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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[spacer height="20px"]A few weeks ago, the provincial government froze the minimum wage at $14 per hour and cut the planned increase to $15 per hour that was planned for January 2019. With this cut, many businesses, but not all, have decided to forgo the planned increase they had set up for employees. The McMaster Students Union should not be one of them.

Studies have shown that the actual living wage in Hamilton is $15.85. The cost of tuition ranges, but the majority of programs at McMaster are roughly $7000, with some programs slightly below that figure, and many significantly above, going as high as $13,829. There’s no collected data on the average rent McMaster students pay, but anecdotal evidence points to most students living in off-campus housing paying somewhere around $500 per month, not including utilities. Some students pay less and others pay more.

With this in mind, working during your undergraduate degree is inevitable for a lot of people. Whether it’s a retail job or a paid internship, many students find themselves working two to three jobs at a time just to pay all of their fees. I can personally think of a handful of friends and acquaintances who juggled three jobs just to pay for rent and school.

The MSU employs 300 students, and the jobs they offer are unique to the university bubble. They offer the kind of experience many people would not receive otherwise and are often set up with the student schedule in mind, making them ideal for anyone who wants to work on campus. The MSU’s minimum wage for these jobs is currently $14.15.

It’s no secret that students are struggling to pay tuition and the rising costs of rent. One of the easiest ways to support these students is to go ahead with the wage increase, something that had already been worked into the 2018-2019 budget.

The MSU has a lot of initiatives that support low-in- come students such as the Food Collective Centre, but one of the easiest ways they could vastly improve the livelihood of hundreds of McMaster students is by raising the wages for their workers. The MSU is run almost entirely off of student labour, so it would only make sense that these students are compensated appropriately.

If the MSU really wants to support low-income students, they could easily do so by making sure that their workers are compensated appropriately. In doing so, they set a standard not only for other student unions but for any future employers students may have.

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Working for the McMaster Students Union just became more lucrative, with a new pay scale introduced as of the start of the new year.

On Jan. 1, 2018, the minimum wage in Ontario was increased from $11.40 per hour to $14.00 per hour and it is set to raise once again in January 2019 to $15.00 per hour. This push is a part of the initiative for living wages by the Liberal government.

A living wage entails a wage that a person would be able to support themselves and their family while working a typical work schedule. It includes basic necessities such food, shelter and transportation but also notes that wages should be set to allow for expenses such as gifts and outings to promote social participation in a community.

Currently, Hamilton’s estimated living wage sits at $15.85 per hour, according to Living Wage Hamilton.

Living wages vary from community to community, but groups such as Social Planning and Research Council (Hamilton) have studied the living wage in Hamilton and have released reports based on their findings. In one December 2011 report, the SPRC found that the average living wage in Hamilton was $14.95 per hour.

Their research considered different home situations and factored in the basic cost of living in addition to expenses associated with social outings and skill-building. The studies do not, however, consider common expenses such as the cost of debt, pets and smoking and drinking habits. The study also assumes people will work full-time.

Currently, Hamilton’s estimated living wage sits at $15.85 per hour, according to Living Wage Hamilton.

In response to this wage increase, the MSU completed a wage review in order to maintain the general ratio part-time employees received in comparison to the minimum wage while remaining within their budget lines.

Within the MSU, all customer service representatives such as those who work at the MSU Underground, Compass and Union Market are paid slightly above minimum wage.

Under the previous wage grid, these workers were paid $11.77, which was $0.17 above minimum wage at the time. Under the new wage grid, they will receive $14.15 per hour, $0.15 above the new minimum wage.

The same may be said for all of MSU’s salaried employees, such as part-time managers and associate vice presidents. Their wages have also increased at a consistent rate above the Ontario minimum wage.

For example, employees who fall under the “C4” category were previously paid $155.16 per week. These same workers will now receive $181.80 per week for the same amount of work.

It should noted, however, that the majority of work within the MSU is part-time but only available to MSU members, who must be full-time McMaster undergraduate students. These jobs do not typically offer overtime, but do offer some perks such as discounts and retroactive pay under the right circumstances.

The MSU has not released any documents pertaining to the next wage increase, which is set to occur on Jan. 1, 2019 . For now, students working for the student union can expect to see a bump in their biweekly paychecks.

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McMaster is the leading researcher on poverty and living wage in Hamilton. It has implemented initiatives like the McMaster Community Poverty Initiative, aiming to work with community partners to implement living wage. The living wage is defined as the amount of money needed for workers to meet their basic needs and to participate fully within their communities.

The living wage, as last calculated by the McMaster Social Planning and Research Council, stands at 14.95 dollars per hour.

Jeff Wingard, Coordinator of MCPI, believes that the benefits of paying employees living wage salaries are numerous.

“Employees that are paid above living wage and have security outside of work are often more engaged in the workplace. It ends up being revenue neutral. Professor Don Wells has done research and found that the expenses were minimal, in terms of reduced sick leave days and more.”

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“My sense is that McMaster is really interested in being a leading employer,” Wingard says on the University’s stance on living wage.

Despite the University Administration’s commitment to community relations and the research conducted by McMaster researchers on poverty issues in Hamilton, many full-time and part-time McMaster employees are paid below the living wage, placing them at or below poverty levels.

