HAMILTON, ONTARIO--After a 5-week strike, the McMaster University Teaching Assistants (TAs) returned to work on January 10. Unionized as the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3906, the TA union won improved TA wages, a better dental plan, and permission to supplement their incomes with other work.
McMaster's TAs have recently been caught in a crushing financial pinch. In the past few years, tuition at McMaster and many other Canadian universities has increased by 400%, while TA salaries have barely moved, forcing TAs to shell out tuition fees of as much as $4422 from their average yearly salary of $7722. And the impoverished students can't turn to outside jobs for support because the university's "10-hour rule" says that full-time graduate students may only work the 10 hours per week allocated by their TA assignments. This is completely unfair to graduate students who are often only using the university for research purposes as they write up their theses, explains union president Ray Westcott. "Anyone can come into any university library and get a reading ticket for $100. It's not like we are paying to use the resources at the university, we are paying for cache. In terms of the money that is spent [on tuition], we are not getting our money's worth," says Westcott.
So the students went on the offensive. In the last year, McMaster has seen three strikes and three near misses. "We had to fight to get then to the table, never mind the fight to get a deal. Every strike or near miss has gone down to the wire," commented Mike Skinner, business agent and chief negotiator for the McMaster TA union.
Now, the students are claiming their first major victory. The union and representatives of the university negotiated a pay increase of approximately $200 per year for full-time graduate TAs, retroactive to September. Additionally, their yearly salaries will increase to $8234.20 over the next two academic years. The agreement between McMaster and the union also relaxes the 10-hour rule, enabling graduate students to obtain work off campus. In addition, dental coverage is increased and coverage for those on maternity leave is provided.
Although the union did not win a hoped-for automatic tuition rebate, "Overall, I am quite satisfied with the rest of the agreement, " says Skinner. McMaster Provost and Vice President Academic Harvey Weingarten agreed. "The agreement is a good one. It addresses the key issues raised by the TAs and shows recognition of the financial needs of TAs balanced with the university's financial situation and its responsibility to fund the range of activities that maintain the academic capacity of the institution."