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.
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.
Daniel Tucker-Simmons & Miriam Martin
Stewards, English Common Law