SFU’s Education Workers: Preventing Postsecondary Precarity

By Daniel Tseghay
Rankandfile.ca‘s BC writer/organizer

Last week, the Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) of Simon Fraser University, undertook three days of bargaining with the employer. The union, which represents Teaching Assistants (TAs), Tutor Markers (TMs), Sessional/Adjunct instructors, and English Language & Culture/Interpretation & Translation Instructors (ELC/ITP) settled one housekeeping item,” according to Reagan Belan, Chief Steward of the TSSU and a PhD student in the chemistry department, in a phone call with RankandFile.ca. Although this was the first agreement in 13 months of bargaining, and was a welcomed improvement, the more fundamental concerns of the union have remained unaddressed.TSSU_Fist_Inkscape_Vectorized

“We have been without a contract for just over a year now. TSSU’s concerns are the concerns of many public post secondary institutions across Canada and North America. We want to make sure that we have taken care of our precarious workers in terms of giving them [like Sessionals] some sort of seniority right,” says Belan of the instructors who teach roughly 25% of SFU courses. “We want to make sure they have job security and stability and don’t have to reapply for their careers every four months. We have some continuing workers [ELC/ITP instructors, part of SFU Lifelong Learning] who work out of Harbour Centre and do English language instruction and we want them to have the same breaks and benefits that are afforded to all SFU full-time employees. In terms of our graduate student TA workers we want to make sure they are supported in an academic sense while they pursue their degree.”

TSSU notes that an important disparity exists between continuing workers and co-workers like the administrative and clerical support staff. While the latter can access the full SFU benefits package, including health and dental benefits, sick leave, long term disability, professional development funding, pension, tuition waiver, and a minimum of 4 weeks of vacation time, continuing instructors receive only health and dental benefits, limited sick leave, restricted access to vacation, and no pension or tuition waiver.

TAships has decreased in the last 2 years, meaning the important goal of providing graduate students with both teaching experience and funding is being unmet. TSSU is also calling for a wage increase in keeping with ballooning costs in an unusually expensive city.

In light of these issues, the union membership took a took a strike vote in March of this year and there was 92% ‘yes’ strike mandate. The result is a series of actions.

“Now we’re at the point where our continuing instructors are doing an overtime ban,” Belan says regarding the act of workers longer performing overtime, highlighting the importance of hiring more continuing rather than simply making existing ones work longer. “We’re talking to our membership to form what our next steps are going to be. We are ramping up pressure but we haven’t quite figured out where we’re going to apply that pressure.”

While focused on this current and unfolding fight, Belan nonetheless situates negotiations in a broader struggle. We saw, for instance, a similar – and ultimately successful – push from striking education workers at York University. They were able to prevent the efforts of management to roll back tuition indexation, or increase tuition without raising funding packages.

The striking education workers, who are members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3903, were able to achieve tuition reductions for international graduate students, an increased funding package for graduate assistants, and a freeze on tuition during the course of the collective agreement. Belan sees TSSU’s concerns and demands as connected with those of York University students.

“SFU is not alone in the struggle of getting better rights for precarious workers, getting better access to work for graduate students,” says Belan. “This is something that’s happening across Canada. This is a common struggle. We’re all trying to fight against precariousness, the neoliberalization of postsecondary education. We’re trying to make sure that people who graduate from postsecondary have a job to go to that’s stable and is secure.”

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