YUFA wins landmark arbitration over loss of Graduate Assistant support

Four years after the University cut over 700 annual graduate assistantship positions, an arbitrator has upheld YUFA’s grievance that these cuts represent a sudden and substantial loss of support for full-time faculty and violate important Employer obligations under the Collective Agreement.

The arbitration lasted over two and a half years and included evidence from 29 witnesses over 26 days of hearings. In her landmark decision, Arbitrator Michelle Flaherty agreed with YUFA that the Employer breached the Collective Agreement when it made dramatic cuts to G.A. funding, and radically increased the proposed costs for YUFA members of hiring G.A.s using research funding. Arbitrator Flaherty found that the cuts resulted in the withdrawal of adequate support services that the University is required to provide faculty members under the Collective Agreement. What’s more, the Arbitrator found that the drastic reduction of G.A.s resulted in significant increases to faculty workload, contrary to the Collective Agreement.

Prior to 2016, and going back several decades, hundreds of graduate students received graduate assistantships as part of their annual funding packages. In a typical year, the University funded approximately 700-800 G.A. positions a year. In addition, many faculty members hired G.A.s through individual grant funds. Under the terms of the graduate assistantship, graduate students provided a range of support services for faculty members, including administrative, clerical, research, and technical services.

For example, many G.A.s assisted in organizing academic conferences, helped to prepare research grants, wrote literature reviews, co-authored journal articles, collected and analyzed research data, conducted interviews, developed and updated websites, and performed many other tasks in support of the work of faculty members. These services largely disappeared after the University unilaterally, and without appropriate notice to YUFA or YUFA members, cut the vast majority of G.A. positions in September 2016, and significantly increased the budgeted cost to YUFA members of hiring their own G.A.s.

While vindicated by the ruling, YUFA remains thoroughly disappointed that the University forced this issue to arbitration, while faculty members continue to experience the significant stresses resulting from the withdrawal of necessary support services and the resulting increased workload. In addition, the litigation led to a significant drain on the time, energy, and material resources of the parties; the cost the Employer incurred in opposing YUFA’s grievance would have been better invested in support services for faculty members.

$4 million annual cut to support services since 2016

Since 2016, the University has reduced annual funding for G.A.s from an average of about $4.5 million a year to $430,000 a year, leaving a significant number of faculty without G.A. support for the last four years. YUFA successfully demonstrated the result has been a dramatic increase in overall workload: at the expense of their research, scholarly, and creative work, faculty members have either had to take over the labour once performed by their G.A.s, or this work has simply gone undone.

During the hearing, the University admitted to its failure to give YUFA appropriate written notice of its intended changes to graduate funding models. Employer notice of these kinds of change is required under the collective agreement and gives YUFA an important opportunity to try to mitigate the impact of such decisions. The Association’s right to notice is therefore an important substantive right which allows the Association to advocate on behalf of its members.

Decision is a major win for faculty throughout the sector

Following a “lengthy and complex hearing,” Arbitrator Flaherty’s decision represents a major win for faculty members and other employee groups in the post-secondary sector, who have long argued that decreasing supports led to increasing workload. Against the backdrop of years of Employer-led cuts to support services for faculty, the decision should also serve as a warning to administrators who wish to continue such policies.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the link between support services and workload is more obvious than ever. As faculty members and other employees are forced to work remotely in “emergency conditions,” many struggle to fulfill their obligations with limited access to the institutional supports, facilities, and services normally available in the workplace. Universities must uphold their contractual commitments to faculty members to provide research, administrative, clerical, and other forms of support that allow them to meet the University’s mission to create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge.

Next steps

Since the Arbitrator’s clear finding of a breach of the Collective Agreement in September, YUFA has repeatedly requested to meet with the Employer to discuss appropriate remedies but has received no meaningful response. YUFA must now rely on legal counsel to bring the matter back before the arbitrator to address the significant harm caused to faculty members following the loss of millions of dollars of graduate assistant support a year.

This task has become all the more urgent, following the similarly hasty decision in LA&PS to close three Research Officer positions in October. Ironically, the Employer pointed to such positions during the hearings as evidence of its ongoing support for faculty members, only to close them a month after losing the case.

YUFA is hopeful that returning the matter to Arbitrator Flaherty will move the Employer to act more swiftly to remedy the harms affecting faculty members who continue to experience deeply inadequate support services and, as a result, an unacceptable increase in workload.

You can read the Arbitrator’s award here.

YUFA will update members as more news becomes available.