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Teaching support staff union at SFU votes to strike

"So many of our members, they're doing researching and teaching full time and trying to survive."
Members of the Teaching Support Staff Union at SFU rallied at a board of governors meeting on Thursday morning (March 30).

Simon Fraser University's Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) has voted to strike, but it's not yet clear what potential job action could look like. 

The TSSU announced yesterday (March 29) that 94 per cent of its members had voted in favour of a strike after an agreement still hadn't been reached with the university. 

The previous TSSU/SFU collective agreement expired on April 30, 2022. 

The union represents numerous employees including teaching assistants, sessional instructors, ELC/ITP's, graduate facilitators and research assistants and includes approximately 3,800 members. 

TSSU chief steward Amal Vincent said the main ask is an increase in pay as the cost of living continues to soar.

"Our major demand in this round is cost of living adjustment for all these graduate workers," he told the NOW.

"So many of our members, they're doing researching and teaching full time and trying to survive under a thousand dollars per month." 

The union is asking for an increase to $32,000 per year after tuition.

"I was talking to this member a few weeks ago in Surrey and he was telling me that after paying rent, he has like $300 remaining per month for everything," Vincent added. 

"You're going to the food bank every week and he's gone down to two meals a day, not because he wants to, but because there's simply no way there for three [meals]. He's working full time at SFU, 40 plus hours per week, doing teaching and research work that is critical to the institution and he's starving. The strike is for people like him." 

The second highest demand from the union is to try and modernize the compensation model for all teaching staff, pointing to increasing class sizes and an overall increase in required duties. 

"Their pay has remained the same, but class sizes have been going up over the years and the work has gone up, grading work has gone up.

"But the compensation remains the same. That's another problem." 

Vincent said the union provided SFU with a number of available dates for bargaining in April, but claims the university hasn't responded in nearly two weeks. 

He also claimed the university approached the labour board, trying to get the union's strike vote ruled illegal. 

When asked what potential job action could look like, Vincent said he doesn't want to give away strategy through the media but explained it could be smaller actions including stickers at the top of a graded assignment, talking to students about the strike or a larger action that includes picket lines. 

"It also depends on how long it takes to get a deal because it would be like a progressive escalation of tactics." 

Members rally at board of governors meeting

A day after the strike result was revealed, members from the TSSU, Grad Student Society and Contract Workers Justice campaign rallied at SFU's board of governors meeting this morning (March 30).  

The groups were calling for a cost-of-living adjustment for grad student workers, supporting the striking TSSU members and demanding the university end the outsourcing of food and cleaning services. 

One demonstrator banged on a pot with a spoon as the group chanted slogans, including “No living wage, no joy,” using a bullhorn just outside of the meeting at the Halpern Centre.

One protester pointed out SFU president Joy Johnson makes as much money in a month as the TSSU is asking for a year.

Johnson's 2022-23 salary was $383,682, according to a June 1, 2022 executive compensation report.

With benefits, pension, a car allowance and other perquisites, her compensation totalled $484,690.

SFU responds to union's vote

When asked for comment by the NOW, the university provided a publicly released statement posted on its website on Wednesday. 

Simon Fraser says bargaining under the current mandate started on Nov. 2, 2022, when the university presented 87 proposals. It says the TSSU tabled 555 proposals. 

"SFU respects any union's right to perform job action under the labour code, but we are surprised and disappointed TSSU stopped the negotiation process because there are over 200 outstanding items still to be discussed," the statement read. 

"This is the second time during the 22/23 collective bargaining period that TSSU has cancelled all bargaining meetings and walked away from negotiations since the commencement of the current round of bargaining.

"The TSSU first paused negotiations between November 30, 2022 and January 12, 2023, and again suspended discussions earlier this month by voting to cancel all eight scheduled March negotiations and poll its members for a strike." 

When asked about the university's statement, Vincent said the union only cancelled bargaining sessions once and that was to complete the strike vote.

"We did tell them that we would be back to bargain in March, we asked for it [bargaining in March] and they said no. 

"We gave them dates in April and they ghosted us for like two weeks. It's been 13 days and we haven't heard back on their scheduling." 

In its statement, SFU said they have invited the TSSU back to the table in April.