Updates #18, #19, and #20: It’s time to mobilize! Anti-Harassment meets impasse

In February, the TSSU Contract Committee met with SFU Administration for three days of negotiations. The main focus of these bargaining sessions was the general articles which apply to all employees. Although we have reached agreement on a number of these articles, we have reached impasse or are close to impasse on a few of them. Further, on February 19th we received a counter-proposal from the Employer on our most recent position on Teaching Assistants and Tutor Markers. Once again, the Employer has failed to adequately address the concerns of our members critical issues around overwork, ever increasing class sizes, and the growth of mixed online and in-person teaching models. 

February’s update, in bullets: 

  1. Anti-Harassment meets impasse
  2. Our Academic Freedom proposal, for TAs, TMs, and GFs, is rejected by SFU Administration
  3. ELC/ITP management apologizes to instructors – but rejects employment equity
  4. TSSU and SFU Administration form a Professional Development working group
  5. Grievance Procedure Changes: SFU Administration wants employees to attend informal problem solves 
  6. SFU Administration presents their counter-proposal to Teaching Assistants, and continues to ignore power imbalances and workload issues

1. Anti-Harassment

The remaining disagreement on our Article 9, No Discrimination and No Harassment, is over a single phrase: “where circumstances warrant.” This phrase has been used to keep victims of harassment in workplace relationships with the person harassing them because it effectively allows SFU Administration to decide when a claim of harassment is important enough. It is not up to a department manager or chair to decide such matters on the spot, and TSSU wants this phrase gone from our contract. Those who experience harassment deserve safety in their workplace, and separation from those harassing them; this is not complicated, as occasional transfers and substitutions for work are a regular part of University operations. 

The change to this proposal would allow those being harassed to be separated from the harasser while their complaint is being investigated. This is a basic health and safety protection that will improve SFU, and SFU Administration has refused it: they want to decide when and where such action is appropriate. In their defense of this position, SFU Administration cited that a university wide dialogue around harassment is taking place, and that language around harassment doesn’t need to be included in each collective agreement.  

In response, TSSU’s Anti-Harassment Committee met on March 4th – with Contract, Member Mobilization, Solidarity and Social Justice, and Occupational Health and Safety in attendance – to discuss next steps. Watch for us to push back against this oppressive position; help us protect each other! 

It’s time to mobilize! Since we have reached impasse on Anti-Harassment, we are in the process of beginning a campaign to push SFU to meet our demands. To get involved, contact: tssu@tssu.ca or attend a weekly Membership Mobilization Committee meeting where we will be working on producing campaign materials and door knocking on this issue, contact: mmc_commissioner@tssu.ca

2. Academic Freedom

Academic freedom is critical for our members as it ensures “the freedom to examine, question, teach and learn, and it involves the right to investigate, speculate and comment without reference to prescribed doctrine, as well as the right to criticize the University, Association and society at large.” [1]

TSSU has proposed Academic Freedom language for our members – it has been directly copied from the current SFU policy for faculty – who argue that all community members have academic freedom already but will offer more security for our members if the language is in the Collective Agreement. SFU Administration explained their opposition to this proposal: according to SFU Administration, they see the need to include the language for ELC/ITP Instructors and Sessional Instructors since they are “academic staff,” but for TAs/TMs and GFs their academic freedom is fettered by their course supervisors. They also discouraged TSSU from “cherry picking rights and freedoms” from established SFU policy. They’ve insisted that we don’t need language in the contract because we have the right already – which seems a strange reason to reject a proposal, since SFU policy is controlled by the Board of Governors and can be changed without union consent. TAs, TMs, and GFs are a critical part of the academic teaching team at SFU and they deserve to be respected by including Academic Freedom rights into the Collective Agreement. 

[1] https://www.sfufa.ca/agreements-and-policies/quick-answers/collective-bargaining/ 

3. ELC/ITP – Email – Retraction

TSSU’s contract committee has proposed that all ELC/ITP instructors receive benefits, regardless of temporary or continuing status. Currently, temporary instructors are denied basic benefits such as paid sick days, despite the fact that half of the instructors are “temporary” and many have worked at SFU for *3 or more years*. To make the inequity more obvious, SFU Administrators and clerical staff in the department all *have these benefits*. This is not equity in the workplace and must be fixed. TSSU wants to end the two-tier system where pay and benefits are based on an arbitrary classification system and ensure  ELC/ITP instructors receive benefits comparable to the rest of the workers in the program. 

SFU Administration has said they plan to provide job security for instructors, but their proposals do not reflect this – instead, they ask temporary workers to commit to a year-long schedule without any improvement in their conditions of work. As the ELC/ITP instructors on our committee have said repeatedly, SFU Administration’s proposal expects a commitment from precarious workers and gives nothing in return; it should be providing support for teachers.

This situation got thorny at the end of January, when SFU Administration contacted ELC/ITP instructors and asked them to provide scheduling information for the next year, rather than a single semester (as is current practice). SFU Administration did not fulfill their obligation to consult the union. This email was not only distributed to continuing instructors, but also those labelled “temporary,” those same employees that SFU Administration refuses to provide health and leave benefits, or pay increases over years of service, or job security. Considering that SFU Administration has not altered their position on ELC/ITP in months — this is deeply inflammatory to negotiations — with the potential to mislead members, who might think a deal was in process or had been reached. In negotiations on February 13th, SFU Administration promised to retract this email which they followed through on and expressed a desire to collaborate and develop a scheduling process with TSSU; we commit to ensure this process is based on respect for instructors’ lives, both in and outside work.

