This FAQ was posted & used on our website during our unionization campaign in Fall 2019. We are working on an updated FAQ for 2020. In the meantime, if you have a question visit our Contact Us page!
What union would RAs be joining?
The Teaching Support Staff Union. Founded at SFU in 1978, TSSU is an independent and non-hierarchical union that runs on a model of direct democracy. This means that, as an organization, TSSU follows the wishes and direction of all members as articulated during general membership meetings (which are held three times a semester, once on each campus) and union-wide votes. As members of TSSU, RAs will help determine the union’s agenda and vote on any and all major decisions. Every worker in BC has the legal right to join a union, regardless of their status.
What is a union?
Unions are organizations made up of working people in the same or similar jobs. Their purpose is to allow workers to collectively improve their lives. Unions emphasize workplace democracy by giving their members a greater voice in their jobs. They do this by bringing workers into decision-making roles in the union, conducting votes and gathering opinions on how the union and workplace should be run.
Unions represent their members in a variety of ways, most notably by negotiating a Collective Agreement with the employer through the process of collective bargaining. TSSU’s current CA can be found here. If the employer fails to live up to the terms of the CA, the union also represents, protects, and advocates for its workers through the grievance process.
TSSU is a social movement union, which means that beyond these formal processes, TSSU advocates for workers and our community through other initiatives such as social events, childcare bursaries, stipended committees, community partnerships, and more!
Why do we need a union?
This is also covered in our Why Unionize page. A labour union is the best way that we RAs, as workers, can advocate for ourselves in labs and the community. Without a union, we’re isolated individuals subject to the whims of our supervisor or funding agency. With one, we’re a collective force to be reckoned with. Unionization would allow RAs to negotiate a fair contract, access the support and advocacy of TSSU, and maintain equitable, safe, and respectful working conditions. It would grant RAs a greater voice in their working conditions.
This is important for many reasons. RAs at SFU currently have no job protection: we can be fired for almost any reason. Even consistent RA work at SFU is precarious, as non-payment is a common occurrence—RAs are not on the same payroll system as TAs, Professors, and other university workers. Unionization would establish a formal relationship between the university as the employer and RAs as workers. It would also establish rules that would solve uncomfortable negotiations between supervisors and their students—uncomplicating what should be a supervisory relationship and protecting union members against harassment.
What would our contract look like?
Our RA contract would look like what we want it to look like. As a collective movement of Research Workers here at SFU, we would come together as part of TSSU to outline what aspects of our jobs we want to protect and what needs to be improved. As a direct democracy, all important TSSU decisions are made by the membership. We would decide our contract together as RAs—one member, one vote.
As workers, aren’t RAs protected by government legislation?
Shockingly, no. At least not in large part. SFU improperly categorizes many RAs as non-workers. As a result, a lot of us do not have access to health and safety rights, including the right to refuse unsafe work or access to compensation processes should they be injured.
Why aren’t we currently classified as workers?
To understand who is and is not a worker, it’s necessary to consider who directs your work, who compensates you (whether it be salary, scholarship, or other consideration), and who establishes the policies that you must follow. In the case of grant employees, work direction is provided by an SFU employee, typically a faculty member, SFU pays you through a payroll system it administers, and the University sets all the policies which you must follow. So, on all three counts, you are an SFU employee being managed by another SFU employee.
As an employer, SFU benefits from our precarity. Denying that RAs conduct work means that they can be subject to unpaid overtime, harassment, and arbitrary dismissal without the benefits afforded workers under provincial and federal labour law or the protection that comes with being a member of a union. SFU has recognized that its Community Advisors in residence, who are compensated through rooms and a stipend, are employees, so why aren’t the thousands of us who do the research that support SFU as a research institution?
Which RAs can sign a card to unionize?
If you’re working this semester as a Research Assistant (Graduate, Undergraduate, lab managers, grant employee, etc) and being compensated, then you can sign. This includes those graduate student workers received an RA Top-up. One way to check is to log in to myinfo.sfu.ca and see research is listed anywhere in your earnings, or your business title. There are many other situations which count as well, so please get in touch no matter what.
How can I sign a card?
You can either
When is the last day to sign?
November 21, 2019.
If I sign a card, am I in the union?
No, at least not yet. It’s the first of two steps in British Columbia’s unionization process. RAs need to sign cards first, then there is an in person secret ballot vote held by the BC Labour Relations board. A majority of those voting must vote in favour before RAs are certified as part of the Union. The campaign summary section has more information on card signing.
When will the representation vote be?
If at least 45% of RAs sign cards by November 21, then those cards will be delivered to BC Labour Relations Board who will arrange for a vote to be held within 5 business days. The makes the vote during the last week of November, most likely November 28.
How can I get involved?
Visit the Get Involved page on this site
Call or text us: 778-751-6259; or call our office 778-782-4735
Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Drop in at our Burnaby campus office: AQ5129 & AQ5130.
Will unionizing make it so all RAs are paid at the same rate?
