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New employment contract for sessional faculty members and addressing out-of-province TA exclusion concerns

At McMaster University, the Canadian Union of Public Employees 3906 is a union that works to improve the working conditions of academic workers at the university. The union currently represents about 3,500 workers at McMaster and includes three units.

Unit 1 includes teaching assistants and research assistants in lieu. Unit 2 includes sessional faculty, McMaster English Language Development sessional faculty and hourly-rated sessional music faculty. Lastly, Unit 3 includes post-doctoral fellows. 

A key responsibility of the union is to negotiate and enforce an employment contract for each of the three units. The contract includes all benefits, rights and responsibilities of union members, and the responsibilities and obligations of the employer, McMaster University. 

Recently, several issues have arisen between the union and the university. The previous collective agreement for Unit 2 members expired on Aug. 31, 2020, which prompted negotiations with McMaster to develop a new agreement.

Sharoni Mitra, president of CUPE 3906, said that the new agreement entails various concerns from sessional faculty members such as better job security, benefits, working conditions, teaching assistant training and compensation for the extra technological support required in a remote environment during this time. 

From Oct. 14 to 16, the union held a strike vote amongst its Unit 2 members. Members voted 81 per cent in favour of a strike mandate for the bargaining committee if negotiations with McMaster fail. 

This does not necessarily mean that a strike will occur, but votes from members signal to the union that members are prepared to strike should negotiations with McMaster fail to meet members’ needs. 

Other recent negotiations with McMaster include the university’s exclusion of out-of-province teaching assistants from the bargaining unit. This means that out-of-province teaching assistants lose rights, privileges and protections that are a part of their membership with the union. They are excluded from the union’s dental plan, healthcare spending account, Gender Affirmation Fund, worker protections and other benefits. 

Mitra expressed that the union was not consulted by the university about this decision and that the university justifies their exclusion of out-of-province TAs due to the wording within their collective agreement. 

The previous collective agreement between TAs and the university denoted that teaching assistants of Ontario are recognized by the university as part of the agreement. However, Mitra said that this was largely interpreted by the union as teaching assistants who are working for McMaster, an institution located in Ontario.

The union argued that they are teaching assistants of Ontario, regardless of where they live. 

The union argued that they are teaching assistants of Ontario, regardless of where they live. 

This decision has been met with much criticism from the union, especially due to the change to the online environment that teaching assistants have to face during the COVID-19 pandemic. The union has sent the university a letter of understanding in hopes of resolving the matter internally but was not met with a satisfying response from the university.

In the LOU, the union asked that the university agree to recognize out-of-province TAs as unionized TAs at least for the time being, while courses are being offered online. 

“Our preference would have been to find a solution without causing worry for our members; however, the University has made it clear that this won’t be possible,” the union shared.

“Our preference would have been to find a solution without causing worry for our members; however, the University has made it clear that this won’t be possible,” the union shared on their website.  

As a TA living out-of-province during this school year, Angela Kruger expressed that it is frustrating for them to know that they have been excluded from the union by the university. 

Kruger said they enjoy teaching and being able to share their knowledge with students; however, it’s unfortunate that the institution is also benefiting from this relationship while making things more difficult with the power they hold. 

“If I wanted to say this is too much work for me, I don’t know what I would do and I don’t know what grounds I would have. I do know who to talk to but I don’t know what they could do for me since I’m not considered part of the union,” said Kruger. 

Kruger said that they have now had to postpone activities such as dental visits due to the lack of coverage they now receive following the exclusion. 

Kruger also added that being able to organize TAs together has such immense value as TAs are often in a rather vulnerable position between the power dynamic with the university. Although it is important for them to stand up to power, circumstances from the pandemic such as rent and living expenses limit their options in negotiating with McMaster.

“To sacrifice a TAship or jeopardize your relationship with the university when you are trying to build a career in the university, is a relatively serious thing to consider doing. So yeah, I do think that it’s important to organize but I do think that as TAs there are multiple intersections of precarity that will necessarily inform whatever kinds of organizing efforts we are able to exert,” said Kruger. 

The union has now filed a policy grievance, which is an official complaint, but this was denied by the university.

“Basically, McMaster found a loophole to exploit us,” said Mitra.

“It’s just completely unconscionable that the employer would use the pandemic to push people out of the union to weaken our collective power and to directly strip them of those benefits and protections. Basically, McMaster found a loophole to exploit us,” said Mitra.

The situation has been referred to arbitration and the union is working with CUPE Nationals legal department to prepare for any next steps that might occur in the negotiations with McMaster.

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