Why is the Grad Lounge closed?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

  • Grad Lounge staff pose for a photo posted on the GSA's website.

    Grad Lounge staff pose for a photo posted on the GSA's website.

  • Sign posted around the UC declared the Grad Lounge closed "until further notice."

    Sign posted around the UC declared the Grad Lounge closed "until further notice."

Written by Greg Beneteau

A unionization drive. A restaurant revolt. A hidden tape recorder.

It sounds like something out of a soap opera. In fact, it’s part of a very real drama that has gripped the Graduate Students Association and forced the popular Grad Lounge to shut its doors.

What’s known for certain is this: During a meeting held July 21 the GSA Board, which administers the Grad Lounge, held an in camera session to discuss the dismissal of restaurant manager Christine Jefferson.

Meanwhile, campus police waited in the hallways of the University Centre outside the Board Room.

Prior to that meeting, three of the Grad Lounge’s six employees tendered their resignations, leaving the restaurant without enough staff to operate.

At an emergency meeting held a week later, the GSA Board also passed a motion of non-confidence against its own President, Eric Pringle, who resigned.

The next day, the GSA Executive posted signs around the University Centre, declaring the Grad Lounge closed.

Pringle did not respond to thecannon's request for comment.

Jon Belanger, the GSA’s former Vice President Internal who is now acting President, said the Grad Lounge would be open again in the Fall.

Belanger declined to explain why the GSA lost confidence in Pringle, saying only that the Board uncovered information during an in-camera session that lead them to “question [Pringle’s] leadership qualities.”

“Some evidence was presented at the last Board meeting related to Eric’s conduct that the Board found displeasing,” Belanger said.

Belanger declined to discuss why Jefferson was fired, “due to legality issues.” However, he confirmed that the GSA asked campus police to be present outside meeting “as a safety measure, in case staff showed up and were upset.”

He refused to release the names or contact information for any of the current or former Grad Lounge staffers, citing confidentiality.

Thecannon requested that the GSA forward an interview request to Jefferson, but was told by GSA Office Manager Erin Angus they didn’t know how to contact her.

“I have no idea what Christine's e-mail address might be, beyond the one used for her work,” Angus told thecannon by email.

Angus, in turn, refused to forward an interview request to any staffer.

 The GSA even refused to confirm how long Jefferson had been employed as manager of the Grad Lounge, or when she was fired.

"Anything to do with Christine's employment at the Lounge is not up for discussion as it is a confidential matter between employee and employer," Nicole Beechey, the GSA's Vice President Financial, told thecannon via email.

This unusual turn of events fall in the midst of colletive bargaining negotiations by Grad Lounge staff - who in June voted to unionize as part of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) – as well as a row between the GSA and the Central Student Association over the conduct of two CSA executive members at a GSA Board Meeting.


"Oppresive" workplace lead workers to unionize: GSA source

A source on the GSA Board told thecannon that trouble began after Grad Lounge staff began clashing the Board over the direction of the restaurant.

It started with little things, like a debate over wearing uniforms, or whether staff members should be allowed smoke on the Grad Lounge’s outdoor patio.

“[Board members] had some ideas about the way things should run, and [staff] had others,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Staff members later complained that some Board members were micro-managing and turning the restaurant into an “oppressive” workplace, the source added.

Whatever the reason, records with the Ontario Labour Relations Board indicate that staff began signing union cards, the pre-requisite to holding a vote on unionization.

On June 18, they applied for a representation vote with the Ontario Labour Relations Board, asking to join CUPE Local 1281 based out of Ryerson University, whose members include restaurant employees.

Representatives with CUPE Local 1281 could not be reached for comment.

In a written decision handed down June 23, Susan Serena, Vice-Chair of the Ontario Labour Relations Board, found that the “not less than forty per cent” of Grad Lounge staff “were members of the union at the time the application was made” – the required threshold to hold a unionization vote.

According to the Serena’s ruling, the GSA raised objections to the application, questioning the estimated number of individuals in the bargaining unit.

That objection was dismissed because “the responding party did not indicate whether it agreed or disagreed with the description of the bargaining unit included in the application for certification and it did not give notice” under the Labour Relations Act.

