CUPE 3906 undergraduate and graduate teaching and research assistants prepare to strike and cease all duties beginning next week

Negotiations between the university and CUPE 3906 Unit 1 reached an impasse on Friday, Nov. 18. CUPE 3906 teaching assistants and research assistants received an email Friday night announcing a strike starting Monday, Nov. 21. 

According to the email, picketing will begin Monday at 7:00 a.m. and will occur at entrances around campus. In their email, the CUPE 3906 bargaining team also explains that picket lines are intended to disrupt the flow of traffic and goods being delivered onto campus.  

The CUPE 3906 Unit 1 bargaining team urged all TAs to begin withholding their labor when picketing begins. Members of CUPE 3906 Unit 1 who picket will be paid $300 per week for 20 hours of picket duties.  

TA duties that will cease due to the strike include tutorials, grading and answering student emails. Otherwise classes are expected to continue as usual. Any changes to schedules will be notified to students by their course instructors.  

The university has also put out information for students about accessing campus during the strike and they have advised students with cars to expect delays at the Sterling St. and Cootes Dr. Entrances.  

McMaster has informed TAs that if they wish to continue to get paid during the strike, they are able to complete a form to continue their TA duties. In response, the CUPE 3906 bargaining team informed TAs that if they are to continue working, they will be undermining the efforts of the union and may prolong the strike and their rights as a worker will not be protected under the union during this period. 

The strike will continue until an agreement is reached.  

This is an ongoing story.  

JESSICA YANG / MULTIMEDIA ASSISTANT

TAs and RAs have decided in a 90% positive vote that they’re ready to strike if McMaster University doesn’t meet their demands regarding fairer wages and benefits 

On Oct. 20 the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3906 announced that teaching and research assistants had voted in favour of striking if necessary. The union is in negotiations with McMaster University on raising wages and increasing benefits. CUPE3906’s President, Chris Fairweather, says the university’s offer was unacceptable for workers. 

The poll showed workers strongly supported the strike, with 90% of TAs voting to strike if necessary. While TAs and RAs are not striking as of yet, they are willing to do so if an agreement cannot be reached at the bargaining table. No dates have been set for a possible strike. 

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A post shared by CUPE 3906 (@cupe3906)

This decision comes from CUPE3906, who says the University is raising wages at less than the rate of inflation. CUPE3906 claimed in an Instagram post that if the university had continued to raise the wages to keep up with inflation, TAs would be paid $5/hr more than the current rates. 

The 2019-2022 Collective Agreement between McMaster University and CUPE3906 on behalf of Unit 1, McMaster’s 2500 teaching and research assistants, expired the first week of September before the contract could be renegotiated. The agreement stated that TAs may not strike for the duration of the agreement. 

Prior to the poll, CUPE3906 held two Q&A sessions as well as a special general membership meeting before the vote that took place between Oct. 17 and Oct. 19. CUPE3906 urged TAs to vote in favour of the strike in order to prevent falling further behind in job quality. 

CUPE3906 claims that many universities have allowed their employees’ salaries to fall behind the rate of inflation and that schools are making large enough profits to fairly compensate their workers. In McMaster University’s 2020-2021 Annual Financial Report, they claimed a $232 million excess of revenues over expenses, surpassing the original estimate of $43.4 million.

During ongoing negotiations, CUPE3906 is pushing for three key issues, the first being financial security and compensation. CUPE3906 is pushing for increased wages, minimum 65-hour contracts opposed to current 32-hour minimums, closing the wage gap between undergraduate and graduate students, and other employee services for example access to parking. 

Their second key issue is physical and mental health and wellness which asks for expansion of current health care reimbursements, additional UHIP coverage for international students, affordable dental coverage and expansion of the Gender Affirmation Fund. 

The final key issue CUPE3906 will be negotiating for is improved working conditions meaning regulating the number of students that can be assigned to a TA in a seminar or tutorial, further clarity on hours of work forms, transparency of working conditions and re-securing 5 hours of paid training in the new collective agreement. 

The bargaining team has been authorized by the positive vote to call for a strike if a fair agreement cannot be reached. TAs and RAs will be informed through their McMaster emails with updates on the bargaining. Updates can also be found on CUPE3906’s website at https://bettermac.ca/

New employment contract for sessional faculty members and addressing out-of-province TA exclusion concerns

At McMaster University, the Canadian Union of Public Employees 3906 is a union that works to improve the working conditions of academic workers at the university. The union currently represents about 3,500 workers at McMaster and includes three units.