4. Professional Development Working Group Formed

Because of the complexity of creating a paid training, orientation, and ongoing professional development program, and securing university funding for such an initiative, SFU Administration proposed that TSSU join them in a working group to explore the potential for our proposals to work within existing SFU initiatives. TSSU has not seen such “working groups” help change our workplace – past participation has yielded no significant results. However, in the interest of potentially moving negotiations forward, we have decided to participate in this “working group.” 

Get in touch with us if you are interested in joining this working group! Contact: contract@tssu.ca for further information!

5. Grievance Procedure Changes

SFU Administration has proposed changes to the Grievance Procedure; changes that the TSSU will never agree to. SFU Administration is arguing that employees must be present at informal problem solving meetings (and the Union may also attend); limiting the union’s capacity to solve informal problems on behalf of their members. The vast majority of the grievances that TSSU receives are solved at this stage, without the employee present. In most cases, the employee asks the union to try and solve the issue on their behalf – they don’t want to be part of the process at this stage due to complicated relationships between their supervisors and academic departments. Often the Member Advocate or one of the Chief Stewards will speak to the department chair or department manager and will resolve the issue. 

SFU Administration is arguing that our Collective Agreement is “too complex” for professors and department managers to understand, and wants to stop them from solving problems with the union. In practice, it has been the department who is best suited to solve many problems compared to Deans or Human Resources, because they have local knowledge, and can find better solutions. 

Such a change will have a detrimental effect on our members. The result will be a reduction in the number of informal problem solves by suppressing members from coming forward with grievances. This change will impede TSSU’s ability to solve problems, reinforce the power imbalance between employees and course supervisors, and will give more power to Deans and Human Resources.

6. TAs: SFU Administration continues to ignore power imbalances and workload issues

The Contract Committee voiced our concerns at the bargaining table on a number of issues with SFU Administrations most recent counter-proposal on TAs. SFU Administration continues to deny that a power imbalance exists between TAs and their employers, or graduate students and their academic departments.

SFU Administration has provided an unacceptable counter-proposal to TSSU’s proposal to include language around Head TAs – TAs who provide mentoring and/assistance to other TAs for a course. SFU Administration proposes to expand the definition to allow Head TAs to be assigned across a ‘group of related courses’ and to have their pay calculated on an hourly basis, rather than as a salary. Having a Head TA assigned to a group of related courses raises a number of concerns (e.g., What counts as a related course? Could these courses be taught by different Supervisors? Would there be additional preparation time?). These workload concerns are compounded by refusing to assign base units to Head TA duties, as all other TAs, but hours. A key demand of our members is to protect and improve the base unit (BU) system, which links salary to classroom time or number of students, both of which can be objectively measured. In a University system plagued by power imbalances, the BU system helps to protect against overwork. At the table, SFU Administration argued that departments require “flexibility” in assigning duties to Head TAs – they want to “avoid a fixed assignment of base units.”

Access to work is a key issue we are trying to protect in this round of bargaining for Tutor Markers (TM). Since 2019, SFU began transitioning distance education credit courses from the Centre for Online and Distance Education (CODE) to faculties. SFU has been using this transition as an excuse to violate the collective agreement, and has been assigning TAs — in some cases without preparation time — to distance education credit courses. Distance education credit courses are taught by TMs and compensated based on the number of registered students, regardless of who administers the course, and this is a right to work and compensation that TMs have had since the very first TSSU collective agreement signed in 1980. TSSU’s proposal on TAs seeks to address these changes by creating a unified compensation system which deals with distance education, in person, and blended courses each as a different style of teaching support staff work but deserving of the same underlying compensation. As students and number of hours of classroom contact increase, pay and associated workload both increase. 

Further, SFU Administration has refused to include language in the collective agreement on blended courses, and has instead proposed a Letter of Agreement (LOA) that essentially pays TAs in blended courses less than TAs in classroom based courses and TMs in online course by again turning to an hourly pay model. Mixing modes of delivery tends to lead to more work, and it is ridiculous that the University would propose to pay these workers less. Increasingly, distance education courses are being offered with in-person components. The LOA proposed by SFU Administration includes the creation of a joint Transition Workload Review Committee which would monitor compensation and workloads for blended courses. Teaching Assistants could file requests for the committee to review their workload (but only after they have gone through the current workload review process outlined in the collective agreement, a process that is clearly broken). The joint committee has no real authority since it can only make recommendations to Departments and it has no resources to provide additional compensation to Teaching Assistants.   

Upcoming Bargaining Dates
Please join us in bargaining! 

  • Thursday, March 26th from 9:30am-12:30pm, SFU Surrey (room TBD)
  • Tuesday, March 31st from 2pm-5pm, SFU Burnaby (room TBD)
  • Wednesday, April 1st from 1pm-5pm, SFU Burnaby (room TBD) 

If you have questions about bargaining, email your committee: contract@tssu.ca

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