Teaching Student Support Staff Union continues to advocate for research assistants

SFU has avoided collective bargaining with the TSSU for 14 months

Photo courtesy of Abbas Nakhlband via Facebook. Photo taken before COVID-19 pandemic.

Written by: Jaymee Salisi, News Writer

In 2019, SFU signed a Memorandum of Agreement of Voluntary Recognition with the Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) to grant the university’s research assistants (RAs) equal rights and benefits as other SFU employees. Since then, SFU has violated every term of their agreement, according to the TSSU. 

The agreement requires SFU to recognize RAs as employees and provides the TSSU with a monthly list of working RAs three days before each monthly meeting. 

This would allow RAs to receive their benefits since lists give the TSSU an opportunity to survey their needs prior to the bargaining process. SFU agreed to begin negotiating terms of employment by May 1, 2020. However, it continues to be delayed. 

According to vice-president, research, international pro tem Dugan O’Neil, when SFU signed the agreement in 2019, “RAs were not employees of SFU [ . . . ] Since that time, a number of complications have arisen in the process of identifying and transitioning RAs to become SFU employees.” 

He said there are barriers to this process because collective bargaining with union groups is regulated by the BC Public Sector Employees Council, the BC Labour Code, and SFU policy. 

“The current terms and conditions of RAs cannot be changed until the collective bargaining process is concluded and the eligible employees have voted to accept the TSSU as their [u]nion and accept the negotiated agreement,” O’Neil said. 

Their contact “agrees to recognize the [TSSU] voluntarily as the bargaining agent” for RAs and states the university must “determine in a timely way” who is considered to be employed by SFU. 

The TSSU has given SFU multiple legal notices and filed for arbitration in May 2020 against the university — this would bring a third party to resolve the dispute. As a result, RAs have been unable to access the same benefits as other employees at SFU.

“RAs are excluded from extended benefits plans that cover prescriptions, dental, paid sick leave and much more,” said TSSU chief stewards Katie Gravestock and Seamus Bright Grayer in an email interview with The Peak

They explained RAs have to pay $75 out of pocket every month for the International Student Health Fee, while unionized teaching assistants receive benefits which include university coverage for the fee.

Gravestock and Grayer said, “Both of us have regularly missed pay for our respective RAships [sic].” This is an occurrence that newly unionized members experience, they said. Instead of a standard pay process, supervisors must arrange pay manually.

“We’ve seen paystubs that show as little as $1 per hour — way below minimum wage — and others that pay more reasonable wages,” Gravestock and Grayer said.

On the TSSU’s Research Is Work campaign website, an anonymous RA submitted a statement about irregular payments and unfair treatment at work: “I was told that if I ever reported an incident again, I’d be banned from working in that large laboratory space which would end any possibility of finishing my PhD.” 

In addition to legally notifying SFU of their agreement violations, the TSSU has reportedly brought attention to these issues during monthly meetings with the administration and publicly petitioned against RA treatment.

“Getting a union and first collective agreement is our first step [towards gaining rights for RAs]” Gravestock and Grayer said. The TSSU aims to provide RAs with a safe work environment and clearly outlined rights and benefits. To work towards this, they are currently “building alliances with workers across the country to drive this change.”

“SFU and TSSU are preparing for collective bargaining to start very soon,” O’Neil said.

Further information about the campaign can be found on the Research is Work website.