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Two years after unionizing, SFU research assistants still have no contract

Research assistants joined the Teaching Support Staff Union in November 2019, and the university agreed to recognize all RAs as SFU employees. But the union says nearly two-thirds still aren't recognized

By Dustin Godfrey | December 7, 2021 |5:00 am

A campaign to get research assistants at SFU their first collective agreement has not been going so well, according to the union representing them.

The Teaching Support Staff Union, which also represents teaching assistants at the university, and SFU came to a voluntary recognition agreement in November 2019 that would ultimately see all RAs classified as employees of SFU.

But there has been little movement on the matter since then, according to the union, and there’s little sign of the two parties coming to an agreement anytime soon.

The union has launched a petition to call on SFU to make the union a better offer than the $17/hr minimum wage for RAs with no increases for the duration of the contract.

A competitive wage or a living wage?

The university’s administration, in a written statement attributed to vice-president of research and international Dugan O’Neil, said its proposal “set out a competitive minimum hourly rate for RAs working at the university.”

“When developing the compensation model, the diverse nature of work conducted by RAs was considered. Tasks can range from very basic to complex,” O’Neil said.

“Principal investigators have the ability to increase hourly rates for RAs where more education and skill is required for the role.”

But the petition notes the living wage for Metro Vancouver is currently rated at $20.52/hr. And in an interview with Burnaby Beacon, Katie Gravestock, one of TSSU’s chief stewards, said even that falls well short of what TAs make.

To level the playing field, the TSSU is seeking $25/hr for RAs, a full $8/hr more than the university is currently offering.

“We don’t believe that research assistants’ work should be devalued and paid less than teaching staff, especially when many folks are actually doing both positions at the same time,” Gravestock said.

“It’s really upsetting, too, because it just seems like the university doesn’t value the work that we’re doing. And at the very least, we believe we deserve a living wage. … Many, many research assistants and workers at the university are actually in very precarious situations, especially international students.”

When a collective agreement is finally reached between the TSSU and SFU, it will be the first in history for the university’s research assistants—and it will be years in the making.

“For many years, actually, RAs have been frustrated because SFU has treated them a lot worse in their research work at the university compared to their teaching work,” Gravestock said.

“They cancelled a lot of our bargaining sessions, then have showed up to the bargaining table completely unprepared to bargain.”

Photo: Shutterstock

Poor job security for research assistants

Many RAs have been considered not to be employees of SFU, Gravestock noted, and that has generally led to things like job insecurity and pay issues, including late pay, no pay, and pay below minimum wage.

Just over two years ago, however, TSSU and SFU signed a voluntary recognition agreement, which included a clause stating SFU would start a process of officially recognizing RAs as university employees. But the university and the union seem to have conflicting information about how many RAs have actually become employees.

The process was supposed to be completed by May 2020, but Gravestock said delays continue today.

“As of today, so far, SFU has only recognized 593 RAs as employees of the university, but this number should be more around 1,500,” Gravestock said.

But in SFU’s statement to the Beacon, O’Neil said the last group of RAs were transferred to SFU employment in spring of this year.

“As current SFU employees, all RAs have basic employment protections,” O’Neil said.

The disagreement may stem from who is considered to be part of the union. Gravestock said the university has backtracked since 2019, now arguing that graduate student research assistants receiving scholarships or stipends should not be included.

“So even if we were to get to a tentative agreement, you do have the issue of who’s included in our bargaining unit,” Gravestock said.

Delays at the bargaining table

SFU said administration is “committed to reaching a fair agreement as quickly as possible.”

“The process for negotiating a first collective agreement is very complex. 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.”

But Gravestock said many of the delays were caused unnecessarily by the university.

“They delayed getting to the bargaining table. We were supposed to start beginning on May 1, 2020, … but we didn’t start until March of this year,” Gravestock said.

“They cancelled a lot of our bargaining sessions, then have showed up to the bargaining table completely unprepared to bargain.”

That includes coming to the bargaining table without any proposals, according to Gravestock. And when the union came to the table with a position on wages, the university took “many, many months” to return with its own proposal, she said.

Little movement in negotiations

SFU made its wage proposal on Nov 10 of this year at a bargaining session Gravestock described as going “poorly.”

“The contract committee was really upset with the wages and benefits that were proposed,” Gravestock said.

As the bargaining continues, RAs continue to face some level of instability, Gravestock said, including sessional instructors who have to apply for their positions every semester.

“Lots of them have to work at multiple universities just to make a living,” she said.

The two parties had another session last week, in which Gravestock said the university administration “did come to the table without listening to our members.”

“They also presented some new language today, which would give them the right to fire an RA for any reason at any point during our contract,” she said.

“At this point, our [bargaining] committee is very frustrated, and we’re not really sure how to move forward, because it really doesn’t seem like they’re listening to our members.”

Gravestock said the union is now “at a state where we need to really think about how we can get them to hear us” to move forward on bargaining.

“So we’re going to be spending a lot of time in the next coming weeks and in the new year, talking to members and organizing some actions to make sure that our voices are heard,” she said.

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Dustin Godfrey

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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