had been living with the arrangement by which students had a full-time job.

    Anna’s comment reminds me of the expression ‘union mentality’, not used as a compliment – where the union is concerned about the number of jobs but not about the quality of the work. That’s someone else’s business.

    I think unions can be essential to prevent abuse and to advance the interests of their members – I have certainly benefited from the union where I work, and have supported it since the outset. That does not mean that every argument made by a union has equal merit.

    Here the issue is less about the strict interpretation of the CA as with the practicality of it in some applications, and whether the benefit is greater with a strict or a flexible application.

  10. John,

    As you’ve indicated, an underlying question might be: why did the union act now?

    Given that it’s, conveniently, Passover and Easter –

    I could offer some answers framed in the Passover Seder “four questions” format, but substituting students for children (wise, wicked, uneducated, not interested). However, either I already have hinted what the answers might be, by describing an aspect of the format of the questions, so I’ve already stirred up trouble, or I’d stir more if I did, so I won’t.

    However, a friend once provided an all-purpose answer to these sorts of questions by framing them in quasi-religious terms. My recollection is that he used some of the Protestant branches. I’ll post it when I find it. It’ll produce laughs, I hope, not trouble.

    (As an aside, the Passover structure is traditionally sons, not children. On the off-chance that anybody reading this board might be inclined to complain, here, about my revision, please don’t.)

    Cheers,

  11. John,

    Here it is, modified a bit for the current context. The original subject matter wasn’t law. It was an argument about what separates poets and poetry from coffee-klatsch doggerel.

    The Levites who believe that only the pure high priests can dare transubstantiation and serve the Eucharist of Law.

    The Episcopalians, who believe that lawful redemption is possible but you really have to be worthy (publication is one acceptable sign of worth, but of course, not an inerrant one for there be tempting demons in the world).

    Baptists and Ecstatic Pentacostals (tempting snake bite, probably because the liquid corn-based remedy is appealing) who believe that all one needs is belief to make the world just.

    The agnostics, believers in craft and the work for its own sake.

    It’s a coincidence (I think – I’ll have to ask) that there’s still a four-part structure.

  12. John – perhaps, but I read the Dean’s letter as a passive agressive ‘calling out’ of the student. As another posted said, the Dean did not have to give any reason for the decrease in hours/positions.

  13. I think there’s a difference between ‘passive/aggressive’ (by implication dishonest and nasty) and ‘disappointed’. And it makes sense to me that if the Dean was announcing that instead of hiring summer students for full-time work, the faculty would now be hiring for only 40 hours every two weeks, I think it was reasonable to give an explanation. The best explanation was that an arbitrator had held that the collective agreement had to be read that way, all year round, for all students – and the reason that an arbitrator had been involved is that someone had submitted a grievance. The Dean in no way identified the student; the union did that.

  14. Dear John

    I truly enjoy reading your comments, even if I don’t always agree with your position. I have to admit that I found you comment about my “union mentality” amusing.
    My views on unions are neutral. In this case, however, CUPE did what a good union is supposed to do: stand up in defense of one of its members.

    I also, would like to respond to a couple of points you made in different comments posted here:

    1. Your comment on March 31, “[] the union is concerned about the number of jobs but not about the quality of the work. That’s someone else’s business” deserves a reply.
    The issue on hand is whether the dean can arbitrarily assign number of hours to individual students. The question of work quality is irrelevant here.

    2. In the same comment, you suggest that the union’s rule should allow some flexibility. However, the rule in question is not subject to interpretation. It clearly states no more than 25 hour per week and no more than 40 hours per 2 weeks.

    3. It should be be noted that at the time of dean’s email, the grievance was still unresolved, the fact which the dean obscured.

    4. The union did not outed the student in question. If you read the union’s response carefully, you will notice that Miriam Martin is one of the union’s Stewards (see signatures). It leads me to believe that her identity was revealed with her full consent and volition.

    Anna

  15. Hi Anna,

    On point 2 —

    In the same comment, you suggest that the union’s rule should allow some flexibility. However, the rule in question is not subject to interpretation. It clearly states no more than 25 hour per week and no more than 40 hours per 2 weeks.

    I’m not sure it’s as clear-cut as you imply. The rule is clearly there to protect research assistants from being given so many hours during the school year, that it impacts on their ability to do school work.

    While many faculties have summer classes, the law faculty does not. Applying this rule with its objective in mind would suggest that it only applies during the academic school year and not during the summer.

    The impact of ignoring this distinction is that there are fewer summer RA positions available. This is because many summer RA programs are historically structured around the concept of full-time employment and, moreover, most students cannot justify staying in Ottawa or foregoing full-time employment opportunities for part-time salaries.

    It’s not clear to me to what extent the policy was applied/ignored during the regular school year (here there may be legitimate concerns), but that’s a separate issue, as the Dean only mentioned a reduction in ‘summer hours’ available to RAs over the course of the summer.

    Best,
    Tamir