Once we unionize and begin bargaining for a Collective Agreement, it will be an option for RAs to negotiate a wage floor. BC’s Employment Standards Act Minimum Wage should already apply to RA wages, but we know that at this moment some RAs are being paid illegally, at a rate below minimum wage.
Will unionizing create a minimum wage for all RAs? Will there be a maximum number of hours I can work?
If an RA works an amount over that agreed number of hours, it is up to the RA to voluntarily file a grievance with the union if they decide that they have been exploited. However, if the RA considers those additional hours as part of their studies or research, they are free to put in as many as they choose.
Will unionizing affect my completion time?
RAs becoming part of the union will not affect your ability to complete your studies. What it affects is the ability for work to be demanded from you. In some cases, the distinction between ‘work’ work and ‘academic’ work is well defined, but in many the line is unclear. One example of this is when, in a lab setting, it is indistinguishable which parts of your work contribute directly to your thesis and which do not.
Unionization may not resolve all of these ambiguities—duties around lab maintenance, for instance, may be necessary for your thesis but also clearly extend beyond your academic project—but a contract clearly defining the duties and expectations of employees (RAs), managers (supervisors), and the employer (SFU) will go a long way to ensuring that your work is properly paid.
Will unionizing mean my wages are taxed?
Wages are always taxed, now and in the future. However, compensation can be in the form of scholarships, which may in part be non-taxable. Unionizing prevents the employer from changing the terms and conditions of employment during negotiation, and right now SFU could change RA stipends from scholarship to wages, should it choose to do so. Unionizing is the only way to have a collective voice to protect scholarship guarantees and advocate for increases.
What will our benefits package look like?
We believe all RAs deserve benefits, including but not limited to sick days, health and dental coverage, and tuition deferment. Those are all things that must be negotiated; and our ability to win them will depend on our collective strength. That’s why it is so important that RAs sign up and support the organizing campaign.
Will TSSU force RAs to go on strike?
Of course not! The actions we take together as a union, including whether to take job action or go on strike, is decided by the you, the membership. In TSSU, every member has one vote on every major union decision, and the union executive has no more power than any of the members.
If TSSU goes on strike, what will job action look like for RAs?
Job action is a phrase used to describe a form of striking that does not include picketing. Often more creative in form, it is intended to put pressure on the employer while limiting the impact on the public as much as possible
Job action at TSSU is planned and implemented by and for our general membership. For teaching employees, job action has primarily taken the form of withholding small parts of our work critical to the functioning of the university. This puts pressure on the employer to agree to our demands, while members continue to be paid as well as make progress on their degrees.
The form that any job action would take would ultimately be up to our membership to devise, but we know that our tactics will maximize the pressure on SFU’s administration while minimizing the effect on RAs and their studies. Job action while bargaining for a first Collective Agreement is also very rare.
If we go on strike, would I be prevented from working in my lab?
TSSU understands that some RA work has unique challenges, particularly where experiments need to be maintained regularly. We all make decisions about job action or striking collectively and the goal is always to put pressure on the employer, not to prevent you from working, and especially not from completing your studies. How to deal with particular circumstances is something that we collectively decide, should it ever come to that.
Will unionizing implement a seniority or priority system for RA appointments?
Access to work can be negotiated in our first Collective Agreement. The system for RA hiring will likely be different from TAs have won. It will be designed by and for RAs. There’s a lot of variation across campuses in RA hiring at the moment. In departments with guaranteed funding, there is effectively an informal system similar to TA priority within lab groups. In other places it is common to renew an RA’s employment every semester until they’ve completed their studies. Other RA positions are one-off appointments which lack any formal structure.
Some RAs have voiced concerns that, with unionization, supervisors may choose to hire from outside of their department or even from outside campus. This is not the case. In fact, without a CA, hiring from outside the department or the university can and does happen, whenever and wherever project leads desire, and certainly without our say. Once we unionize and begin bargaining for our first CA, RAs can advocate for a hiring system that reduces the precarity we face in present and future employment with SFU.
Will unionizing make it unaffordable for my supervisor to hire RAs?
SFU has built its reputation on research and receives about $140 million a year in grants to do that research. We know from similar situations in which RAs have unionized that university administrators will make the argument that research will stop, but this is demonstrably false. Research Assistants are unionized at McGill, McMaster and Queens. Postdoctoral Fellows are organized at even more canadian universities. Research still happens at those universities after their RAs were able to achieve basic employee rights and benefits, and it will continue at SFU as well.
If your supervisor is truly running out of funds, then unionizing protects you from being forced to work without without pay and gives you an avenue to advocate for fair treatment. It doesn’t prevent you from completing your studies. One of the advantages of unionizing is that we can collectively advocate for SFU administration to contribute funding for RAs when grants run out, since it is ultimately the whole university that benefits from RA work. As it stands, RAs currently have little recourse when grant funding disappears. What unionizing changes is the ability for RAs to collectively advocate for protections for our work and funding.