Contract workers at St. Michael’s College are now on strike.
Organized under CUPE 3902, Unit 4, they are employed by the college on contracts lasting less than 12 months. This category includes lecturers, demonstrators, tutors, markers, graders, teaching/laboratory assistants and continuing education instructors.
After a year of negotiations, the union unanimously decided to call a strike deadline for Thursday. When the university tabled a final proposal, the union rejected it and went into strike mode at 1.01 pm last Thursday afternoon. Later that day, there was unanimous support for a strike from members in a ratification vote.
“Starting Friday morning, we have withdrawn our labour and will not be prepping or teaching classes, or grading,” said Daniel Bader, bargaining committee chair.
Although the university will remain open, workers will legally be on strike. This means undergraduate programs such as the Book and Media program, Celtic Studies, Christianity and Culture, Medieval Studies, and the SMC One: Cornerstone classes may be cancelled. Classes in the Faculty of Theology may also be suspended.
The impact on students starting Monday could be significant. According to Daniel Brielmaier, Unit 4 steward, hundreds of students will be affected.
Of the approximately 40 striking workers, half are sessional instructors, and eight are TAs. The sessional instructors either teach full-year or semester-long courses, with about half teaching undergraduate courses and the other half teaching grad courses. Brielmaier says that the number of students in these courses ranges from 30–70 but some include more; courses affected in the Book and Media Studies department could impact up to 120 undergraduates by Brielmaier’s estimation.
Outside of the classroom, students also might be affected by picket lines. Beginning Friday morning, Unit 4 members set up on St. Joseph to propagate strike information. Bader says they plan on being there 9 am–3 pm every day until the impasse in negotiations is resolved.
“We aren’t trying to interfere with anyone and it is entirely up to them if they would like to cross. We would just like to get our message out there,” he says.
Robert Edgett, media liaison for SMC, says that students should assume that classes will continue, unless there is a notice posted on the door. If the university finds out with enough time in advance, they will post notices online.
Although parking lots and street parking will remain available, Edgett says that students should expect delays and prepare themselves by taking public transit instead or arriving to work or class earlier.
As for cancelled classes or tests, Edgett says that the college will deal with it on a day-to-day basis and will be rescheduling as many as possible.
According to Bader, the main issue is a lack of job security.
Since the workers are on 12 month contracts, they do not have the guarantee of work in the future, even if they have taught the same course for many years.
“It doesn’t matter if you have taught the same course 10 times, your contract still ends at the end of the semester and you have to re-apply for the same job,” Bader says.
To get over this issue, the university proposed a promotion system, says Bader. Under the proposed system, when course instructors had taught eight courses, they would have preference and be promoted.
This raised red flags for the union. Although Bader says that they are not opposed to the idea of advancement, the main concern is the way the process works. In this system, if the instructor cannot get to the threshold of eight courses, they can appeal to a three person committee that includes the SMC vice president, the dean of theology, and a faculty member. That this committee has significant power in the hiring process is an issue, says Bader.
“If an instructor doesn’t want to go through the promotion system and goes to the committee, what if they don’t approve? We basically don’t have any other choice. If someone isn’t promoted because of the committee’s decision, they can become an indefinite probationary employee,” he says.
The lack of stability opens a whole host of other issues, Bader explains. These academics aren’t able to apply for a mortgage or get an apartment because they don’t have proof of a steady job. This can cause stress and other related psychological issues.
Instead of the promotion system, the union tabled their own hybrid system: workers would have the right to first refusal, followed by a process of seniority.
“If you’ve been teaching the same course for years, it doesn’t make sense that you have to constantly re-apply as if it is a new position. We want a situation where the course you previously taught you can teach again. Then, if you refuse, it goes to a seniority process where the next person in line, with a certain amount of hours, gets the position,” says Bader.
The university and the union could not come to an agreement on the best way to achieve job security, leading to the breakdown in negotiations.
Despite the strike, negotiations are ongoing and both sides are hoping to reach an agreement soon.
“Our first concern is the students and we hope that the strike won’t be long standing. We are happy to go back to the bargaining table at any time,” says Edgett.
“We are not trying to hurt the students and would like to settle this as quickly as possible. We’re willing to negotiate and [are] open-minded to the proposals of the university,” he says.