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.”