Unit 1 includes teaching assistants and research assistants in lieu. Unit 2 includes sessional faculty, McMaster English Language Development sessional faculty and hourly-rated sessional music faculty. Lastly, Unit 3 includes post-doctoral fellows. 

A key responsibility of the union is to negotiate and enforce an employment contract for each of the three units. The contract includes all benefits, rights and responsibilities of union members, and the responsibilities and obligations of the employer, McMaster University. 

Recently, several issues have arisen between the union and the university. The previous collective agreement for Unit 2 members expired on Aug. 31, 2020, which prompted negotiations with McMaster to develop a new agreement.

Sharoni Mitra, president of CUPE 3906, said that the new agreement entails various concerns from sessional faculty members such as better job security, benefits, working conditions, teaching assistant training and compensation for the extra technological support required in a remote environment during this time. 

From Oct. 14 to 16, the union held a strike vote amongst its Unit 2 members. Members voted 81 per cent in favour of a strike mandate for the bargaining committee if negotiations with McMaster fail. 

This does not necessarily mean that a strike will occur, but votes from members signal to the union that members are prepared to strike should negotiations with McMaster fail to meet members’ needs. 

Other recent negotiations with McMaster include the university’s exclusion of out-of-province teaching assistants from the bargaining unit. This means that out-of-province teaching assistants lose rights, privileges and protections that are a part of their membership with the union. They are excluded from the union’s dental plan, healthcare spending account, Gender Affirmation Fund, worker protections and other benefits. 

Mitra expressed that the union was not consulted by the university about this decision and that the university justifies their exclusion of out-of-province TAs due to the wording within their collective agreement. 

The previous collective agreement between TAs and the university denoted that teaching assistants of Ontario are recognized by the university as part of the agreement. However, Mitra said that this was largely interpreted by the union as teaching assistants who are working for McMaster, an institution located in Ontario.

The union argued that they are teaching assistants of Ontario, regardless of where they live. 

The union argued that they are teaching assistants of Ontario, regardless of where they live. 

This decision has been met with much criticism from the union, especially due to the change to the online environment that teaching assistants have to face during the COVID-19 pandemic. The union has sent the university a letter of understanding in hopes of resolving the matter internally but was not met with a satisfying response from the university.

In the LOU, the union asked that the university agree to recognize out-of-province TAs as unionized TAs at least for the time being, while courses are being offered online. 

“Our preference would have been to find a solution without causing worry for our members; however, the University has made it clear that this won’t be possible,” the union shared.

“Our preference would have been to find a solution without causing worry for our members; however, the University has made it clear that this won’t be possible,” the union shared on their website.  

As a TA living out-of-province during this school year, Angela Kruger expressed that it is frustrating for them to know that they have been excluded from the union by the university. 

Kruger said they enjoy teaching and being able to share their knowledge with students; however, it’s unfortunate that the institution is also benefiting from this relationship while making things more difficult with the power they hold. 

“If I wanted to say this is too much work for me, I don’t know what I would do and I don't know what grounds I would have. I do know who to talk to but I don’t know what they could do for me since I’m not considered part of the union,” said Kruger. 

Kruger said that they have now had to postpone activities such as dental visits due to the lack of coverage they now receive following the exclusion. 

Kruger also added that being able to organize TAs together has such immense value as TAs are often in a rather vulnerable position between the power dynamic with the university. Although it is important for them to stand up to power, circumstances from the pandemic such as rent and living expenses limit their options in negotiating with McMaster.

“To sacrifice a TAship or jeopardize your relationship with the university when you are trying to build a career in the university, is a relatively serious thing to consider doing. So yeah, I do think that it’s important to organize but I do think that as TAs there are multiple intersections of precarity that will necessarily inform whatever kinds of organizing efforts we are able to exert,” said Kruger. 

The union has now filed a policy grievance, which is an official complaint, but this was denied by the university.

"Basically, McMaster found a loophole to exploit us,” said Mitra.

