By: Kelly Chia, Staff Writer
Editors note: The article has been updated to reflect that some RAs are recognized as workers as of last Spring.
In 2014, graduate students approached the Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) to unionize research assistants (RAs). The TSSU made the decision to fight for the rights of RAs, giving every individual more protection under the umbrella of a collective.
From 2018–19, the TSSU built a union drive at the grassroots level, leading to 924 RAs being signed on as union members. Then, on November 15, 2019, SFU signed an agreement to recognize TSSU members as bargaining agents on the behalf of RAs — and RAs as members of the union. This was meant to be the turning point for RAs in the fight to achieve proper working conditions comparable to every other SFU employee.
Over two years later, SFU still hasn’t provided a contract for all RAs. Instead, SFU doesn’t classify RAs as workers. This means they are not guaranteed job protection, consistent pay, health and dental benefits, or even safe working conditions. The TSSU has criticized SFU for backtracking and delaying consultations to provide all RAs with a safe and secure working environment.
What it’s like to work as an RA at SFU
SFU categorizes many RAs as non-workers, placing them in precarious work conditions. Though they are paid through the SFU payroll system, are given work direction by SFU employees, and follow university policies, RAs are not officially considered employees. By not being classified as workers, RAs “can be subject to unpaid overtime, harassment, and arbitrary dismissal without the benefits afforded workers under provincial and federal law or the protection that comes with being a member of a union.”
On the TSSU website, RAs testify anonymously to not being paid consistently. “I didn’t get paid for the entirety of my contract on this project, and only finally received a single lump-sum payment several months after the project ended,” wrote one RA. Many other RAs expressed similar sentiments, saying they go multiple weeks with little or no payment.
Some RAs were even disciplined for refusing work in unsafe spaces. Noticing a contractor had left a high-pressured gas cylinder behind in the laboratory, one RA wrote they evacuated the area. “[It] could potentially fall over resulting in a projectile that would blow through foot thick concrete walls, certainly killing anyone in its path,” they said. “Although they agreed the situation was unsafe, safety personnel stayed silent while management berated me for reporting the incident.” The RA wrote they were then told they would be banned from working in the space, should they write another report.
One RA was surprised to find they had the benefit of tuition deferment as a Teaching Assistant (TA), but not as an RA. “I had just moved across the country to do a PhD and paying off ever-increasing tuition over the course of the semester significantly limited my financial burden,” they wrote.
The Peak spoke with the chief steward of the TSSU, Amal Vincent, to talk about their campaign and current working conditions.
“Hundreds of RAs currently have to pay the International Student Health Fee (ISHF) out of their pocket, while unionized TAs and TMs [tutor markers] have that paid by SFU as part of their contract. This amounts to at least $900 annually,” Vincent said.
In SFU’s proposal, only select RAs would receive extended health and dental plans, such as those who work more than 20 hours a week and work for more than four months. This proposal would exclude all student RAs. Even if those select RAs qualify, the package is “bare bones” according to the TSSU website. Vincent added if a RA needed expensive drugs or had pre-existing conditions, they would have to pay for it on their own. “We’ve talked to RAs who are paying thousands of dollars every year for things that would be covered and are living in poverty because of this.”
Bargaining with SFU
In a joint communication statement released on November 19, 2019, SFU and TSSU “agreed to make all eligible RAs employees of the University by May 2020.” SFU and TSSU were supposed to meet every 30 days so SFU can present who is characterized as an “Included Person” in their bargaining. Then, they would begin collective bargaining on May 1, 2020.
Since signing this Voluntary Recognition Agreement, Vincent says it’s been difficult to communicate with SFU’s bargaining team. “SFU is completely dysfunctional,” he explained. Allegedly, SFU Administration has tried to redefine who can be included in the TSSU as an RA, claiming “work-study and scholarship RAs should be barred from representation by the TSSU” in a meeting. This comes even as they are recognized in the Voluntary Recognition Agreement in the appendix as “individuals who receive compensation from grants as scholarship” and “work-study student employees.”
