About 100 members of the Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) at Simon Fraser University walked the picket line at the Surrey campus Thursday as an “indefinite teaching work stoppage” began at all SFU campus locations.
“This means that TSSU members may not hold classes, tutorials or labs, invigilate exams, grade or correspond with students at any campus or online beginning Sept. 28,” according to a post on SFU’s website.
Liam Kennedy-Slaney, the chief steward organizer for union and a PhD student at SFU, says the strike is deeply personal. It is a struggle, he says, to keep up with his thesis, work and graduate seminars while also teaching support work that he says is not fairly compensated. And Kennedy-Slaney says many other graduate students who are teaching support express the same concerns.
“The TSSU represents the labourers on campus who perform upwards of 50 per cent of the teaching work at Simon Fraser University,” he said.
The union has been negotiating a new collective agreement with the university since November 2022. The university and the TSSU have met 41 times since, according to a post on SFU’s website.
“The university has requested additional bargaining dates beginning next week and reiterated its request for twice-weekly meetings until an agreement is reached,” stated the univeristy. “SFU’s bargaining team continues to look for solutions to present to TSSU to resolve collective bargaining, avoid further job action and reach a fair deal with Collective Bargaining Unit members when the TSSU is prepared to return to the bargaining table.”
The TSSU initially voted to strike in May and picketed the three SFU campuses over the summer. At that point, it had been more than a year since its collective agreement had expired and the bargaining sessions were not productive, Kennedy-Slaney said.
Kennedy-Slaney said the union wants their members to be paid a living wage.
“We want wages that sort of reflect a cost of living adjustment,” he said. “We don’t want our wage increases to all be clawed back by inflation and have our members be effectively taking a cut.”
The TSSU is also calling for an end to what it calls “wage theft.” This would mean modernizing the current compensation model. The current model reflects how much time they spend with the students in tutorials or office hours. It does not reflect the number of students they have in their class.
“A lot of the work that we do is grading or fielding emails or responding to questions and the more students that are in a class, the more work that becomes,” Kennedy-Slaney said.
Lastly, the union wants sessional instructions to have “secure and easy pathways” for sessional instructors. Some of these instructors have worked at the university for more than 10 years and often have to apply for the same job.
The school says it is constrained by the funding it receives from the provincial government.
In British Columbia, public sector institutions bargain under a shared mandate, meaning every union receives a roughly equal deal.
This year, that was a three-year agreement that included a raise of 3.24 per cent in the first year, plus a 0.25 per cent wage boost. The proposed wage gains were up to 6.75 per cent in the second year and 3.3 per cent in the third year, depending on the rate of inflation.
The TSSU is among the last public sector unions in the province that have not accepted a variation of that deal.
Kennedy-Slaney said the strike is disruptive but necessary.
“It is nothing compared to the daily disruption that comes from having a tutorial leader who is precarious and constantly worried about where their rent money’s going to come from.”
For its part, SFU says it wants to find a quick resolution.
“The university cares about the academic success of our students, supporting our outstanding faculty and staff and nurturing a thriving, world-class research environment,” says a post on SFU.ca. “We are focused on resolving this difficult situation as quickly as possible.”
The TSSU will picket SFU’s Vancouver campus on Friday (Sept 29) and Burnaby’s on Tuesday (Oct 3).
-With files from Zak Vescera