Photo C/O Sandy Shaw's Constituency Office 

Sandy Shaw, the Member of Provincial Parliament for Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas, has returned home from a stint at Queen’s Park. Before the winter break, the Conservatives drove Bill 124 through the House on Nov. 8, a move that has been widely criticized.

“It’s been a long week of fighting for hardworking people in the province of Ontario,” said Shaw.

As a member of the New Democratic Party and the representative for the riding in which McMaster sits, Shaw knows student issues are important for her constituents. According to Shaw, Bill 124 was just the latest in a series of Conservative attacks on students’ funding, freedom and future.

Bill 124, also known as the “Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act,” limits wage increases for public sector employees to one per cent per year, among other things. This does not keep up with inflation in the province, which fluctuates between 1.5 and 2.5 per cent yearly.

In a press release, Ontario Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy explained the rationale behind the Bill.

“The legislation would allow for reasonable wage increases, while protecting the province’s front-line services, restoring the province’s financial position and respecting taxpayer dollars,” he said.

However, the Bill has also been criticized for its effects on workers.

“Bill 124 . . . caps the wages of a million workers of families in the province of Ontario. At the same time, this government is giving themselves promotions and raises,” said Shaw.

“Bill 124 . . . caps the wages of a million workers of families in the province of Ontario. At the same time, this government is giving themselves promotions and raises,” said Shaw.

Despite the pushback from Shaw and the NDP, the Conservative government sought to pass the Bill.

Although Bill 124 was announced in early June, soon after, the provincial government entered an extended summer recess ending in late October. As a result, despite the intense controversy surrounding the Bill, the debate period lasted for less than two weeks. Shaw was concerned the Bill had been passed too quickly.

“I personally did not support this exceptionally long break. I mean, there’s a lot of work that we need to get done in the province. And this is a government that doesn’t take the time to study legislation, to get legislation right,” said Shaw.

Unions across Ontario have launched complaints against the Bill, including the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Ontario Nurses Association.

According to Shaw, the Act will impact the most vulnerable workers in the province, many of whom are women and marginalized community members. The Act also has specific impacts for McMaster; it caps the wage increases of McMaster teaching and research assistants at one per cent, despite efforts by the Canadian Union of Public Employees 3906, the union representing McMaster teaching and research assistants, to increase wages.

“Students need to be recognized for what they are, which is contributors to the province, contributors to their communities, and that they are struggling under all kinds of burdens imposed by this government … it’s just cruel and heartless,” said Shaw.

“Students need to be recognized for what they are, which is contributors to the province, contributors to their communities, and that they are struggling under all kinds of burdens imposed by this government … it’s just cruel and heartless,” said Shaw.

The provincial government is defending the one per cent wage cap by citing the province’s need to balance its budget. Shaw disagrees.

“Essentially what they’re saying is [that] the deficit is the fault of frontline workers in the province of Ontario, [that] it’s their responsibility to fix the deficit ... And so the reason I think the break was so … wrong [is] because when we came back after five months, the government ran this legislation through the house in two weeks,” said Shaw.

Shaw views the province’s actions as an all-out attack on students. Bill 124 was preceded by budget cuts for schools at both the elementary and post-secondary levels, which include the now unlawful Student Choice Initiative and reduced funding for the Ontario Student Assistance Program.

“In what world does this make sense? In what world does it make sense that students that struggle just to pay this increasing tuition burden, that students [that] struggle with part time, precarious, low-wage, minimum wage jobs, if they can find them at all, now are losing jobs [where] they can earn money on campus,” said Shaw, referring to the SCI and other Conservative education policies that impact education.

Announced on Jan. 17, 2019, the SCI gave post-secondary students the opportunity to opt out of “non-essential” student fees, which included and thereby endangered on-campus organizations and student media. In response, the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario and the York Federation of Students took the directive to court, labeling the SCI as unlawful and criticizing the unjust procedure that led to its passing.

The Divisional Court of Ontario ruled in favour of CFS-O and YFS on Nov. 21, 2019, stating that the bargaining process between autonomous universities and student unions did not fall within the jurisdiction of the provincial government.

But where do we go from here? Shaw says that we all have to play our part. While Shaw is on the house floor holding the government accountable, students can lend their voices too.

“Students have shown, historically, time and time again, that when they mobilize, that when they speak up, that’s powerful. And this is a government that does not want to hear powerful voices. They want to shut down debate. They want to shut down dialogue,” said Shaw.

While mobilization may be possible, McMaster students have diverse political views, as does the rest of the province. Despite differences, there is one thing that all students may have in common.

