• Fri. Jul 1st, 2022

The Teaching Support Staff Union is mobilizing for the rights of research assistants

ByJulie J. Helfer

May 30, 2022
Day 873 of SFU’s delay in negotiations. Image courtesy of Sherry Young.

By: Jaymee Salisi, Promotions Coordinator

On April 4, 2022, SFU Education Support Staff Union (TSSU) held a rally at Convocation Mall to protest the university’s continued delays in fulfilling a union contract with its Research Assistants (RAs).

In November 2019, SFU signed a OK to “voluntarily recognize ARs as members of the TSSU”. This would require the university to recognize ARs as employees and provide them with full worker benefits. The university delayed negotiations with the TSSU for 873 days from November 15, 2019, forcing ARs to continue working without a collective agreement.

The RAs ask the administration of SFU to “fulfill their agreement without further delay”. They demand that the collective agreement include:

  • “Benefits and salaries comparable to those of SFU teaching staff
  • Health and dental coverage
  • Respect for the essential contributions of AR work
  • Maintain the broad definition of an AR SFU to maintain inclusiveness”

In an interview with The topContracts Committee Chair and TSSU Chief Shop Steward, Amal Vincent, spoke about the union’s experience negotiating RA 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 official openly opposed the inclusion of rotational RAs and scholarship RAs in SFU’s collective agreement with the TSSU.

“Since then, the administration of SFU has violated every term of the agreement,” he said.

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

SFU initially acted in good faith on its deal early in the negotiation process, Vincent said. However, he quickly notices a lack of reliability on the part of the administration. “When [SFU administration does] to encounter us, they come unprepared and do not follow through on any of the promised actions“, according to Vincent,

Unlike unionized teaching assistants and tutor-markers, RAs who are international students must currently pay international student health costs (ISHF) which represents an annual cost of $900. According to Vincent, after paying that tuition, most graduate AR students end up with about $1,200 a month.

Additionally, Vincent said that SFU had “denied all RA students 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 ARs. 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 ARs “live in poverty because of it,” he said.

“We’ve seen pay stubs showing as little as a dollar an hour at SFU — well below minimum wage — and others paying more reasonable wages.”

The RA payment is inconsistent, Vincent said. He compared USF’s RA pay of $17 an hour with minimal benefits to that of UBC’s lowest RA rate of $22.03 an hour.

He also added UBC offers their RAs provide various benefits such as paid breaks, additional medical and dental expenses fully paid by the employer, and 15 days of sick leave per year. For RAs with a contract of one year or more, they receive a pension plan, disability benefits and life insurance.

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

They are involved in various tasks according to Vincet, including “running experiments, maintenance of laboratory equipment, field data collection, research, writing literature reviews, writing and publishing articles.

In a statement emailed to The topvice president of research and internal at SFU Dugan O’Neil said, “SFU appreciates and appreciates our staff of research assistants, and the university remains committed to reaching a fair settlement as quickly as possible.”

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

He noted that the TSSU and SFU had encountered a arbitrator in January 2022 to discuss their differences and seek an agreement between the two parties. Arbitration is a private procedure, an alternative to court, in which the parties submit a dispute and a binding decision is rendered. O’Neil signaled that 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 arbitration scheduled for this summer, requested by TSSU, before things can move forward,” O’Neil said.

“The process of negotiating a first collective agreement is complex. The last group of Research Assistants (RAs) transferred to be SFU employees in the spring of 2021. Although we would have liked things to move faster to finalize their bargaining agreement, it took longer than expected for many reasons, including the diversity of work done by research assistants, as well as disagreements at the bargaining table,” O’Neil said.

The TSSU plans to continue hosting on-campus events throughout the summer semester to push the SFU administration to fulfill its part of the deal and ensure that “all RAs are recognized as members.” of the TSSU and have a collective agreement which provides decent wages and benefits for [all RAs].”

The TSSU encourages SFU students to attend their rallies and invites the SFU community at large to support the cause.

Students can learn about the TSSU and their efforts to negotiate with the SFU administration here.