“It’s just completely unconscionable that the employer would use the pandemic to push people out of the union to weaken our collective power and to directly strip them of those benefits and protections. Basically, McMaster found a loophole to exploit us,” said Mitra.

The situation has been referred to arbitration and the union is working with CUPE Nationals legal department to prepare for any next steps that might occur in the negotiations with McMaster.

Photo by Cindy Cui / Photo Editor

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.

Table C/O CUPE 3906

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. 

 

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Photo by Cindy Cui / Photo Editor

By: Evan Jamieson-Eckel, Contributor

On Nov. 8, 2019, Indigenous women took to Twitter to call out Ainsley Whynacht. Whynacht applied for an Indigenous Student scholarship through the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) and received one of the six awards worth $1,500. Her paper, which was required to apply for the scholarship, discussed the negative conditions experienced by people living on reservations. Here’s the catch: Whynacht is not Indigenous (and, no, claiming fake Indigenous identity doesn’t count).

From the scholarship committee who gave an indigenous scholarship to a white girl who gleefully posted her deception on social media: we’re letting her keep the award, and shame on you ndns for being mean to her. https://t.co/Tx3bGGWuoR

— tara houska ᔖᐳᐌᑴ (@zhaabowekwe) November 11, 2019

The issue here is theft of opportunity for Indigenous Peoples that may otherwise allow us to reclaim our voices. If we look at this issue on a broader level, it is more common than you might realize. In this era of reconciliation that we are currently in, it has become acceptable for mainstream society to consume anything Indigenous without reciprocation or even a basic awareness of the consequences of consumption. This non-reciprocal consumption occurs here at McMaster University, where settlers can major or minor in Indigenous studies.

You read that right: our university provides the means for settlers to establish a career in dominating Indigenous voices.

This is a core issue with reconciliation-driven initiatives. Instead of creating opportunities for Indigenous People to reclaim our voices, make a living and rebuild Indigenous Nationhood, mainstream Canadian society maintains the oppression of Indigenous Peoples by supporting the creation of settler “Indian experts”. Settlers like William Fenton, an anthropologist who rewrote Haudenosaunee history as he saw fit throughout the mid 1900’s, have dominated Indigenous knowledge and its reproduction for centuries. Twisting the truth of our Nations and cultures to better suit settler needs and wants has always taken priority over undoing the destruction caused by settler colonialism. Institutions like McMaster University allow settlers to continue to have our cake and eat it too, in 2019 and beyond.

Now using reconciliation as their excuse, settlers are all too eager to find the next way to benefit from Indigenous experience. With most of our land base taken from us, the knowledge we’ve protected as Indigenous Peoples is more valuable than ever. While Whynact’s theft of $1,500 is wrong, it is also a drop in the bucket compared to the wealth that settler graduates in Indigenous studies will generate at our expense in the future. There are various lucrative jobs that having a degree in Indigenous studies will allow you to be considered for, including in education and politics. As of right now, the average annual salary for these kinds of jobs is around $94,743. Having a minor or major in Indigenous Studies acts as a resume buffer when reconciliation is positively regarded in hiring processes. These institutional preferences may prevent employers from addressing discrimination in their hiring practices, as credentials such as a university degree will outweigh actual Indigenous experience. This is a major problem since many Indigenous Peoples do not have the ability to attend university to obtain a degree in something that is clearly for us, yet it is all available on a silver platter to be consumed by those who can afford to enroll in the Indigenous studies program.

The issue goes deeper on the local level. Even before settler students at McMaster University graduate from the program, they are also able to obtain employment as teaching assistants in Indigenous studies classes. I took this issue to CUPE 3906, who are now bargaining to give preference to Indigenous applicants in the TA hiring process. This is common practice in other Indigenous-focused organizations and programs. Beyond obtaining a degree in Indigenous studies, employers will also be looking for graduates with experience. By allowing settler students to be TAs in Indigenous studies courses, it sets them up for further success and profit when they enter the job market as settler graduates will have the added experience of being a TA. Worse still, the dynamic of settlers marking Indigenous knowledge is problematic in its own right. Considering how unemployment is often referenced in anti-Indigenous racism through laziness or lack of intelligence, it is a wonder that settlers will also take away employment opportunities that are best suited by Indigenous peoples ourselves. 

