SFU teaching assistants plan to strike for improved pay, pension

Simon Fraser University's teaching support staff have announced a work stoppage strike starting Sept. 28, until a collective agreement is reached.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Simon Fraser University's teaching support staff have announced a work stoppage strike starting Sept. 28, until a collective agreement is reached. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Members of Simon Fraser University's (SFU) Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) are planning an indefinite work stoppage from Sept. 28 until a tentative agreement is reached.

The TSSU is a labour union with close to 1,600 members, including people who teach and do research at SFU but aren't faculty members, working as teaching assistants and sessional instructors.

Research assistants, while not part of the union or the strike, will be respecting picket lines, the union said.

Dalton Kamish, spokesperson for TSSU and a communications teaching assistant, said the decision comes after 19 months of failed collective bargaining.

The union's most recent collective agreement expired on April 30, 2022.

"We've had 41 bargaining sessions ... The employer is still unwilling to bargain meaningfully with us on our fundamental issues and so we need to take more serious job action. We need to escalate," said Kamish.

Beginning Thursday morning, Kamish says, union members will stop all work, including tutorials, lectures, grading and more. The union plans to picket at various SFU locations starting in Surrey on Thursday and Burnaby on Oct. 3.

The union says it hopes serious job action will force the university to address concerns, such as cost-of-living adjustments, wage theft and pension for sessional instructors.

People are pictured during a demonstration in support of contract worker's rights at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia on Thursday, March 30, 2023.
People are pictured during a demonstration in support of contract worker's rights at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia on Thursday, March 30, 2023.

People are pictured during a demonstration in support of contract worker's rights at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., in March 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In a statement, SFU says they are working toward a negotiated settlement and have offered the union "the maximum allowable general wage increases provided under the Province's Shared Recovery Mandate."

"Our focus remains on the academic success of our students, supporting our outstanding faculty and staff, and nurturing a thriving, world-class research environment," reads the statement.

Calls for increased wages, support

In March, 94 per cent of TSSU members voted in favour of a strike.

Kamish says union members picketed over the summer, which included an all-campus work stoppage.

They say following the job action, SFU agreed to increase mental health coverage to $2,000 in members' extended health benefits.

While the union in recent weeks went back to the bargaining table, Kamish says they are still not pleased with the university's response to key issues.

They say members of the union are mostly graduate students, balancing their academic studies with teaching support, and also oftentimes an additional job to make ends meet.

"For most people unfortunately, the average pay for teaching assistants at SFU is $17 an hour after we have to pay tuition, which is insufficient to live on in a place like Vancouver," they said, adding this often leads students to take longer to finish their degrees.

Kamish says the union has three main demands: increased wages to reflect the cost-of-living crisis and increasing rates of inflation, a stop to uncompensated work or wage theft, and access to pensions for sessional and program instructors.

Sessional and program instructors, according to the union, are teachers who re-apply every term for their jobs and teach a multitude of subjects. Kamish notes some of these instructors have worked at SFU for nearly 20 to 30 years without pension.

In regards to wage theft, Kamish explains teaching assistants are paid the same even if they are assigned to a class with five or 500 students.

"These extra 495 students are going to generate an enormous amount of work above the initial five [and] you get paid no more for it.

"It's also an enormous issue for undergraduates who are greatly affected by ballooning class sizes," they said, noting the union's outreach work has found undergraduate students are "hugely sympathetic" to the TSSU's concerns.

"Our working conditions are their learning conditions … [Students] are hugely supportive of the TSSU because they know [union] members do over half of the teaching at this university."