Research assistants at Simon Fraser University are locked in a bitter three-year-long fight to win benefits, pensions and higher pay following years of frustration over mounting costs and stagnant pay.
That fight is being closely watched by graduate students at the University of British Columbia, who are trying to unionize 10,000 student workers at the school’s Vancouver campus in a six-month blitz.
Union leaders at both schools see their campaigns as part of a larger push for consistent and adequate pay in a region where high housing costs and runaway inflation is forcing students to take second jobs and visit food banks to make ends meet.
“The picture is grim for our members,” said Teaching Support Staff Union, or TSSU, steward Amal Vincent.
The union represents teaching assistants and other workers at SFU and has been at the forefront of a three-year fight to win basic labour protections for research assistants, who often make less than minimum wage because of how their contracts have been structured by the university.
That was the spark for a parallel effort at UBC, where Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 2278 is trying to get thousands of research workers to sign union cards — something that would more than triple their existing membership of about 3,000 workers.
Local 2278 president Phyllis Pearson says would-be members are frustrated by wide disparities in pay for research workers, whose salaries can ultimately depend on their supervisor and luck of the draw.
“People get paid pretty different amounts to do the same job, and there’s no regulations on that,” Pearson told The Tyee last month.
“Research assistant” is a broad term for a broad job. Typically, professors at universities like SFU directly hire students to support research on any number of projects, some backed by federal funding councils. That could encompass anything from digging through archives to testing samples in a lab. In some cases, the salary range is determined largely by that investigator, rather than an established pay scale. For many, those on-campus union jobs are the only way they can afford to attend school in the Metro Vancouver area.
“If I wasn’t getting paid for the research I do, I would never be able to afford the program,” UBC master of botany student Gracy Buckholtz told The Tyee in November.
UBC has said little about the unionization drive. But some student workers are uneasily watching SFU, where the university and the union have yet to sign a collective agreement more than 1,000 days after they went to the bargaining table.
Vincent says the two parties have hit a “virtual impasse,” largely because the university argues a significant portion of the approximately 1,500 research assistants are not employees, but recipients of scholarships.
Historically, that distinction has meant research workers at SFU did not receive medical benefits. Their pay was considered a stipend, not a salary, meaning there was no guarantee their compensation was commensurate with the province’s minimum wage.
Vincent says it also spawned a litany of other issues. In some cases, student researchers have battled with faculty over intellectual property rights for what they make and produce. And in 2019, a biology student suffered a traumatic brain injury on the job, but was initially denied worker’s compensation on the basis they were not technically an employee. (WorkSafeBC agreed to hear their case regardless, arguing they met the definition.)
The school and the Teaching Support Staff Union got off to a promising start. In November 2019, SFU agreed to voluntarily recognize eligible research assistants as members of the union.
Normally, a union would get would-be members to sign union cards and then begin a certification process at the BC Labour Relations Board, which would include determining which workers fall inside the union’s scope.
But employers and unions sometimes opt for a “voluntary” process, which is seen as less confrontational. At the time, SFU agreed to provide a prospective list of people who were then union members by May 2019.
That never happened, and the relationship between the two parties rapidly deteriorated. Vincent says SFU claimed roughly 800 research assistants in the departments of science and applied sciences were not covered by the agreement. That led to months of mediation and then arbitration, resulting in a Sept. 13, 2022 decision that found SFU had violated its contractual obligations to the union.
“Some of it was disagreement with what SFU had agreed with TSSU and a belief graduate student research personnel would not benefit from union representation and coverage by a collective agreement,” arbitrator James Dorsey wrote. “Definitional and other choices were made without consulting TSSU as a fully participating party to the agreement. The result was to limit the scope and diminish the number of persons considered by SFU to be Included Persons and a failure to fully perform its contractual obligations.”
Dorsey ordered SFU to identify all staff receiving grants or scholarships who should be classified as employees by the first day of the 2023 spring term.
But the union and school still disagree on which workers those are, which has hindered progress at the bargaining table.
Vincent says his interpretation of the results is that all but a few “true scholarship” recipients are employees.
In a prepared statement, SFU’s director of labour relations Christine Palak wrote that the school had contacted the arbitrator to “seek clarification on points within the decisions, which SFU and the TSSU interpret differently.”
“Our proposals demonstrate our unwavering commitment to ensuring TSSU members are deemed employees where appropriate. However, we have an interpretive difference with regards to how the award defines employment, versus scholarship, with respect to research,” she wrote.
Vincent says SFU’s most recent counter-offer to the union included a clause allowing them to reverse their proposal if their understanding of the arbitrator’s decision changes.
Vincent says he has also been advising CUPE 2278 as members launch their own unionization drive at UBC — a massive effort involving hundreds of volunteers and thousands of prospective union members.
Pearson says roughly 300 people are co-ordinating the union drive, which includes research assistants as well as students employed under UBC’s Work Learn program, which provides part-time on-campus jobs exclusively available to students.
Unlike at SFU, many of those workers are already recognized as employees and pay into benefit and pension programs as required by law. But Pearson says many research assistants still face issues around salary transparency and expected working hours — unlike teaching assistants who are already part of the union.
“We have [policies] for teaching assistants, so there are limits on how many hours you’re required to work in a week, for example. That’s all made explicit. So for some of these jobs, there are no limitations,” Pearson said.
Previously, such union drives required 45 per cent of workers on a job site to sign a membership card and then take a vote before a union could be certified.
But B.C. recently changed certification requirements allowing workers to unionize immediately if 55 per cent of workers sign a card, without requiring a vote.
If it succeeds, the union drive at UBC would kick off collective bargaining with the school and herald significant change for how it runs student work programs.
A statement from UBC spokesperson Matthew Ramsey said that the university respects the rights of workers to organize.
Master’s student Buckholtz said the campaign is particularly important after the toll COVID-19 took on student workers during the years when in-class learning was intermittently suspended. She says that caused extra impacts on workers who had to do their job from home, often fielding concerns from fellow students.
“I never want this labour or organizing to be put as anti-university,” she said. “It’s just that I want to make this place better.”