To be clear, settlers that take advantage of opportunities that are meant for Indigenous people are not helping us. The impact of their actions will always outweigh their intent. If they were committed to real reconciliation, settlers would learn how to not take up space and know when it is time to stay in their own lane for once in the history of Indigenous/settler relations. They would only take Indigenous studies courses to supplement their learning, not as a minor or a major that allows them to establish authority over the subject. They would support Indigenous peoples in their efforts to rebuild their Nations. They would not be looking for the next way to make a buck at our expense. They would take the time to educate themselves about the settler-colonial foundation of Canada, understand their complicity in it and seek out Indigenous written resources for how to commit to genuine reconciliation. 

 

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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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Photos by Kyle West

As of Jan. 5, Metrolinx has cancelled service to the York University Keele campus and Keele Street stops for multiple Go Bus routes, including the highway 407 47 route, which stops at the McMaster Go station.

Instead, the bus routes will end at the highway 407 Toronto Transit Commission subway station.

In a written statement, Metrolinx spokesperson and senior media manager Anne Marie Aikins said the change is part of a larger plan to move service to the highway 407 stop, which was implemented as part of Toronto’s line one subway extension in December.

“By focusing direct access on Highway 407 and TTC Line 1 Subway, customers can expect improved service reliability in the Keele Street and York University area, which can incur additional 20 minutes of travel time in peak hours due to traffic congestion,” said Aikins.

[spacer height="20px"]Aikins added that the decision was made in collaboration with York University, which has plans to turn the old Go bus loop into a pedestrian area.

McMaster students will now need to leave the 47 bus at the highway 407 subway station and take the subway two stops south to the York University station to arrive at the old bus loop.

Students will also have to pay TTC fare if they transfer, though they will receive a $1.50 discount transferring between the Go bus and the subway if they use their Presto card to pay.

Some McMaster students who rely on the York University stop have expressed concern that their commutes will be negatively affected by the change.

The 47 Go route was the only Toronto-Hamilton route that stopped at the McMaster campus.

Second-year arts and sciences student Daniella Mikanovsky frequently takes the 47 route to York before getting picked up or transferring to a TTC bus. However, with the service change, Mikanovsky says she will now likely have to take a different GO bus route all together.

“I like the 47 because it has a stop on campus. The 40 stop is at [King Street West and Dundurn Street North], so I need to take the Hamilton Street Railway before [Go transit], but with the new change, the 40 drop off is closer to my house than the 47,” said Mikanovsky.

This may pose a problem as the HSR is not known as being a particularly reliable transit system. For instance, last year, a spike in driver absenteeism resulted in thousands of bus cancellations, missed pickups and underserviced routes.

[spacer height="20px"]York University students also see Metrolinx’s decision as problematic. For instance, the York Federation of Students’  Yu Ride petition, which calls for the return of GO bus service to the Keele campus, has already gathered over 17,000 signatures.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees 3903 at York University notes that the return of the stop would save users over $1,000 in additional transit fees. As such, the change may create serious financial pressure for users who cannot afford to pay extra transit fares.

McMaster University’s CUPE 3906 adds that Metrolinx’s decision also affects sessional faculty members who routinely teach at multiple campuses across the province.

For a workforce that is already precarious, the additional three dollars per day in TTC costs and the additional 10 minutes in commuting time will make life even harder,” reads part of a statement from CUPE 3906.

In addition, CUPE 3906 suggests that universities continue to lobby the provincial government for direct and affordable inter-campus transit.

 

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Photo from Silhouette Photo Archives

On Aug. 30, the Progressive Conservative provincial government announced a new directive mandating all Ontario universities to “develop, implement and comply” with formal free speech policies by January 2019. According to the official statement, if a university is not compliant, the particular institution may be subject to a reduction in operating grant funding.

In June, McMaster released updated freedom of expression guidelines for event organizers and participants following an ad-hoc committee report and first draft. As of now, it is unclear whether these guidelines qualify as a policy under the new directive.

“We are hopeful that this guidance document will meet the needs of the government,” said McMaster director of communications Gord Arbeau. “We are waiting to hear back from the province about the specifics around that directive that was issued a few weeks ago.”

Both the McMaster Student Union and Canadian Union of Public Employees 3906 which represents sessional faculty, post-doc fellows and teaching assistants, have objected to the Ford government’s mandate and McMaster’s current stance on the issue of freedom of expression.