Currently, 36 cleaners working for McMaster are paid $13.75 per hour with two additional dollars (in lieu of benefits) if they work full-time. Many are casual cleaners who face the difficulties of precarious employment.

At a Board of Governors meeting on Oct. 21, 2010, the board voted to ratify the tentative agreements between the University and the Service Employees International Union. The SEIU represented the cleaners and other affected labour groups at this time.

The workers were not satisfied with the results of the negotiations and the SEIU representation.

In August 2013, after three years of being bound to their previous contract, the group voted the Building Union of Canada to represent them for the 2014 labour negotiations.

Peter Foulds, a representative of the Building Union of Canada, says the results of the 2010 agreement varied within the identified group.

84 full-time employees were assigned wages at or below the poverty line without dental or health coverage entitlement. Eighty employees, predominantly female, had their wages frozen and the benefits to which they were previously entitled to taken away. The remaining group was given a wage that was two dollars below Hamilton’s living wage.

In the minutes from the Board of Governors meeting in 2010 it is stated that the issue of the mistreatment of this labour group by the University was raised.

“It was commented that these groups of employees, who are amongst the lowest paid on campus, appear to have been harshly treated by the University,” said the report of the meeting.

The minutes also stated that it is “the University’s intention to close the gap between current University rates of pay and market rates.”

The minutes indicate that it was brought to the Board’s attention that market rates are predominantly below the living wage and do not provide an equitable and fair basis for comparison.

The wage ratified as part of the agreement at this meeting was 13 dollars per hour, which the Board recognized to be below the poverty line.

In the same document, the Board of Governors passed a recommendation to increase the compensation of The Management Group by three percent of their Base Annual Salaries, which are among the highest in the University. Additionally, McMaster has more than 1,000 employees on the Sunshine List.

“We find this morally repugnant,” commented Foulds on the two decisions.

“We know there’s money. We’re not asking for them to join the Sunshine List. This is a nickel and a dime compared to the University’s budget,” added Craig Bromell, President of BUC.

Foulds, Bromell and members of BUC want the McMaster Administration to act morally and take on full accountability throughout the new contract negotiations.

“This group was basically signed into a contract of poverty. I don’t think anyone here wants people on food stamps and below the poverty line,” says Foulds.

“They are the quality-of-life people at the University. Yet, they are not being acknowledged in any way shape or form. There’s a systemic attack on them as far as I’m concerned,” added Bromell.

This systemic attack, as outlined by the BUC representatives, included taking away money from a vulnerable group to raise the wages of other University workers in the Operations and Management sector.

“We brought it to their attention that they were being hypocritical in trying to negotiate a contract where they’re taking money from the cleaning staff and giving it to others in the same sector,” said Foulds.

BUC wants to see an end to the “mistreatment” of the cleaners within the University.

“We’re here to represent our people, so that they are treated equally, they are treated fairly, and we have an abundance of evidence that that has not been going on,” said Bromell.

“This group, predominantly female, has been insulted all along,” he adds.

A cleaner at McMaster shared her concerns with the current working conditions she is facing.

“Basic needs are not being met.”

She complained about the lack of health coverage and the difficulties a $13.75 wage poses for the workers, especially single mothers and those who are the only wage earners in their family.

“Mac teaches us to care about our health and wellness, but where do we find the funds to pay for these services which we need due to the extreme physical demanding nature of our work?”

“Whenever we are sick, we are not paid for 3 days. We have no vaccines. We don’t have enough vacation days to use for any sick time. We have no personal days, so family emergencies take a chunk out of our paycheck.”

The work of university cleaners is physically demanding and access to health coverage such as physiotherapy is nonexistent. She is worried about the implications of this fact.

“At what point do we become a burden in the eyes of the company? For example, we may not be as productive as before. We are often punished by our supervisors, we suffer stress - physical and emotional – as a result, and we are not able to afford physical therapy.”

Foulds and Bromell are confident that there is widespread support for this issue across the faculty and the students.

“We believe that the University wants to do the right thing, but we don’t know why it’s taking so long.”

“They’ve known this for three years, and they’ve chosen to ignore it,” said Bromell.

When McMaster Hospitality Services workers went on strike in 2011, hundreds of faculty members publicly showed their support.

Among the supporters was Dr. Don Wells, a professor in the Labour Studies Department.

Wells is critical of the University’s intention to close the gap with market wages.

“I don’t think that’s good enough. The market is based on power dynamics. This is not a defense and the University shouldn’t go along with it. It is inconsistent with Forward with Integrity’s focus on community. This is the city of Hamilton doing this work for us every day. I know Patrick Deane is serious about it. To not provide a living wage would be inconsistent.

There can’t be a delay. They should be paid a living wage right away, unless there is some reason not to, and I don’t see what that could possibly be.”

“I’m optimistic that the university will [respond accordingly],” he said.

BUC hopes that the University will rectify its previous decision and offer appropriate compensation to the cleaning staff.

Out of the Top Ten Universities in Ontario, McMaster pays its cleaning staff the lowest wage.

“McMaster University has more precarious employees than you would think possible, when one considers the vast financial investment that the province has made here,” says Peter Foulds.

Roger Couldrey (McMaster’s VP Admin) and Geoff Triney (Labour Relations) were contacted but were unable to conduct interviews at the time of the request.

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