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It’s been more than two years since research assistants at Simon Fraser University became the first in Western Canada to form a union, but they have not yet received their first contract, says the union representing them.

SFU’s Teaching Support Staff Union, representing about 1,500 RAs, is urging the B.C. university’s administration to accelerate the bargaining process in hopes of reaching a collective agreement before the summer. The union says its members have struggled with inconsistent pay, job security and no access to health benefits for long enough. The spring semester concludes this month.

“It’s really disappointing,” said Lillian Deeb, TSSU member representative.

“We anticipated it finishing a year ago, but the process has been delayed so much. So I feel really frustrated. I know members feel very frustrated.”

In November, 2019, SFU agreed to recognize the union voluntarily as the bargaining agent for research assistants, and will classify RAs as employees of the university. But the collective bargaining on the RAs’ first contract, initially scheduled to begin May, 2020, was delayed repeatedly.

Will Henderson, a spokesperson for SFU, said in a statement the university values and appreciates its research assistant staff and it remains committed to reaching a fair agreement as quickly as possible.

He added the process for negotiating a first collective agreement is complex. He said it has taken longer than anticipated for many reasons, including the diversity of the work that RAs perform, as well as disagreements at the bargaining table.

He said both parties met with an arbitrator in January to discuss how to manage and resolve their difference. An arbitration process has been scheduled for July and August.

Mr. Henderson noted all RAs that are considered employees under the B.C. Labour Relations Code have been transferred into the employee category at SFU.

Ms. Deeb disagreed, saying “a large portion of workers” that were specifically included in the agreement have not been transferred. She pointed out that the definition of an SFU RA is at the core of the dispute in the coming arbitration. The union wants the definition to be broadened.

Many RAs at SFU are the university’s graduate students.

Jade Ho, a research assistant at SFU and a PhD student in education, said about 600 to 800 RAs who are paid through stipend have not been recognized as employees. She said she had many RA jobs since 2014 and all of them are different, inconsistent and some aren’t well-defined. As an international student, she’s still paying health premiums in B.C., which is $75 a month.

“We as research assistants are the backbone of a research-heavy university. … And I think that it’s a very important work force for the university, and just the fact that we continue to be exploited, like this, personally, I feel very frustrated and upset,” Ms. Ho said.

According to union members, the university’s monetary proposal includes $17-an-hour minimum wage.

“We want a just contract. So far in bargaining, the university has not offered anything I think that shows that they value this group of very important workers at SFU,” Ms. Ho said.

Sherry Young, a PhD student who’s partly funded through research assistantships, scholarships and teaching, said she earns $535 on a biweekly basis and works an average of 70 hours a week.

Ms. Young said SFU RAs have been invited throughout this campaign to share their experience with their supervisors and departments. She noted there are many instances of toxic and abusive behaviours from supervisors toward their RAs.

“A contract would significantly draw a clear line between what is not acceptable and what is,” she said.

Ms. Deeb said teaching assistants, or TAs, and research assistants have been treated differently because TAs have long been unionized. At SFU, there’s been more than 40 years of collective bargaining to get better working conditions for TAs.

Though SFU is the first university in Western Canada to voluntarily recognize union representation for RAs, several other universities in Canada have done so, such as McGill in Montreal, and Queen’s and McMaster in Ontario.

Phyllis Pearson, president of CUPE 2278 that represents TAs, tutors and markers at University of British Columbia, said SFU RAs’ unionization is inspirational to other postsecondary institutions in B.C.

She said her union would love to represent the RAs at UBC, but that has not yet happened.

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