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.