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.
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/.
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.
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.
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.
By: Drew Simpson
The Division of Labour exhibit portrays sustainable ways of creating art while also looking at the difficulties of creating a sustainable art career. Housed in the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre’s main gallery space until April 20 and accompanied by a panel discussion, Division of Labour warns of the scarcity of resources, labour rights and living wages of artists.
Division of Labour also serves as an educational tool to communicate and start discourse around the issues regarding sustainability. The Socio-Economic Status of Artists in the greater Toronto and Hamilton area discussion, which was facilitated by Divisions of Labour curator, Suzanne Carte, and included panelists Sally Lee, Michael Maranda and Angela Orasch, encouraged artists to be vocal and seek action.
“People want to be around artists, but they really don’t. If they were living in the reality that a lot of artists are living in, it would not be favourable. What they want is the pseudo creative lifestyle. They want to be around beautiful things and smart people, but they don’t really want to be assisting with making sure artists are making a living wage and that artists are being supported financially,” explained Carte.
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For emerging artists, this exhibits presents a valuable learning experience as it informs them of community issues. This topic is particularly important since emerging artists are often asked to work for free, often under a pretense that the work will add to their portfolios or lead to exposure. However, Carte argues that asking artists to work for free devalues the work they do.
“Because you are emerging, and because you’re new to the practice does not mean that any institution, organization or individual business, whatever it might be, can take advantage of you and use it as exposure… it’s not about gaining experience — I can gain experience on the job. I can gain experience while being compensated for what I do,” explained Carte.
While Carte encourages individuals to stand up for themselves, she understands that many artists may not be in a position to be able to reject sparse opportunities. She, alongside the panelists at the discussions, further discussed ways emerging and established artists can fight for their rights.
Lee gave an overview of organizations and advocacy groups that focus on bettering labour and housing situations and are making communities aware of gentrification and the living experiences of artists in Hamilton and Toronto.
Maranda added that lobbying for bigger grants or funding is not enough. The community also needs to be advocating for the improvement of artists’ economic status through establishing a basic or minimum hourly wage, affordable rent and transportation.
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Recently, Maranda was a quantitative researcher for the Waging Culture survey. The survey investigated home ownership in Hamilton compared to Toronto. Maranda concluded that Hamilton artists are less reliant on the private market and contribute more to the public art community.
The survey also suggested an artist migration from Toronto to Hamilton due to Hamilton’s lower rent and higher artist home ownership. This leads to a domino effect as real estate agents and developers follow the migration and aid gentrification.
Orasch stated that real estate agents and developers have secretly attended similar panel discussions. The panelists speculated they do so to learn how to market housing to artists. However, the overall sentiment was that they crossed into an artist-designated space to further exploit artists.
“Developers are taking advantage of the language that we have been able to construct for ourselves, to be able to be attractive to other artists or other individuals who feel as though they want an “artsy” experience out of life,” explained Carte.
Lee emphasized how all these surveys and discussions need to reach key decision makers. The Division of Labour exhibit and the panelists at the discussion have repeatedly stressed that talk is merely educational, the true goal is action and change.