In particular, MSU president Ikram Farah stated that she acknowledges concerns from students who feel that the directive for a mandatory free speech policy could suppress the voices of marginalized communities.

“What I have heard from marginalized and racialized students is that there is a fear that free speech legislation will be used to further limit the ability to call attention to truths,” said Farah.

Nathan Todd, CUPE 3906 recording secretary, also expresses concern with the province-mandated policy. In particular, CUPE 3906 stands with the official CUPE 3906 stance that the free speech policy could negatively affect marginalized communities and actually prevent freedom of expression.

“Our main concern is that it could give the university too much power to prevent things like organizing and mobilizing,” said Todd.

CUPE 3906 is specifically worried that the current McMaster free speech guidelines and any future policy will limit protest.

“We released a response to that policy and our policy is essentially the same for this one for Doug Ford, which is that it is actually quite anti-free speech in a lot of ways and hasn't been developed or implemented responsibly or democratically,” said Todd.

The Student Representative Assembly unanimously passed a motion in June stipulating that the MSU “advocate to the university that continuous revisions be made” to the freedom of expression guidelines.

At the Sept. 23 SRA meeting, Farah urged SRA caucus members to actively gather student feedback on the issue.

“Should it be a policy, at least let it be the best guidance document possible that is reflective of the students who will be affected by it most,” said Farah.

CUPE 3906 has been taking action by coordinating with its union members to establish a formal response to the new policy.  

Despite the MSU and CUPE 3906’s objections to the university’s stance on free expression, McMaster stands by its guidelines and commitment to “open and civil discourse.” Nevertheless, the university is willing to hear out different sides on the matter and even amend the current guiding document.

“If someone came forward with other ways of improving that document or with suggestions on how that document could be better understood or positioned, then absolutely we would be open to considering that,” said Arbeau.

For now, the university is waiting to hear back from the provincial government. By imposing a firm directive and a short timeline, the Ford government has brought the subject of free speech back front and centre at McMaster and across Ontario.

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In search of increased job security, the Canadian Union of Public Employees 3903 Units 1, 2 and 3 went to strike after six months of bargaining with York University. Employees at Carleton University also recently opted to strike, advocating for pension benefits in the wake of confusion over language in the collective agreement. While CUPE 3906 is still bargaining, a strike is not off the table.

After rejecting the university’s offer, 3,000 teaching staff at York University walked off the job as part of a strike by CUPE 3903 on March 5. Although 60 per cent of teaching at York is facilitated by members of the union, the university has remained open and some classes have continued during the strike.

The strike at Carleton was led by support staff, including library and administrative employees, on March 5. On March 16, the union and university agreed to return to the bargaining table in hopes of resolving the labour dispute.

CUPE 3903 and 2424’s efforts follow a five-week-long strike by Ontario college instructors, which forced 500,000 students out of class and was ended through back-to-work legislation pushed by the province.

After rejecting the university’s offer, 3,000 teaching staff at York University walked off the job as part of a strike by CUPE 3903 on March 5.

On March 14, CUPE 3906 published letters to the unions at York and Carleton.

The letter to CUPE 2424 emphasized the union’s effort to advocate for improved retirement security and criticized Carleton’s neoliberal policies and unwillingness to acknowledge the importance of pensions for precarious support staff.

“As a local who represents primarily young workers who do not have access to a workplace pension, we find your defense of quality pensions for workers to be an inspiration,” read part of the letter to CUPE 2424.

The letter to York’s union praised its commitment to fighting issues arising from job precarity.

“Job security is an issue that we have here on campus too. Unit 1 members, specifically teaching assistants, only get four years guaranteed of teaching contracts,” said Sarah Wahab, CUPE 3906 vice president. “It’s not enough for us to complete our PhDs usually, so we’re kind of left in this limbo where we can’t find the funding we need in order to finish our dissertations.”

When asked about the likelihood that McMaster’s CUPE 3906 will go to strike after Unit 1 and 2 finish bargaining in 2019, CUPE 3906 president Angie Perez stated that it is invariably likely that, if the union is not listened to, it will call a strike vote.

The last time CUPE 3906 went to strike was in 2009, when teaching and research assistants sought increased wages and benefits from the university. This strike was short-lived, however, with 58 per cent of union members voting to accept the university’s offer after one week of striking.

