Research assistants launch unionization campaign in search of better pay and working conditions

RAs are looking to unionize with the longstanding Teaching Support Staff Union

SFU Research Assistants are in the midst of a unionization campaign

By: Jess Dela Cruz, News Writer

“Research is work!” states the slogan of the campaign for SFU’s Research Assistant’s to unionize with the Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU). 

SFU’s Research Assistants hope that by collectively organizing, they will have more control over their workplace conditions, pay, and benefits. According to the campaign website, unionization “allows workers to fight for respect, fairness, and dignity in [their] workplaces without fear of unjust persecution or dismissal by employers.” The campaign brochure also explains how RAs want better benefits similar to those that TSSU members have, such as, “MSP coverage, tuition deferment, sick leave, childcare, clear paystubs, guaranteed pay dates, and more.” 

The Peak interviewed Matt Greaves, who recently completed his PhD in communications. Greaves assists with the unionization campaign’s communications, strategy, and organization. He has also been on numerous committees in the TSSU and has been a sessional lecturer, TA, and RA himself. 

On why RAs decided to unionize with the TSSU and not create their own separate union, he said that through a partnership “there would be no need for RAs to establish administrative, research, advocacy, and organizing divisions, which TSSU has already developed.” 

SFU’s RAs also hope to have a greater sense of security and solidarity in their jobs at SFU.  The website states: “RAs are often paid sporadically, or not, for months at a time. Others have struggled with overwhelming workloads, abusive managers, and toxic work environments — issues resolvable through TSSU.” 

Greaves further states that through the TSSU, which is a direct democracy, “RAs would immediately be brought into the decision-making fold; and as a very significant voting bloc given their numbers.” 

He adds, “not only would RAs be able to collectively bargain the terms and conditions of their employment with the university, then, they’d also help to set the course.” 

 He describes the inequalities RAs face compared to current TSSU members. Greaves says, “RAs have no job protection, have no benefits [such as] tuition deferment, extended health care, or sick days, are frequently subject to wage theft in the form of delayed-payment [ . . . ] and aren’t afforded the same safety protections.” 

Ezra Yu, an RA in the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS), spoke to The Peak and has found that being an RA has been beneficial for his career prospects. Yu has weekly meetings with his supervisor to discuss how his research is going, does literature review around his given research question, and will soon work on writing a scientific research paper as part of his work. He believes that RA work will benefit him academically in becoming a published scholar, and professionally in becoming a health data analyst and researcher. 

Yu is able to grow his network and build connections with professors of his faculty. Furthermore, he has applied for Health Sciences honour programs, the vice-president undergraduate research award, and is constantly looking for more staff and research positions at SFU to build his resume and experience.

Another RA, Alicia Fahrner, works as an RA in the Department of Psychology, looking at “parental learning, how and where parents get their parenting knowledge from within their communities and wider areas.” Seeing as Fahrner was awarded an Undergraduate Research Award from SFU, she must work 17.5 hours weekly. Fahrner works closely with Dr. Michelle Kline and views her as “a mentor, providing learning opportunities for [her] and other research assistants.” 

While Fahrner is satisfied with her RA experience, she supports unionization. “We as students are often left in the dark, and therefore do not know the proper protocol and rights that we deserve as employees of SFU [and] research labs. By being part of the TSSU, I think it would shed some light into the benefits that we as research assistants deserve.” 

According to Greaves, the Research is Work campaign has had 90 days since August to gain the support of 45% of RAs, demonstrated through the signing of union cards. In late November, an all-campus vote will occur to determine if RAs will unionize, administered by the BC Labour Relations Board.  

Undergraduate, graduate, international, and non-student research assistants are eligible to sign the union card should they wish to join the campaign.  Greaves is happy with the efforts he has seen thus far. 

“RAs and their union allies in TSSU are standing up for one another as working people. It’s inspiring.”


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