TSSU holds vote to unionize research assistants

The membership vote follows months of campaigning to unionize

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This is a photo of the outside of the academic quadrangle building at the SFU Burnaby campus. The square building is concrete with many large windows.
PHOTO: Gudrun Wai-Gunnarsson / The Peak

By: Olivia Sherman, News Writer

One of the initiatives the Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) has been campaigning for is unionizing SFU’s research assistants (RA). The SFU administration claims RAs are not considered employees, and are therefore unable to unionize. TSSU has since engaged in a card signing campaign for RAs. Each signed card represents a declaration from an RA that they are willing to be a member of the union. Over 1,350 cards have been signed and submitted to the Labour Board, where the vote is still pending.

The Peak interviewed TSSU organizers, Catherine Dubé and Yameena Zaidi, who explained the significance of the card signing campaign. “The card signing campaign is a way to ensure that SFU recognizes all research assistants as workers,” Zaidi explained. She noted the SFU administration signed a voluntary recognition agreement in 2019 “where they agreed to recognize the union,” but this was violated when the administration retracted their recognition of RAs as workers. 

“They don’t agree that these people are employees, even though they agreed in 2019,” said Dubé. “SFU has no shame in violating any agreement, arbitration decision, or any orders given from arbitrators,” Dubé added. Besides not being considered employees, RAs have been at risk of losing their health benefits, healthcare for international students, and job protections. Dubé continued, saying, “It’s really disheartening to see that an employer would go to such lengths to refuse basic rights and basic wages for such a large group of workers on campus.” 

In order to gain automatic certification, cards must be signed by 55% of the RAs. Despite achieving the necessary percentage of RAs willing to be unionized, the administrators have “put a roadblock” in the path to unionizing. The Labour Board requires a hearing from both parties — TSSU and SFU — where “the employer can raise any objections to the application for membership,” Dubé explained. At the hearing on August 17, SFU objected. “We knew that would happen, obviously, we knew they’d object.” 

The results of the vote from the Labour Board have not been revealed yet. “It’s a huge win if we get it, it’s a devastating loss if we don’t,” Dubé said. 

The organizers said bargaining is far from over, and has become lengthier than is necessary. “As a TA this summer, I attended the open bargaining sessions between TSSU and the employer and I was surprised to see how little work the employer’s bargaining team puts in,” Zaidi said. “They spend hours fixing typos and refuse to talk about our bargaining priorities.” 

As well as spending time on housekeeping and typos, Dubé noted the administration has been unprepared to bargain. “They’ll show up having not even read our proposals, despite having them for months. They’ll debate petty little changes to our proposals.” Dubé said administration has come to the bargaining table “and the only amendment was a 0.1% increase. It’s insulting.” 

“They’d rather pay a lawyer to fight us in arbitration, which is a very costly process,” Dubé said. Zaidi and Dubé have also noticed the lawyers hired by the administration are unfamiliar with the ongoing arbitration, TSSU, or the university at all. 

“SFU pays hundreds of dollars to a spokesperson to fly in from Victoria and he plainly said at one of the bargaining sessions we had this summer that he doesn’t know SFU that well. The question is why is the university paying all this money to an external spokesperson,” meanwhile the SFU administration “refuses to come to the bargaining table and do what’s necessary?” asked Zaidi. 

Although a vote for union membership has not been reached, both organizers agree that TSSU has no plans of stopping the fight for equality. “SFU would rather fight a case they seemingly know that they’re going to lose [ . . . ]  but they’d rather keep it going and hope that we tire ourselves out, but we’re not going to tire ourselves out,” Dubé said.

This is a developing story that The Peak will continue to cover. To learn more about the ongoing strike, check out the official TSSU website at https://www.tssu.ca/

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