Teaching Support Staff Union rallies for research assistant rights

SFU continues to violate agreements with TSSU to compensate research assistants

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A crowd of people can be seen at SFU Convocation Mall. They’re holding yellow signs that read “Research is Work” and “RA Contract Now”.
Day 873 of SFU’s delay in bargaining. Image courtesy of Sherry Young.

By: Jaymee Salisi, Promotions Coordinator

On April 4, 2022 SFU’s Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) held a rally at Convocation Mall protesting the university’s continued delays to fulfill a union contract with their research assistants (RAs).

In November 2019, SFU signed an agreement to “voluntarily recognize RAs as members of TSSU.” This would require the university to recognize RAs as employees and provide them with full worker’s benefits. The university has delayed bargaining with the TSSU for 873 days as of November 15, 2019, causing RAs to continue to work without a collective agreement. 

The RAs are asking SFU administration to “fulfill their agreement without any more delays.” They are asking for the collective agreement to include:

  • “Benefits and wages comparable to those of SFU teaching staff
  • Health and dental coverage
  • Respect for the critical contributions of RA labour
  • Maintaining the broad definition of an SFU RA to uphold inclusivity”

In an interview with The Peak, contract committee chair and chief steward of the TSSU, Amal Vincent, spoke on the union’s experience on bargaining for RAs’ rights with SFU.

In the Voluntary Recognition Agreement signed in November 2019, SFU administration agreed to include all RAs in the union. According to Vincent, after the agreement was signed, a senior SFU human resources employee openly disagreed with including work-study RAs and RAs on scholarship in SFU’s collective agreement with the TSSU.

“Since then, SFU administration has violated all the terms of the agreement,” he said.

According to Vincent, the university administration “continues to exclude a large portion of RAs from the union.”

SFU initially acted on their agreement in good faith in the beginning of the bargaining process, Vincent said. However, he soon observed a lack of reliability from the administration. “When [SFU administration does] meet with us, they come unprepared and don’t follow up on any promised actions,” according to Vincent,

Unlike unionized teaching assistants and tutor-markers, RAs who are international students currently have to pay the International Student Health Fee (ISHF) which amounts to an annual cost of $900. According to Vincent, after paying these student fees most graduate student RAs are left with around $1,200 per month.

In addition, Vincent said SFU has “denied all student RAs and the vast majority of other RAs sick leave” which violates the recent provincial legislation.

The university’s delay in action continues to affect the health and finances of their RAs. Vincent said RAs resort to paying thousands of dollars out of pocket each year for extended health and dental benefits that are normally covered by employers. As a result, some RAs “are living in poverty because of this,” he said.

“We’ve seen pay stubs that show as little as one dollar per hour at SFU — way below minimum wage — and others that pay more reasonable wages.”

RA payment is inconsistent, said Vincent. He compared SFU RAs’ $17 per hour compensation with minimal benefits to that of UBC’s lowest RA rate of $22.03 per hour.

He added UBC also offers their RAs various benefits such as paid breaks, 100% employer paid extended health and dental, and 15 days of sick leave annually. For RAs with a contract of a year or more, they receive a pension plan, disability benefits, and life insurance.

 “[RAs] are the backbone of the research programs at SFU,” Vincent said.

They are involved in various tasks according to Vincet, including “running experiments, maintaining lab equipment, collecting data in the field, researching, writing literature reviews, writing and publishing papers.”

In an email statement to The Peak, SFU’s vice-president research and internal Dugan O’Neil said, “SFU values and appreciates our research assistant staff and the university remains committed to reaching a fair agreement as quickly as possible.”

According to O’Neil, “In November 2019 we agreed to recognize TSSU as the appropriate bargaining unit for Research Assistants. This was not a collective agreement, just a recognition.”

He noted the TSSU and SFU met with an arbitrator in January 2022 to discuss their differences and to look for an agreement between the two parties. Arbitration is a private procedure, alternative to court, wherein parties bring a dispute and a binding decision is made. O’Neil reported TSSU wanted to proceed with arbitration. “The university is required to follow the rules and guidelines of the bargaining process and must now wait for the scheduled arbitration this summer, which TSSU requested, before things can move forward,” said O’Neil.  

“The process for negotiating a first collective agreement is complex. The last group of Research Assistants (RAs) were transferred to be SFU employees in Spring 2021. While we would have liked things to have moved along more quickly to finalize their bargaining agreement, 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,” said O’Neil.

The TSSU plans to continue organizing on-campus events throughout the summer semester to push SFU administration to uphold their end of the agreement and ensure “all RAs are recognized as members of TSSU, and have a collective agreement that provides living wages and benefits for [all RAs].”

The TSSU encourages SFU students to attend their rallies and invite the larger SFU community to support the cause.

Students can learn more about the TSSU and their bargaining efforts with SFU administration here.