“I didn’t get involved involved with the Union until after my first year at SFU,” said Lia,* a former Research Assistant who spoke with the Teaching Support Staff Union. “I was a Teaching Assistant for my first two semesters and had taken advantage of some of the benefits offered to union members. Tuition deferment was a big one for me. I had just moved across the country to do a PhD and paying off ever-increasing tuition over the course of the semester significantly limited my financial burden. I was surprised to discover, in my third semester, that this wasn’t offered to RAs. I scrambled to find a TAship so I that could defer my tuition. I was lucky: I found one. But without that I would have been in trouble.”
(PULLQUOTE: An RAship is like a blackbox)
Worries like Lia’s common. Many graduate students struggle to pay their way through school, and RA’s at SFU face a host of challenges their colleagues working as TAs or Tutor Markers do not. RAs are not even on the same payroll system as TAs, Professors, and other university workers. Terrence experienced non-payment during his first semester as an RA. “I was surprised how informal the payment system is at SFU,” he told TSSU. “As a TA you know what to expect. As an RA I went through weeks of non-payment as I continued working. It’s the clarity and protection of TA work that I appreciated most. It’s nice to have people in the union that can help you or a collective agreement to consult. Why is everything about being an RA so opaque? An RAship is like a blackbox.”
Unionization would establish a formal relationship between the university as employer, and the RA as worker, which among other things would move RAs onto a more reliable pay system, provide RAs union protection, and define clear rules for work. As Bascom Guffin from the Department of Anthropology notes: “ Without any checks in place, it can be very easy for the time and energy demands that faculty place on TAs and TMs to impinge on graduate students’ own learning programs. This is a structural issue, and even the most well-meaning of faculty can do this, so having a union with the power to negotiate and enforce contractual employment obligations is important for protecting grad student workers and ensure they are able to successfully pursue their educations—which is, again, the overwhelmingly primary reason they are here in the first place.”
(PULLQUOTE: I was being disciplined… for doing the right thing!)
The lack of protection for current RAs is something that bad managers and supervisors have exploited. Mackenize recounts a dangerous incident in an SFU lab where lives were put at risk. “One night during my PhD, I noticed a very unsafe condition in a laboratory space at SFU; a contractor had left a loaded high-pressure compressed gas cylinder with the regulator attached that was not secured and could potentially fall over resulting in a projectile that would blow through foot thick concrete walls, certainly killing anyone in its path. I ensured no one else was in the area and reported this safety incident via SFU’s protocol.
“I was soon called in for a meeting with SFU Managers and SFU safety personnel. Although they agreed the situation was unsafe, Safety Personnel stayed silent while Management berated me for reporting the incident. I was being disciplined and told I was one strike away from being expelled from SFU because I did the right thing!
“Before that meeting, I was a star student with a major NSERC scholarship who believed in SFU. After, I knew I could never live with myself working for the university and have been building an exit plan from academia.” Mackenzie continues: “when my payment was late as a TA, on the other hand, TSSU got me a cheque from the university for the full amount within 72 hours. If I had the same protection when I was an RA, I would never been disciplined for reporting unsafe working conditions.”
(PULLQUOTE: I am TSSU/ Union)
For Lia, Terrence, and Mackenize, the union provided protection, support, and clarity. “Knowing what the union could offer against un-unionized working conditions was a big reason that I became involved with TSSU,” Lia told us. “When I did, I found a home. I participated in union meetings, and had my voice heard in important discussions over wages and working conditions. Because of my suggestions, the union even changed the way one of its committees worked!”
TSSU operates under a directly democratic structure, which allows members to set the direction, politics, and agenda of the union: direct democracy means that TSSU is run by its membership. We set the agenda, make the important decisions, and protect other members when they need it. Now, as RAs are attempting to unionize with TSSU, they look forward not only to fight for better working conditions but democratically deciding what their union looks like. As Lia concludes: “I am TSSU.”
* All the names in this story have been changed to protect against retaliation from SFU.