SFU Administration has consistently delayed bargaining. Their first session was on March 23, 2021, eleven months after the agreed date. 15 months after signing the agreement, a TSSU spokesperson wrote that the SFU Administration presented a sparse two-page proposal “centred on a narrow definition of research work” that could easily exclude arts and social sciences research by definition. In this meeting, the proposal said existing rights from the SFU/TSSU Collective Agreement would apply to RAs, like “human rights and harassment protection, health and safety protections, grievance procedures, childcare fund, intellectual property protections, tuition deferment.”
“They constantly use the pandemic as an excuse to delay. Their bargaining team continually proposes rights below the minimum standards of the Employment Standards Act and has even tried to go back on agreed terms,” Vincent alleged, referring to August 12 and 18, 2021 bargaining sessions. The collective agreement between employers and unions must either meet or exceed the Act.
Prior to these sessions, the TSSU said there were “three months of delays by SFU Administration.” Troublingly, the new negotiator in these meetings tried to rescind what had already been agreed on in previous meetings.
Vincent wrote in the August 23 bargaining update TSSU and SFU had already agreed in previous meetings that the number of hours of work, schedule of work, and work location should be included in letters of employment. “We were told that these things were administratively burdensome and that it was ‘hugely problematic to embed hours of work in the employment agreement,’” he wrote.
The TSSU claims SFU has also proposed RAs are “at-will employees who can be terminated without cause at any point during the life of their contract.” Current proposals for RA wages and benefits are a minimum wage of $17 an hour, which doesn’t meet the living wage of $20.52 an hour for Metro Vancouver. There is no increase planned for the duration of the contract, and there are no benefits for RAs who are students. “They offered an extra 7% ($1.19/hr) in place of benefits, leaves, and vacation,” wrote a TSSU Spokesperson on the November 10 bargaining update.
The compensation and benefits RAs have been offered are nowhere near comparable to what TAs receive as SFU employees. TSSU says their requests to include RAs have been ignored over and over throughout their bargaining process. “Bargaining is a reflection of priorities: president Johnson and SFU Administration have made their priorities clear,” Vincent said. “They throw away countless dollars on frivolous and insincere communication plans and external consultants, but will pinch every penny when it comes to research workers.”
Vincent referred to a web page where the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion department of SFU claims “we all have a role to play in creating an equitable and inclusive environment.” This is performative when SFU hasn’t made much progress with TSSU in creating a safe, secure work environment for RAs. Vincent is also critical of SFU’s decision to hire Deloitte, a private consulting firm with controversial business decisions.
“Throughout the bargaining process, SFU Administration has demonstrated its continued intent to exploit the RAs and have ignored the needs and struggles of RAs at SFU.”
SFU gave an email statement to The Peak acknowledging the length of time it has taken to create an equitable work contract. “We would have liked things to have moved along quicker than it has, but it has taken longer than anticipated for many reasons, including the diversity of the work research assistants perform, as well as disagreements at the bargaining table.”
SFU is referring to the TSSU pointing to a difference on the scope of the Voluntary Recognition Agreement during their January 6 meeting. While SFU has stated that “the last group of Research Assistants (RAs) were transferred to be SFU employees,” only a minority of RAs have been converted to workers according to TSSU.
“Both parties met with the arbitrator on January 18, 2022 to discuss how to manage and resolve their differences. At the meeting, TSSU indicated they wished to proceed to arbitration to resolve the matter, therefore, arbitration has been scheduled for July 11–14 and August 15–18.” Arbitration is where a dispute is sent to an arbitrator so they can make the final decision on the dispute.
Ways to Support TSSU
Right now, the TSSU’s biggest goals are to fight for all RAs to be included in the union, and for RAs to receive benefits and wages comparable to what TAs receive. On their bargaining updates page, TSSU has included instructions on how to get involved. This includes signing their petition, sharing their posts on social media, encouraging RAs to share their stories, and emailing firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved with their campaign.
“TSSU will continue to fight for RAs and will not rest till SFU lives up to its word. We won’t stop till all RAs are recognized as members of TSSU and have a Collective Agreement. TSSU will continue to escalate through our members’ organizing and you will see more actions from us in the upcoming weeks.”