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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2013

Carleton postdocs certified as a union

The Ontario Labour Re­lations Board has certified the Carleton Univer­sity Postdoctoral Association (CUPA) as the bargaining agent for postdoctoral scholars at Carle­ton University. CUPA is the first independently-certified union of postdocs in Canada, and is the most recent association to join CAUT.

A significant number of postdocs have unionized over the last several years. Postdocs at McMaster, Queen’s, Memorial, Western and the Université du Québec à Montréal have certified as part of existing public sector unions. Similar organizing efforts have been successful at American universities such as Rutgers, the University of Massachusetts and the University of California. CUPA is the first association of postdocs to achieve unionization outside the scope of another established union.

An important milestone in postdoc unionization was passed in January 2012 with the Ontario Labour Relations Board’s landmark decision that postdoctoral scholars are employees. In this case, the University of Toronto argued that postdocs are academic trainees more similar to students than to professors. The union representing the UofT postdocs, CUPE Local 3902, argued that postdocs are highly-trained experts in their fields who bring inestimable value to the university, and the fact that they work under the supervision of a principal investigator does not negate their status as employees with the right to collective representation. The labour board accepted the union’s arguments.

When CUPA filed the application for certification in June 2012, Carleton University objected on the grounds the association had been hijacked by its executive committee and could not act as a trade union. On Dec. 24 the Labour Board ruled against this argument and found that CUPA was a trade union. A further objection by Carleton sought to exclude “externally-funded” postdocs, whose salary in whole or in part comes from funding agencies, from the scope of the bargaining unit. The board has referred this issue to the parties, who will seek a resolution at the bargaining table.

CUPA president Kevin Abbott told the Bulletin via email that he looks forward to working with the university’s administration to improve conditions for postdocs “so that these early career researchers can devote more of their energies to advancing Carleton’s research mandate.” Postdocs across North America who have unionized have seen improvements to their pay, benefits, protection against arbitrary discipline and dismissal, increased professional development opportunities, and better health and safety standards.

“CAUT celebrates the extension of labour rights to this valuable cohort of academic staff,” said CAUT exe­cutive director James Turk.