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.”
“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.