“Every student I’ve ever met is concerned also about the world in which they’re going to graduate into,” said Shaw.

For Shaw and the NDP, slashing student services isn’t a solution for balancing provincial budgets. As she returns to the legislature, Shaw pledges to fight for student interests, aiming to ensure that the world we graduate into is one where the needs of vulnerable workers are prioritized.

Photos by Cindy Cui / Photo Editor

On Sept. 26, the Canadian Union of Public Employees 3906 made history as 87 per cent of its Unit 1 members voted to authorize a strike mandate. Unit 1 represents graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants and research assistants at McMaster. This will allow for strike action, if deemed necessary. 

The vote came after a series of labour negotiations between CUPE 3906 and McMaster University. Beginning in June, CUPE had presented a list of proposed changes to the collective agreement that supervises McMaster’s academic employees. The list included paid training for teaching assistants, equitable wages between undergraduate and graduate teaching assistants, an increase to the minimum number of hours on a contract, protection against tuition increases and better representation for Indigenous members. 

McMaster had planned to conduct negotiations with CUPE 3906 in accordance with Bill 124, which, if passed, would nullify collective agreements and limit the annual increase of compensation and wages to one per cent. Since the bill was yet to be legally binding at the time of negotiations, CUPE 3906 disagreed with McMaster’s choice to bargain under Bill 124.

After the first reading of Bill 124, which occurred on June 5, 2019, 64 Legislative Assembly members were in favour of passing the bill and 40 members voted against it. In the end, the motion was carried forward. In order to become law, Bill 124 will need to pass additional readings. 

By the beginning of September, CUPE 3906 and McMaster had failed to arrive at an agreement. When the bargaining process reached an impasse on Sept. 11, the teaching and research assistants of CUPE 3906’s Unit 1 filed for conciliation and scheduled a strike vote for Sept. 26. 

According to an update from CUPE 3906, after four days of voting, a record-breaking majority voted in favour of a strike in the event that CUPE 3906 deems a strike necessary. Most of the members are unwilling to accept the conditions offered by McMaster. 

CUPE 3906 represents 3,500 workers at McMaster each year. This makes it one of the largest unions in Hamilton and the largest on campus. Unit 1 alone represents about 2,700 McMaster employees, including all teaching assistants, some research assistants, markers, demonstrators and tutors. 

“The bargaining team is not releasing total numbers right now but it is by far the highest amount of people we’ve ever seen. We had more people vote ‘yes’ than have ever voted total,” said Nathan Todd, president of CUPE 3906 and a graduate student in McMaster’s philosophy department. 

A statement on CUPE 3906’s website adds that the strike mandate vote illustrates the members’ commitment to the needs that the union is representing. 

Despite a landmark vote, however, CUPE 3906 remains unsure as to how the timeline will look following the strike authorization. The union has not been able to return to the bargaining table; they have not been afforded the chance to change their position and they are advocating for the same changes as when negotiations first began.

At the moment, the rest of the negotiating process is in a standstill as CUPE 3906 waits for news from their provincially appointed conciliation officer. The union is aware that the conciliator has contacted McMaster but does not know how the university has responded, if at all. 

“I’m not sure if [McMaster] has returned [the conciliator]’s calls or given her any updates but last I spoke with the conciliator this week, she wasn’t able to confirm any further dates … We’ve offered a number of dates this month. We’re waiting to hear back. That’s kind of holding back the timeline at this point,” said Todd. 

Chantal Mancini, a PhD candidate in the department of labour studies and a delegate to the Hamilton and District Labour Council for CUPE 3906, states that McMaster has not demonstrated their support for their graduate students in this round of bargaining. 

It’s interesting that a major focus of researchers in labour studies is the increase of precarious work and the negative impact this has on the well-being of workers. Yet, in direct contrast to this research, McMaster has presented a proposal to our union that will increase the precariousness of the work that I and my Unit 1 colleagues perform,” she said. 

Mancini says that the university’s proposal does not support the well-being of graduate students. She notes that although students will benefit from the priorities requested of McMaster, the university has nevertheless rejected the union’s demands.  

Maybe the coolest thing while working the voting booth, was having undergrads come up and ask how they could help. Felt awesome to be supported by the whole student family. https://t.co/NEr2xyREMx

— Adam Fortais (@AdamFortais) September 27, 2019

Regardless of the administration’s silence, other bodies on campus have shown their support for CUPE 3906. The McMaster Graduate Student Association released a letter of support on Oct. 2, declaring that the GSA’s priorities align with those of CUPE 3906’s. The day after, the Department of Political Science at McMaster also announced their support for better working conditions and compensation for teaching and research assistants, hoping for a fair agreement between the union and the university.

