Update #10 and #11: Levelling the power imbalance between employers and employees

Monday, September 16, 2019 & Thursday, September 19, 2019

This week’s negotiations focused on Teaching Assistants, more than 1,000 teachers who deliver laboratory, tutorial, workshop, and studio instruction at SFU every semester. TSSU had previously presented our proposals for TAs multiple times, including a detailed explanation May 14th, but this week SFU Administration brought their counter-offers to the union. In total, their proposals dramatically undermine the pay structure for Teaching Assistants at SFU, cut financial support for graduate students, and show little appreciation of the power imbalance that exists between TAs and their employers, or graduate students and their academic departments. SFU Administration also said no to TSSU’s proposals to address TA overwork, ensure a fair compensation system, and improve the transparency of the hiring process, among others. We ask members to attend our next General Meeting on Tuesday, Sept 24, 11:30-1:30 pm in the SFSS Forum Chambers (MBC 2901) on Burnaby Campus for further information, or to ask any questions they may have about bargaining.


The proposals brought forward by SFU Administration on Monday:

  1. Cut TA pay for appointments with fewer than 13 weeks of teaching— after pushback from TSSU on September 16, on September 19 this proposal was withdrawn;
  2. Decrease graduate student priority for TA work by 20%;
  3. Allow appointment cancellation 3 weeks into the semester, with negligible compensation;
  4. Assign TAs additional work to mentor other TAs without increasing compensation.
  5. For Sessionals, Administration also proposed allowing courses to be cancelled up until the end of week 3 with minimal compensation. 

The negotiating team of Human Resources continues to lack an understanding of the everyday working conditions of teachers in TSSU. Monday, for example, the SFU Administration insisted that a TA substituting for a lecture required no time to prepare and that TAs have the responsibility to be vocal when asked to perform an excessive workload. When pressed by TSSU to explain the reasoning for such sweeping changes to TA pay, SFU Administration claimed that, in some cases, they did not “intend” to decrease compensation, while in other sections of the contract they suggested that decreases in compensation would be offset by gains in other areas. Our membership has been clear that a “net-zero”  bargaining environment is unacceptable and that we need real improvements in our working conditions. 

TSSU has proposed to improve TA work by:

  1. Ensuring that increased class sizes come with more hours of work and pay;
  2. Mandating the University to provide training and support;
  3. Increasing the available hours for laboratory and other appointments where overwork is a systemic issue;
  4. Compensating for overwork without requiring TAs to appeal to their departments;
  5. Creating a right to time free from work around thesis defences; 
  6.  Reserving time in contracts to attend lectures and respond to student email;
  7.  Excluding exam creation from TA duties;
  8.  Compensating TAs who prepare and deliver lectures;
  9.  Regulating departmental priority systems that determine access to TA work; 
  10. Allowing TAs to turn down substitution duties within a course; and
  11. Ensuring appointments to hybrid, flex and blended classrooms are paid on a comparable basis to other appointments with student contact.

Hundreds of members had input on our proposals through a detailed consultation and approval process, culminating in a unanimous vote at a general meeting in February 2019. We believe that strong membership involvement in bargaining will give us the best chance to reach a fair collective agreement. SFU Administration has yet to propose solutions to, or often even to acknowledge the existence of, the problems facing TAs, but our membership is committed to achieving real improvements in our working conditions, as we did through collective bargaining in 2012 and 2015.

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