“We do have a lot of issues regarding job security specifically. We’re living in a context where it’s getting harder and harder to live.”

 

Sarah Wahab
Vice president
CUPE 3906

Nevertheless, Wahab acknowledges that the union still has work to do on campus.

“We do have a lot of issues regarding job security specifically. We’re living in a context where it’s getting harder and harder to live. When that starts to happen, strikes start to happen,” said Wahab. “People need to rise up and demand what they deserve.”

Broadly speaking, CUPE 3906 sympathizes with students as they get trapped in a messy and unfortunate situation as a result of a strike. Nevertheless, they argue that students should direct their frustration to the university, not the union.

“The problem is that the narrative is controlled by the universities,” said Perez, who explains that because the university accepts students’ tuition dollars, it should be held accountable to accommodate students in the event of strike action.

Precarious employment continues to be on the rise at McMaster and across the province. As CUPE 3906’s Units 1 and 2 continue to bargain with the university, the union is standing in solidarity with the unions at York and Carleton.

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Watching a professor teach a large lecture hall full of students, one would hardly assume that they struggle to make ends meet. But for many sessional faculty members, the prestige of being a lecturer at McMaster University does not equal a steady income.

In July 2017, the local division of Canadian Union of Public Employees, CUPE 3906, began bargaining with McMaster University to improve working conditions for sessional faculty and hourly-rated sessional music faculty. Their main focus is on better wages and job security.

A sessional faculty member is a professor without tenure, who is expected to reapply for their positions once their short-term contract has ended. It is common for sessional faculty members to be hired on a semester-by-semester basis, meaning they must reapply for their job every few months.

"If you take 40 per cent of whatever the average assistant professor is making and how many classes they're teaching, usually two to four classes, it ends up being twice what our sessional are making, and it's the same work."


Graham Barker
President
Cupe 3906

“When you think as well about the idea of equal pay for equal work, which is a standard we hold onto as a local [union], you have to think about what other faculties on this campus are getting paid to do the same work sessionals are paid to do,” said Graham Baker, CUPE 3906 president.

Baker argued that once their income is broken down into segments, it is clear that contracted faculty are paid much more for the same work sessional faculty do.

“When you look at what the workload looks like for a tenured professor, the usual breakdown is that they’re expected to devote 40 per cent of their time to teaching,” he said.

LIVING WAGES FROM UNIVERSITY EMPLOYERS ARE NEEDED #highered #cdnpse https://t.co/cHQyzRODMe

— CUPE Local 3906 (@cupe_3906) September 20, 2017

“So if you take 40 per cent of whatever the average assistant professor is making and how many classes they’re teaching, usually two to four classes, it ends up being twice what our sessionals are making, and it’s the same work,” he added.

McMaster’s current rate for sessional faculty members is $7,050 per three-unit course. In comparison, University of Toronto’s starting rate is $7,304.56 per three-unit course and York’s rate is $8,389.50 per course. It should be noted, however, that the latter schools are considerably larger than McMaster, with their student populations well above 50,000. McMaster’s student population currently sits around 30,000.

Wilfrid Laurier University, which has a student population of about 17,000, has a starting rate of $8,000.

There are approximately 300 sessional faculty members represented by CUPE 3906 currently teaching at McMaster. Of those 300, the majority teach in the commerce and engineering faculty, particularly in the B.Tech program, where 70 of their sessional faculty lay.

McMaster's current rate for sessional faculty members is $7,050 per three-unit course. In comparison, University of Toronto's starting rate is $7,304.56 per three-unit course and York's rate is $8,389.50 per course.

“There’s a misconception that sessional work is like this “gig” that recent PhD graduates do until they can land that permanent position,” said Baker. “People who’ve been working here since the 1970s and 1980s have no more job security now than when they started. The sessional faculty member is the definition of a precarious worker.”

Currently, the union is not poised to strike, and both parties are taking the necessary steps to avoid it. According to CUPE 3906, at the last bargaining meeting with the university, they made progress on smaller issues and did not address the major concerns of better wages and increased job security. Their next meeting is slated for early Oct.

As the union continues working with the university, everyone involved hopes that there is no work stoppage, ensuring that undergraduate students are not affected by these negotiations.

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