Photo by Hannah Walters-Vida / Editor-In-Chief
After a summer of labour negotiations with McMaster University, the union representing McMaster teaching and research assistants has declared a strike vote for the end of the month.
Since June, the Canadian Union of Public Employees 3906 has been negotiating the collective agreements governing academic workers at McMaster University. Last Wednesday, the unit representing teaching assistants and research assistants announced that they had reached an impasse, opting to file for conciliation and declaring a strike vote for the end of the month.
In June, CUPE 3906 met with McMaster’s bargaining committee. Each party proposed changes to the collective agreement governing teaching assistants, research assistants in-lieu and all other university employees represented under CUPE 3906 Unit One.
According to Gord Arbeau, director of communications at McMaster, the University does not publicly discuss the content of ongoing labour negotiations. However, he stated that they aim to reach fair agreements with their employees.
“The goal is to reach a fair and equitable agreement with our bargaining partners that represents the important work that the members of that unit perform,” said Arbeau.
CUPE 3906 presented a list of priorities including increased funding, improved mental and physical health support, increased paid training, better representation for Indigenous members and improved working conditions.
They reported that the university had been receptive on several issues including pregnancy leave and labour/management relations.
However, CUPE 3906 stated that they had not reached agreements on their proposals for tuition waivers, paid pedagogical and anti oppression training, increase of minimum hours and restrictions on contract or volunteer work.
CUPE 3906 also reported problems with the University’s proposed compensation package. According to a bulletin released following the meeting, the University was bargaining within the mandate of a new provincial bill that limits compensation increases.
What is Bill 124 and why does it matter?
Bill 124, also known as the “Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act,” would place restrictions on the agreements that unions and employers can make with one another.
During collective bargaining, employers and employees negotiate compensation and salary increases. Usually, collective agreements mandate annual wage increases in order to keep up with the rate of inflation. As of this month, yearly inflation in Ontario sits at 2.1 per cent.
However, Bill 124 proposes that compensation and wage increases for public service workers cannot increase more than one per cent each year.
According to Ontario Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy, “the legislation would allow for reasonable wage increases, while protecting the province’s front-line services, restoring the province’s financial position and respecting taxpayer dollars.”
CUPE 3906 has criticized the bill for restricting workers’ rights to free collective bargaining. If passed, the bill would empower the provincial government to nullify collective agreements that do not abide by the one per cent wage cap. In practice, this means that the government could require parties to restart the bargaining process if their agreement does not align with the provisions in Bill 124.
The provincial government would also be empowered to retroactively veto collective agreements made after June 5.
“If the Ontario government has the power to unilaterally overrule agreements made between workers and their employers — and to interfere with the ability of workers to freely and democratically negotiate the wages, benefits, and working conditions in their workplace — then the right to collectively bargain is severely undermined,” says an article from Canadian labour news website rankandfile.ca.
Furthermore, CUPE has stated that the proposed wage cap would cause substantial harm to the livelihoods of public service workers, since the annual rate of inflation surpasses the one per cent wage cap.
At an emergency meeting following the announcement of Bill 124, CUPE 3906 members expressed concern over what this could mean for McMaster employees living in Hamilton, where the costs of living have increased significantly in recent years. According to a 2018 report from the Hamilton Housing Foundation, the average cost of rent in Hamilton has increased at double the rate of inflation since 2012.
“Anything that’s below the level of inflation is a cut and phrasing it as a one per cent increase is just a willful misinterpretation of the facts … It’s part of fragmenting the social services we’re relying on, and the people it’ll affect the most are people who are already marginalized,” said Julia Pyryeskina, a volunteer with CUPE 3906.
While Bill 124 is not yet legally binding, the university is committed to bargaining within the limits of the proposed legislation.
“The province has been clear with the broader public sector about its intentions … we’re part of the broader public service and we’ll make sure that we’ll work to be aligned with the intent of the legislation and the intent of the province,” stated Arbeau.
CUPE’s stance is that, since the bill is not yet law, McMaster should be negotiating a fair deal outside the parameters of the proposed legislation.
“We’ve asked the university to partner with us against Bill 124 … they have the opportunity to stand with us and bargain a fair deal and work with us against Bill 124 and they’ve denied to take that chance,” said Nathan Todd, CUPE 3906 president.
At an Impasse
After meeting again with the university’s bargaining committee on Aug. 21 and 22, CUPE 3906 reported that they had come to a standstill, in large part because they were unable to reach consensus on whether to bargain within the confines of Bill 124.
They also reported that the university had refused to entertain CUPE 3906’s proposal to entertain the 1 per cent wage cap in exchange for movement on proposed measures such as paid training and tuition freezes.
On Sept. 4, CUPE 3906 released a statement announcing that they had filed for conciliation, requiring a neutral third party from the Ministry of Labour to assist with negotiations.
They also announced plans to hold a strike vote at the end of the month, at which point CUPE’s membership will decide whether to give the bargaining team the power to call a strike. A positive vote does not immediately trigger a strike, but instead empowers the bargaining team to authorize a strike if they are unsatisfied with the deal that the university offers.
According to the statement, the ability to go on strike is a powerful tool when entering into conciliation, since the possibility of a strike indicates that failure to come to a compromise will yield serious consequences for the university.
Angie Perez, former CUPE president, says a strike is nobody’s first choice. However, she adds, it may be necessary.
“…No one wants a strike, it’s horrible for the union, it’s horrible for everybody … But if that’s the only way we’re going to be listened to, and it’s the only way that we are going to have a real deal … that is not going to be hurting us and other people, we are not asking for unreasonable things,” Perez said.
CUPE is appealing to the McMaster community for support while they prepare for a strike vote.
“In order to avoid a strike, we must convince the University to meet us halfway. If they refuse to offer pay and benefits increases that keep up with inflation, they must offer enhanced job security, protections against future tuition increases, and opportunities for more paid hours to keep TAs and RAs-in-lieu from falling even further behind,” says a statement on the CUPE website.