On Nov. 26, 89 per cent of the Canadian Union of Public Employes 3906’s Unit 1 members voted in favour of ratifying a tentative agreement with the university, thus avoiding a strike. CUPE 3906 Unit 1 represents research and teaching assistants in both graduate and undergraduate programs at McMaster.
Voting began on Nov. 25, immediately following CUPE 3906’s Special General Membership Meeting. At this meeting, the new agreement between TAs and the university was presented to Unit 1 members.
According to CUPE 3906 president Nathan Todd, the union was able to secure a deal that met their main bargaining priorities, which included paid TA training, increased benefits and expanded paid pregnancy and parental leave.
“It's not accurate to say that TAs had most of their demands met, but we were able to secure a significant gain that members had identified as a big priority,” stated Todd in an email.
The full agreement between TAs and the university has not been released. However, CUPE 3906 released an overview of the agreement on Nov. 27.
The tentative agreement includes five additional hours of paid pedagogical and anti-oppression training for all TAs. In previous years, the collective agreement has allocated TAs three paid hours a semester to participate in health and safety and orientation training. According to CUPE 3906, this was not enough.
“Additional hours of paid pedagogical and anti-oppression training were the biggest gain insofar as it was one of the largest priorities identified by the membership. This gain speaks not only to improving our pay but also to improving our working conditions,” wrote Todd in an email.
“Additional hours of paid pedagogical and anti-oppression training were the biggest gain insofar as it was one of the largest priorities identified by the membership."
The tentative agreement also proposes a one per cent increase in wages for the next three years. Collective agreements usually mandate annual wage increases so that wages keep up with the rate of inflation. As of this month, yearly inflation in Ontario sits at 1.7 per cent.
During the bargaining process for the collective agreement, CUPE 3906 advocated against the one per cent wage cap. CUPE 3906 stated that the wage limit would cause harm to workers’ livelihoods because their wages would not keep up with the rate of inflation.
Todd cites Bill 124 — the Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act — as the reason TAs were limited to a one per cent increase in wages. Under Bill 124, which received Royal Assent on Nov. 7, salary increases to public employees are limited to one per cent for every twelve month period.
Currently, graduate and undergraduate TAs are paid $43.63 and $25.30 per hour, respectively. Under the tentative agreement, graduate and undergraduate TAs will receive $44.07 and $25.55 per hour beginning Sept. 1, 2020. Beginning Sept. 2021 they will receive $44.95 and $26.07 per hour.
Todd emphasized that while Bill 124 made negotiations difficult, he believes that CUPE 3906 got the best deal given the circumstances.
In addition to paid training and wages, the tentative agreement also expands paid pregnancy and family medical leave, and dedicates a fund towards supporting members seeking gender affirmation.
Todd emphasized that while Bill 124 made negotiations difficult, he believes that CUPE 3906 got the best deal given the circumstances.
“I hope our members and the broader McMaster community recognize that government and university policies which contribute to rising costs of living (including tuition) and precarious employment makes labour relations more difficult, and that such policies can be resisted and defeated by union and community members,” wrote Todd in an email.
The tentative agreement must now be ratified by McMaster’s Board of Governors, set to take place on Dec. 12. If ratified, the agreement will take immediate effect.
After unsuccessful negotiations on Nov. 5, the Canadian Union of Public Employees local 3906, the union representing McMaster Teaching Assistants, Research Assistants and other academic workers, announced that they are inching closer to calling a strike before the end of the month.
The announcement comes after months of labour negotiations between CUPE 3906 and the university. Since August, CUPE 3906 has been negotiating on behalf of McMaster TAs and RAs. They are represented under CUPE 3906 unit 1, one of the union’s three bargaining units.
In August, the employment contract for academic workers at McMaster expired, as it does every three years. The contract, called the collective agreement, outlines the rights and responsibilities of employers and employees, including rules about wages, work hours and benefits. When the collective agreement expired, the university and CUPE 3906 entered into collective bargaining to renegotiate the agreement on behalf of its members, giving the union a chance to push for improvements to their working conditions.
To prepare for negotiations, CUPE 3906 released a survey for its members to identify their bargaining priorities. One of CUPE’s main sets of bargaining priorities is centred around wages and work hours. Under the previous collective agreement, graduate TAs earned $43.63 per hour, and undergraduate TAs received $25.30 an hour. However, the agreement also states that they cannot work more than 260 hours a year, or more than 10 hours a week on average.
For graduate TAs, this results in a maximum of $11,343.80 a year. Nathan Todd, the president of CUPE 3906, pointed out that unless TAs have other means of financial support, such as scholarships, this maximum will not cover full-time tuition, which TAs must pay in order to maintain their conditions of employment.
Furthermore, says Todd, many TAs work above their hours. Between running tutorials, grading work and holding office hours, they can work above their hours without overtime pay.
One way that CUPE 3906 hopes to address this is by proposing to increase the minimum number of hours for TA contracts from 33 to 40. While this does not allow TAs to work more than the allotted 260 hours, it helps to increase the number of paid hours on short-term contracts.
Additionally, CUPE 3906 has stated that McMaster has proposed changes that will make it harder for TAs to take on additional guaranteed work hours. According to CUPE 3906 representatives, the university is proposing to remove language in the collective agreement that allows TAs to increase their number of guaranteed number hours if they get hired for additional work in their second year. The university has a policy not to discuss the content of ongoing labour negotiations, so representatives have not confirmed whether McMaster made this proposal.
Another bargaining priority is the implementation of university-wide paid TA training. Currently, the collective agreement between CUPE and the university allows TAs three paid hours a semester to participate in health and safety and orientation training, which is meant to provide new employees with general information about the university and resources available to them. The agreement states that orientation training can point new employees towards professional development resources that they would presumably have to access on their own time.
