Strike 101

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By Rachel Braeuer
Photos by Ben Buckley and Vaikunthe Banerjee


Here, for your reading pleasure, is a guide to all things job action at SFU so you can pull your heads out of your asses and stop saying shit like “fucking TAs need to go back to work” when they’ve never actually initiated a picket line and have arguably created more work for themselves making this job action affect students as minimally as possible.

 

KEY TERMS

Union
Yes, I’m defining this, because some of you seem to think it’s just a bunch of greedy people wearing sandwich boards. OED defines trade union as “an association of the workers in any trade or in allied trades for the protection and furtherance of their interests in regard to wages, hours, and conditions of labour, and for the provision, from their common funds, of pecuniary assistance to the members during strikes, sickness, unemployment, old age, etc.” In this case, there are two distinct unions involved: the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) division 3338 (SFU’s local chapter), and the Teaching Support Staff Union of SFU. Each union has its own distinct issues that were not resolved through the bargaining process.

Honouring picket lines
In order for unions to have credibility, they will honour one another’s picket lines as a show of solidarity. This isn’t a bunch of jerks not wanting to work, but rather a group of workers who are sensitive to another group’s cause and who support the fight for worker’s rights. The TAs haven’t actually staged an all-out strike as of yet (they did vote in favour of it, but haven’t done it as of print), but they have honoured CUPE’s picket lines and stood in solidarity with them. Similarly, CUPE and TSSU’s picket lines blocked the normal routes for Translink buses, and since Translink’s office staff  is a member of COPE 378’s union, and Coast Mountain Bus Drivers are members of CAW 111, they honoured the picket lines and used alternate routes and stops. As well, since the picket lines were legal (they were voted on and gave the employer notice), no student had to come to campus today nor cross the picket line if they didn’t want to without fear of academic repercussions.

Bargaining
When you’re in a union, you get rights, benefits and wage increases for everyone. These are achieved through a bargaining process where the employer and the union sit down and reach a collective agreement, which then dictates how things will go for the next few years. For two years, neither group has been able to achieve a collective agreement with the SFU administration. When bargaining fails, a union is forced to resort to job action to remind their employer and the people they service that their roles matter. In prolonging bargaining, SFU has not given any of the workers these unions represent a wage increase for two years.

 

TSSU

This group is comprised of teaching assistants, tutor-markers, sessional instructors, language instructors, English language and culture and interpretation and translation program employees. These are the people teaching your tutorial, the people marking your assignments in a large seminar even if you don’t have tutorials, the people running your labs, and often the ones teaching your entire class.

Just because someone is your professor doesn’t mean they’re faculty with tenure and a guaranteed position. If they aren’t listed as faculty on your department’s website, they are making more than a TA does, but nowhere near as much as a salaried professor, and with little to no job security. If a faculty member ever started teaching a course that a TSSU member has been teaching for years, they’d be out a job.

ELC teachers help international students get their English language proficiencies up such that they can go to Fraser International College, and then into second-year undergraduate classes. They’re the ones getting all of these “worldly” students proficient enough in English to actually “engage” in course material. Considering that an international student pays $540.20 per credit hour while a domestic student pays $167.10, you’d think the teachers who make their attendance possible would be valued employees. However, the push for them to get paid higher wages (they make roughly as much as a TA does) and to operate under the same terms as other TSSU members has been overlooked.

TAs get paid about $25–30/hr. That’s not terrible, but those “hours” are questionable: they get a flat rate, and then extra time based on actual contact with student (i.e. how many tutorials they run and how many office hours they hold). Really though, a TA is a student trying to finish their degree, but now they have to attend your shitty first-year lectures to try to convince all of you to care about a subject you definitely didn’t do the readings for. Then they have to read and grade all of your papers and assignments. For some faculties, I imagine this could go fairly quickly, but if you have 60 students, and each one writes a seven-page paper, I don’t want to think about how many hours those will take to read and respond effectively to. If I’ve read the TSSU’s old collective agreement correctly, there is no way for a TA to make more than $27k/year, and that’s with them getting the absolute maximum amount of contact hours possible. I’m not sure if this takes into account the $1,500 a semester they pay back to the school. As well, factoring in that TAs probably aren’t living with their parents, we can’t think of them as another snotty student. They’re working professionals trying to earn a living relevant to their studies and future career goals. Really, a slight increase to their wages wouldn’t be ridiculous.

Don’t think this is a comprehensive breakdown of the labour disputes on campus. If you still haven’t figure out the difference between CUPE and TSSU, please shut up and enjoy your days off. Alternately, I’d love to get your informed opinions. This is taking a large toll on students and you should have an opinion about it.

CUPE

CUPE SFU has 1,020 members, and represents seven different groups of workers on campus. They are: workers in clerical, support, library and technical positions at SFU; support staff for CUPE Vancouver local; Food and Beverage Services workers at the Highland Pub; Higher Grounds, Ladle and catering departments of the SFSS; the cleaning staff of Best Facilities; support and advocacy staff people at the Simon Fraser Student Society; the employees of the Graduate Student Society; and the employees of the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group. These are the people typing things out for your department, fixing the projector in your lecture hall so your prof can show slides that were copied and pasted from the online textbook, the people who process your last minute tuition fees payment so you can enrol in classes, and the custodial staff who clean up all the coffee cups you leave behind like you’re at the movie theatre.

Specifically, CUPE say they’re striking to refuse “Four more years of ‘zeroes’ [wage increases], the possible loss of significant pension benefits, a drastic reduction in sick leave benefits, scheduling provisions that could end two-day weekends.” For many of us who work part or full-time in un-unionized jobs, these demands don’t mean much, but if the work these employees are doing is their sole source of income, this will affect their lives for years to come as workers and retirees.

Right now, a departmental secretary is a grade six on CUPE’s old pay scale, meaning they tap out at $41k/year. If we assume a 35 hour work week, that’s roughly $22/hr. That’s a pretty standard wage, and it’s also the maximum pay for that grade, meaning to make that you’d have had to be typing up course outlines and notices for at least three years, and chances are you didn’t start with that position. A friend of mine is an admin assistant at a small shipping firm and makes $18/hr after working there for two years; she started making about 14 in an entry-level position. Four more years of no wage increases, cuts to pension and no two-day weekends after committing a decent chunk of your life to what’s supposed to be a progressive institution is a pretty raw deal if you ask me, especially when you could ostensibly make much more elsewhere.

TAKEAWAY

Look, things have gotten increasingly more intense on all fronts lately. Shit got real on Wednesday, which saw a 24-hour strike where a few picketers got hit by cars and a cult-favourite professor was unfairly barred from entering a parking lot. The good news is with Vince Ready coming in to help mediate bargaining, things are progressing. However that doesn’t mean there’s a definite end in sight yet. It’s hard to fairly summarize what’s on the table because, after two years, more and more issues have amassed, leaving the initial disagreements over the collective agreements buried in a bunch of back and forth and updates about job action. You don’t have to take a side, but if you give even a single fuck about workers’ rights, you can agree that going two years without a current collective agreement is a load of crap. For those that have been paying attention, this seems to be the consensus: we’ve received a couple of open letters with more than 70 signatures all together of faculty and students alike who support the TSSU and CUPE. “Peak Speak” was filled with people who support CUPE and TSSU despite our polling people up on campus during the day of the 24-hour strike. If people willing to cross a picketline support the strike, why hasn’t this been resolved yet?