Support staff at Simon Fraser University on strike

The union involved says it wants better pay to keep up with inflation, retirement plans and mental health benefits–among other demands

The strike involving the Teaching Support Staff Union at SFU began on Thursday, Sept. 28. Kelvin Gawley via X video.

Picket lines have gone up in Burnaby, Vancouver, and Surrey, as 1,600 members of the Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) at Simon Fraser University (SFU) are now on strike.

The job action–which began on Thursday, Sept. 28–includes teaching assistants, sessional instructors, graduate facilitators, and English-language, interpretation and culture instructors. Their demands include wage increases to keep up with current inflation levels, pension plans, and improved benefits.

Dalton Kamish, one of the trustees at TSSU and member of the bargaining team and strike committee told The Beacon the strike was a necessity. “Our working conditions are really bad at this university. We’re paid very little, we do an enormous amount of work that doesn’t get paid at all,” Kamish explains.

“We do over half of the teaching work at SFU and on average our members get paid around $17 dollars an hour, after having to pay tuition.”

Additionally, Kamish expressed frustration with the bargaining process with SFU. “They spent almost half a million dollars on an external consultant who seemingly gets paid just to waste our time. They show up to bargaining completely unprepared and unwilling to bargain with us on fundamental issues. Right now they’re refusing to sign off on a bunch of proposals that are 99% agreed because they don’t want to give us one extra office,” he added.

According to Kamish, SFU has been suggesting wage increases that are not in line with inflation rates and living costs in the Metro Vancouver area. He says teaching support staff have no choice but do additional work such as administrative tasks, and oftentimes with little to no compensations.

To be paid for these tasks, TSSU members want to tie their compensation to the number of students in their classes. “Now they can fill your classrooms with as many students as they want and they can generate as much extra work associated with all of the students,” Kamish said.

Striking TSSU members want improved benefits and pension plans. One key benefit is an increase in mental health coverage. At present it is $1,000 per year per person; TSSU members want to increase this to $2500. According to the group, the university refused their request on the grounds that these benefits would far exceed those of other university employees.”We think this is an unacceptable response to the biggest union on campus, especially a union whose members are graduate students who are living through a mental health crisis that impacts them disproportionately,” Kamish elaborated, also noting that many SFU sessional instructors and English language and interpretation instructors—who have been working for SFU for 20 or 30 years—do not have pension plans that allow them to retire.

As a graduate student, Kamish says he has mixed feelings about SFU. “I quickly learned that while SFU is a great university, it’s a really bad employer.” Kamish added that while graduate students are highly skilled workers with advanced degrees, he feels they are still treated as “just a source of cheap labour for universities that disproportionately rely on you to make millions of dollars of surplus each year, and pay you barely minimum wage to do the vast majority of the teaching work.”

Kamish also expressed frustration with the reaction of upper management at the university, saying that SFU President Joy Johnson refused to come to the negotiating table claiming that labour relations personnel handle such issues. When they questioned labour relations representatives, they responded to TSSU members by saying that they do not have the mandate to sign off on their demands.

Striking TSSU members have found that while many undergraduate students are supportive and sympathetic to their cause, some have expressed frustration with the situation and work stoppage. Some non-union instructors have also stepped in to take on some of the tasks normally undertaken by TSSU members.

Someone on X/Twitter claiming to be a lecturer at SFU posted to say they had been given more work to do amid the job action. The post has since been deleted.

A screenshot of a claim by someone who says they are a lecturer at the university. Ria Renouf/X

“They’re naive to think that they’re going to get paid for doing this extra work. Sadly, most of the time very few people actually care about undergraduate education except TSSU members and as soon as we go on strike, suddenly everyone else cares about their students and they have to scab,” Kamish said.

In response to the strike, the Labour Relations department at SFU said in its official statement that “the university applied for mediation from the Labour Relations Board in March 2023. Over two independent mediated sessions, TSSU did not meaningfully engage in the process and withdrew from mediation in early April, opting to conduct a strike vote among their members.”

The statement added, “There remain several fundamental issues that the university cannot accept because they would:

  • “Incur costs that exceed the funds available within the Province's Shared Recovery Mandate,”

  • “Breach core interests such as faculty rights to set course delivery model, or importance of faculty student connection,” or,

  • Fall outside the scope of this negotiation, such as Grad COLA, Guaranteed Funding and Sessional Rights to continuing faculty appointments”

This piece was made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

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