SFU research assistants unionize, party on Burnaby Mountain

1,500 will form first research assistants union in Western Canada.

SFU will take in $161 million in research income in 2019, but some of the people behind that research are currently working for free in precarious jobs with no employment benefits, according to a union working to change all that.

Since August, SFU’s Teaching Support Staff Union has signed up more than 900 of the estimated 1,500 research assistants working at the university – well above the 45% threshold required for unionization.

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The union was ready to apply to the labour board for certification last week, when the university stepped in and agreed to recognize it voluntarily as the research assistants’ representative.

“This agreement was made to recognize the valuable contributions and important role research assistants play in advancing SFU’s research mission,” read a joint statement from the university and union Tuesday.

TSSU organizer Jade Ho said the agreement is the result of “a real show of collective power.”

research assistants, SFU
A demonstrator holds up a sign during a rally at SFU's Burnaby Mountain campus Thursday to celebrate the unionization of 1,500 research assistants. - Cornelia Naylor

“It really is because of all of our organizers on the ground every day, talking to people and signing 900 people,” she told the NOW.

Recognizing research assistants as employees of the university – something SFU has agreed to do by May – will be the first step toward a collective agreement.

By not recognizing them as employees, the union says SFU has offloaded employment responsibilities for research assistants onto research grant holders, who are often busy working academics without the time or expertise in employment standards to figure out fair benefits and compensation.

Ho said that has led to no guaranteed rights or benefits for research assistants; late, inconsistent or no pay; unclear or no contracts; substandard working conditions; and precarious employment.

A PhD student in the education faculty, Ho has been a research assistant for about five years. She currently has four different research assistantships, she said.

“One of my research assistantships is basically just cleaning my professor’s office,” she said. “There’s basically no standard. We don’t know how come for one of my research assistantships I get paid $15 an hour and the other one I get paid $25 an hour. All four of my research assistantships actually pay different.”

Some research assistants, including grad students working on their own theses, don’t get paid for their work at all, she said.

That’s not fair, according to Ho, because their work usually contributes to their supervisor’s research and the research outcomes for the university as well – especially in the sciences.

The union had support from faculty during its campaign.

research assistants, SFU
SFU research assistants and supporters rallied at the university's Burnaby Mountain campus Thursday to celebrate their unionization. - Cornelia Naylor

Sixty faculty members signed an open letter to the university endorsing unionization.

“Faculty at SFU benefit significantly from the often invisible work of RAs at the university,” states the letter. “As supervisors of research workers, we also stand to benefit from their unionization. Formal recognition of these workers as employees and of their right to bargain for a collective agreement will decrease the administrative burden expected of us as supervisors of this work, clarify employment relationships, and give RAs a much needed voice in determining their working conditions.”

During a union victory rally at the university’s Burnaby Mountain campus Thursday, history professor Roxanne Panchasi said the job uncertainty research assistants currently face is “not OK.”

“These things shouldn’t be left to individuals and individual faculty members to determine conditions, wages, these sorts of things in a kind of ad hoc way,” she said. “Everybody in these situations needs transparency, consistency and a map for what to do if and when things are not fair or go sideways.”

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