Serena also denied a request to have the vote be delayed until September “so that vacationing employees can participate in the vote.”

“The responding party has not raised a sufficient basis for the Board to exercise its discretion to delay the vote,” Serena wrote in her decision.

A vote was scheduled for June 29, open to all Grad Lounge employees (except supervisors) who were employed when the application was filed.

A decision handed down by the OLRB on July 8 confirmed that “more than fifty per cent of the ballots cast by employees in the bargaining unit were cast in favour of the applicant [CUPE 1281].”

Belanger said the vote caught the GSA Board off guard.

“The unionization came as a bit of a surprise, although there were some complaints from staff,” Belanger admitted. He declined to elaborate.

The firing of Jefferson was "completely seperate" from the unionization drive, the GSA source claimed.

However, many Grad Lounge employees considered Jefferson's dismissal "the last straw" and quit in protest.

Apparently, some GSA Board members were also unhappy about the decision, and police were called to the July 21 meeting because “nobody was sure how explosive the meeting might get.”

“Christine does have supporters on the board,” the source said.


GSA complains of secret tape recorder, conduct of CSA Execs

The July 21 meeting had its own share of drama, after the GSA Board uncovered a recorder belonging the Central Student Association's External Affairs Commissioner, Denise Martins, that was taping their confidential in camera discussions.

According to a letter sent by the GSA Board to its counterparts on the CSA, both Martins and Local Affairs Commissioner Anastasia Zavarella attended the GSA Board meeting, and "loudly voiced their displeasure" that speaking rights were extended only to graduate students and invited guests.

Later in the meeting, the the board went in camera and asked non-board members to leave the room.

After 10 to 15 minutes of discussion, a bag identified as belonging to Martins was discovered to have been left behind.

"Exposed, was a tape recorder which was actively recording the in camera discussion," the letter read.

After GSA members confronted Martins, the letter said that she "was asked to delete the contents of the tape record, and to sign a  statement which read that the tape recorder was left on accidentally, and that all contents were deleted."

The letter also accused Zavarella of being "confrontational" with GSA Board members during the discussion with Martins.

Following the meeting, the GSA also discovered written notes left behind by one of the CSA executive, referring to one GSA Executive member as "Bitchy" and infering "that some [GSA] Board members were incompetent."

The letter called the incident "an obvious breach of GSA By-laws, the privacy of those GSA Board members present and respectful interaction between the GSA and the CSA."

Martins confirmed to thecannon that she brought a tape recorder to the meeting without informing the GSA.

 However, she claimed she only intended to record the open part of the meeting, and left her bag behind by accident.

"I figured it was a public meeting... I told them it was not my intention to record anything in camera," Martins claimed, adding that the recording was "just for my own information."

Martins also took responsiblity for the notes left behind at the meeting, saying only that they "weren't meant to be made public."

She emphasized that she apologized to the GSA Board for the incident and planned to write a personal follow-up letter to them.

At a CSA Board meeting on July 28th which included discussion of the letter, both Martins and Zavarella said the GSA's allegations of misconduct should be followed up in private because they did not attend the GSA meeting in an official role.

"I was there [at the GSA meeting] as a concerned student... I was not there in my capacity as Local Affairs Commissioner," Zavarella told the Board.

She also denied being disruptive during the meeting, though she admitted stepping in during the GSA's questioning of Denise "to make sure her rights were being observed."

"I do not feel I have anything to apologize for," Zavarella said, adding that she would gladly talk to the GSA regarding "any views related to my personal behaviour."

The CSA Board agreed to send a response to the GSA's letter, re-iterating that the two executives did not represent the CSA at the July 21 meeting.

Demetria Jackson, the CSA's Communications Commissioner, said she didn't think the incident would damage the relationship between the two student unions.

"If [Denise and Anastasia] were there in their CSA roles, I think it would be damaging to our relationship with the GSA. As it stands, we've made it pretty clear that they were not," Jackson said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article refers to Christine Beechey, Vice President Internal of the GSA Board. In fact, Nicole Beechey is Vice President Financial of the GSA Board. Thecannon regrets the error.

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