CUPE has stated that this is insufficient. Instead, the union has proposed five paid hours of pedagogical training and three hours of anti-oppression training.
“I don't think asking for training on how to do your job is unreasonable. It's the kind of thing you'd expect from any professional workplace,” said Todd.
CUPE’s proposals also include paid family medical leave, preference to Indigenous applicants for positions in the Indigenous Studies Program and protection against tuition increases.
According to Todd, the proposals that the university put forward during the Nov. 5 meeting did not speak to enough of the priorities that CUPE had raised. He also said the university’s proposals included concessions, where the employer takes back gains that had been made through bargaining in previous years.
“Those are the two things that we asked them to do at the end of the last negotiations to keep negotiations forward, because we can't accept a contract that has concessions,” said Todd.
McMaster representatives have not commented on the details of their proposed bargaining agreements.
In a historic vote on Sept. 26, 87 per cent of CUPE’s unit 1 membership voted to authorize a strike. The positive strike vote allows the bargaining team to call a strike if they are unsatisfied with the deal that the university offers them during negotiations.
After another unsuccessful bargaining meeting on Nov. 5, CUPE announced that they are inching ever closer to declaring a strike.
Gord Arbeau, director of communications at McMaster, said that in the case of a strike, the university would remain open and exams would still be scheduled. He stated that the university is undergoing contingency planning to determine how to mitigate the impacts of a potential strike, but did not elaborate on what these strategies would entail.
McMaster has an existing policy that outlines the rights and responsibilities of undergraduate students in the case of work stoppages. According to the policy, undergraduate students are entitled to withdraw from academic activities during a work stoppage, and cannot be penalized academically for doing so. However, they still must meet course requirements, and have the right to extended deadlines, make-up assignments and other alternative arrangements. Furthermore, students who feel that the disruption has unreasonably affected their grades may submit appeals.
A strike would also have significant effects on TAs and RAs. According to Todd, if a strike were initiated, unit 1 members would stop receiving payment and some benefits from the university. Striking members would cease duties related to their employment, including tutorials, labs, grading and email correspondence with students. However, unit 1 members would be eligible for strike pay. CUPE 3906 offers $15 an hour of tax-free strike pay to striking members for 20 hours a week, which amounts to up to $300 a week.
On Nov. 18 and 19, CUPE 3906 will meet with university representatives for a mediation session in a final attempt to negotiate a collective agreement. If they are unable to reach a deal, CUPE 3906 will be in a position to call a strike.
According to Arbeau, the university is hopeful about the upcoming meeting.
“We remain hopeful that an agreement that is responsible and reflective of the important work that the membership does [and] hopeful that an agreement can be reached without a work stoppage,” he said.
CUPE 3906 also hopes to come to a fair deal in order to avoid a strike.
In a statement from Nov. 9, CUPE 3906 wrote “We remain eager to reach a fair agreement that reflects your priorities ahead of this deadline, and hopeful that the employer’s entire bargaining team will come to the table on the 19th ready to do the same.”
Ryan Sparrow / The Silhouette
While students are wrapping up their courses and gearing up for exams, negotiations are underway for contract renewal for sessional faculty members.
"Sessional faculty face a myriad of other problems, including the inadequacy of TA support, the rising cost of child care and a lack of decent health benefits," said Alex Diceanu, a sessional faculty member who teaches in Political Science and Labour Studies.
CUPE 3906, the union that represents the approximately 300 sessional faculty at McMaster, is negotiating for its membership. The bargaining team for the sessionals recognizes that things need to change at McMaster.
“The biggest issue this round is job security,” said the union’s president Blake McCall, who did his undergrad and masters degrees at McMaster
“Many members have to apply for their job every four months, with some exceptions. This creates high levels of uncertainty leaving many sessionals without knowing if they are going to have a steady income on a semester-to-semester basis. Changing this to ensure security of our members is a top priority.”
Sessional faculty members, like many contingent faculty, are hired on a course-by-course basis, which makes it difficult to make long-term personal decisions like purchasing a home or starting a family.
As of 2013, Ontario still ranks the last in per-student funding at universities in Canada. The most recent budget announced is expected to include additional cuts to post-secondary education despite record enrollment.
One common cost-cutting measure for universities is to rely on increasing numbers of lower paid part-time faculty.
Continued budget cuts have resulted in a casualization of the academic sector. While some academic workers still have a relatively secure position, such as tenured professors, there has have been efforts to erode even their relative power in institutions.
The growth of precarious work in academia is accelerating. A University Affairs report from January 2013 states that, in the U.S., one-third of faculty at universities are contract workers. Experts suggest that Canadian data may indicate similarly high rates.
The UA report specifically looks at job insecurity, pay and benefits. Out of the nine schools surveyed, McMaster is one out of three that have no teaching load limit. McMaster sessionals also have no access to a pension and only have access to benefits through their union membership.
Temporary and part-time faculty are paid on average 50 per cent less than tenured professors, and they lack the job security and academic freedom that is afforded to tenured professors.
Most of the part-time and temporary positions are solely confined to teaching-only work, which can have an effect on learning outcomes for students, especially as their professor may also have to engage in additional research.
Gord Arbeau, a university spokesperson, described how, “McMaster values the important work that is performed by all employees at the University and believes all employees deserve fair and equitable contracts.”
“Negotiations work best when they happen at the table and not through the media or other avenues of communication,”said Arbeau.
Students are seeing the effect this has on their professors, and they are concerned.
"I think largely decreasing levels of tenure being made available to professors is an unfortunate trend for academia as a whole," said Eric Gillis, incoming SRA Social Science representative.
“As in any round of bargaining we hope to better job security, and better wages and benefits for our members,” said McCall.