“We’re considering reaching out to other departments as well … It seems like, in the departments we’ve spoken to, there is a good level of support,” said Mollie McGuire, vice-president of CUPE 3906. 

On Oct. 6, CUPE Ontario, which represents 55,000 educators across the province, averted a strike after the provincial government made concessions in a collective agreement. This renders them the first of several unions to arrive at a deal with the Ford government since public school employee contracts expired in September. While the deal did not involve them, CUPE 3906 has stated that they stand in solidarity with CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions.

“[We are] immensely proud of their accomplishments at the bargaining table and beyond. The OBSCU, CUPE, their allies and their communities stood firm in resistance to authority politics and the devaluation of their work. Their accomplishments were possible due to the direct action by their members and their community and their success is a testament to the value of mobilization and the power of the labour movement,” said Todd. 

Teaching and research assistants at McMaster are hoping for a similar accomplishment, referring to the strong strike vote mandate provided to CUPE 3906 as an indication of their resolve to seek a fair contract. 

“It is my hope that McMaster has taken notice and is committed to negotiating a fair deal that reflects the value of the work we do for the university. Reaching a deal is ultimately the best outcome for everyone,” said Mancini. 

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Photo by Hannah Walters-Vida / Editor-In-Chief

By Nathan Todd, Contributor

This year, Ontario has seen significant and damaging cuts to funding for students, student associations, universities and the public employees who keep universities and communities running. 

Many of you may have already felt the impact of these changes — there are already reports of students who are no longer able to attend university because of the elimination of some Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) grants. In addition, the Student Choice Initiative left student and graduate associations scrambling over the summer in attempts to prepare for and minimize the funding cuts that the SCI would bring.

Teaching assistants who are often students are not immune to these negative effects. As students, we are affected by the cuts to OSAP, and as members of either the McMaster Students Union or the Graduate Students Association, we are also members of associations facing considerable budget cuts. On top of this, our ongoing rounds of bargaining with McMaster University for a new employment contract, among other things, threatens to leave us in an even more precarious situation. 

As public employees, we are also now facing Bill 124, a proposed piece of legislation which would mandate that our wage increases do not exceed one per cent, an amount that does not keep up with the cost of inflation. In other words, Bill 124 effectively mandates that we take pay cuts over the next three years.

To put this in a better context, graduate TAs who work 260 hours (which is usually the most a TA can work at Mac) earn less than $11,500 for the year, and undergraduate TAs earn considerably less than that. This is not enough to balance the tuition we need to pay in order to have access to the job in the first place. Given these circumstances, increases to our wages and benefits are always a priority for us in bargaining. Unfortunately, McMaster is not willing to entertain an agreement that wouldn’t conform to Bill 124 should the bill become law. Therefore, meaningful wage increases seem to be a non-starter for the university.

Beyond Bill 124, McMaster is also looking to roll back the amount of hours TAs are entitled to work, making our ability to pay for tuition and keep up with the cost of living even more difficult. 

Wage increases are not our only priority. One of the top priorities we identified before heading into bargaining was paid job-specific and anti-oppressive training for TAs. As it stands, there is no training for TAs. This means that they are learning how to run labs, teach tutorials, mentor and grade on the job! In asking for paid training, we are not asking for anything you wouldn’t expect from working in an office, a high school or a McDonald’s.

McMaster, however, is unsure if paid TA training is feasible. Let me repeat that: A university isn’t sure if it is feasible to teach people how to teach.

As a TA of about five years, I think we do a good job. But running tutorials and grading the assignments that go on to impact the lives of undergraduates is serious, professional work. As TAs, we recognize that. This is why we are asking for professional training to ensure that undergraduates are getting the highest quality teaching possible. Not only would paid training help TAs financially, but it would also benefit us professionally and it would benefit the students who rely on us.

If our bargaining continues to stall, there is a chance you will get messages from McMaster or members in the community about TAs being difficult or that what we are asking for is unreasonable. If this happens, please keep in mind that we are asking for things that any reasonable professional ought to — the ability to keep up with the cost of inflation and the proper training to do our jobs.

Given the attacks that university members have seen through the cuts to OSAP, the Student Choice Initiative and the looming Bill 124, it is more important than ever that we collectively resist attacks on the most vulnerable. McMaster claims it is committed to making a “Brighter World” – TAs and students deserve to be part of it.

Nathan Todd is the President of CUPE 3906

 

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