Research assistants and TSSU rally outside Strand Hall

TSSU chief steward says union has been awaiting a contract with SFU for over 677 days

People wearing yellow shirts holding signs in protest
PHOTO: Yelin Gemma Lee / The Peak

By: Yelin Gemma Lee, News Writer 

The Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) held a rally protesting SFU administration’s continued delays with their research assistants (RAs) union contract outside of Strand Hall on September 23, 2021. 

In November 2019, SFU agreed to the voluntary recognition agreement that acknowledged TSSU as the union for RAs. Despite this, RAs have been without a contract for 677 days, and TSSU reported delays in the bargaining process. The Peak was present and observed the rally.

The rally began at Cornerstone Square on the Burnaby campus with introductory speeches by organizing leaders. After gathering everybody and handing out t-shirts, buttons, and signs, the group marched a short distance to Strand Hall. Protestors vocalized their agreement to testimonial speeches from RAs and covered the Strand Hall entrance with sticky notes and posters. 

The Peak interviewed Katie Gravestock, TSSU chief steward and chair of the TSSU contract committee. 

“SFU administration continues to delay bargaining by cancelling dates and showing up to the table unprepared to bargain. Recently, we’ve also seen SFU act in bad faith by going back on their word at the bargaining table. Their delays mean RAs are without critical protections and benefits,” Gravestock said.

RAs brought the following demands to the doors of SFU administration on Thursday: 

  • “inclusion of all RAs in the union, as was agreed in 2019, 
  • basic employment protections, many required by law, 
  • benefits and wages comparable to teaching staff, 
  • respect for the critical contributions that RAs give SFU.” 

Dugan O’Neil, vice president research and international, told The Peak SFU values its research assistant staff and bargaining for benefits and wages is underway. He stated SFU remains optimistic an agreement will be reached soon, and “if negotiations continue into November 2021, both parties have already agreed to seek the assistance of a mediator. 

“As current SFU employees, all RAs have basic employment protections. Negotiations for a first collective agreement is a very complex process, and in this case it has taken longer than anticipated for many reasons, including the diversity of job descriptions and contracts within this group, as well as delays related to the pandemic,” wrote O’Neil.

“While SFU depends on the labour of RAs and profits greatly from our work (SFU reports $167 million annually in research income), we don’t have the same rights and benefits that other workers at SFU have,” said Gravestock. “We’ve heard SFU’s administration say they want to do right by RAs, but blue sky promises don’t cover RAs prescription bills or dental costs. We need actual written rights in a collective agreement and we need them now.”

As a PhD candidate in human geography and an RA in labour studies, Gravestock is among the group of over 924 RAs who signed up as TSSU members back in 2019, and are still waiting for a contract. According to Gravestock, this initiative started when RAs realized unionizing was the best solution, and asked TSSU for support. 

Gravestock gave examples of many RAs having experienced late pay, no pay, or below legal minimum wage pay. She also said RAs have to pay $75/month out of pocket for International Student Health Fee while teaching assistants and tutor markers have it paid by SFU under their union contract. 

“TSSU is the largest union on SFU’s campuses. Our members do much of the face-time teaching and day-to-day research upon which SFU relies. Without these workers, SFU could not function as a university. SFU administration should remember our members’ willingness in 2012 and 2015 to take action when bargaining isn’t moving,” said Gravestock. 

“Until SFU abides by the terms of the Voluntary Recognition, until we receive the RA list data that we are legally owed, and until we reach a tentative agreement, we will continue to organize and put pressure on SFU administration to live up to their word!”