“Class and Conflict” at the “Neoliberal” University

SEIU Local 2 Settles at McMaster University

The Great Recession brought on by the financial crisis of 2007-09 entered a new phase in 2010 with a turn to public sector austerity. The focus has initially been on Greece, Ireland and Britain, as the key countries where financial excesses were shoved into the public sector, and a sovereign debt crisis precipitated. These struggles are now shifting to North America, where the economic crisis and the long-term deterioration in public sector revenues from tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy have ruptured public finances, especially at the local and state/provincial level. Public sector workers are especially being singled out as central obstacles to economic recovery and restored public finances.

The public university system in North America has, in particular, been a battleground. The long-term effort to build the ‘neoliberal university’ is now gaining further momentum by a turn to austerity. With the most underfunded university system in Canada, Ontario’s universities have been flashpoints for conflicts over public sector cuts from students, faculty and low-paid service workers on campuses.

McMaster University (located in Hamilton, Ontario) food service workers, represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2, recently made their voices heard in this hostile labour environment. Representatives for the 173 unionized workers walked away from the bargaining table on January 7th. It was their only way to display their opposition to the university’s efforts to force wage and benefit concessions on the local. A week-long strike ensued. In the final settlement, service workers were able to claim some successes, but also at the cost of concessions in other areas of their contract.

Management attempts to insert a wedge between current and future employees was successful, specifically in extracting concessions in vacation and benefit entitlements. These concessions were accepted by members of the local in an effort to blunt the university’s attempt to expand part-time and casual employment and get a commitment from the university to increase full-time positions. It remains to be seen whether these promises to increase full-time positions pan-out.

The strike proved to have a great impact on the university, and the picket lines were strong with a good turnout of solidarity picketers. This show of force likely curtailed a more aggressive strategy being adopted by management. In this article we will explore the history of labour relations at McMaster and highlight the bargaining positions of the university and SEIU Local 2.

Neoliberalism and Turning the Screws at McMaster University

The labour conflict at McMaster is just the most recent example of a Canada-wide attempt to off-load the effects of the crisis onto ordinary workers. Neoliberal austerity measures enacted by the Ontario government have imposed a two-year freeze in transfers to universities for wage compensation.[1] The reduction in overall provincial and federal funding of university operating budgets, falling from 1987 to 2007 from 81 per cent to 57 per cent, has been the driver of tuition increases and the search for ancillary services that might provide profit-making opportunities by university administrators.

For example, McMaster University’s failed attempt in 2009 to partner with Navitas Limited[2] (a private provider of university prep courses aimed at international students) scuttled one money-making opportunity for the university. McMaster Vice-President (Academic) Peter Smith expressed McMaster’s regret at this missed stream of alternate funding: “We are very disappointed that we are unable to proceed with Navitas to set up McMaster University College at this time. We were impressed with Navitas and its commitment to quality and student success.”[3] McMaster thus needed to look elsewhere for extra profit; food service operations were high on its priority list.

Students, however, remain at the top of the extra-revenue generation list in the university system. In Ontario, tuition fees have increased from 20 per cent of operating budgets in 1990 to over 50 per cent today. McMaster’s plan for extra revenue is clearly visible in their budget planning that shows government operating grants of $226-million virtually flat-lining after 2010:

McMaster University Operating Revenue Projections

(In Millions $)
2010 (actual)
2015 (projected)
5 year increase

Operating Grants
8.8 %

Tuition Fees

Ancillary Services

Figures calculated from: “Multi Year Financial Projections,” December 6, 2010. Contained in Appendix 1 of “Opening Statement and Proposal of the University Administration’s Representatives on the Joint Committee”, December 15, 2010, p.15.[4]

McMaster financial plans are to increase student tuition by 6 per cent every year from 2011-15 to make up for stagnant operating grants (in effect, frozen after inflation is taken into account). Ancillary services (which include Food Services) are also looked to contribute more to pick up the slack in government funding.

The attempt to gut the contract of food service workers at McMaster needs to be seen in the larger context of the economic crisis brought on by the finance crisis, but it is being paid for by students and the most vulnerable workers, and not by bankers and the rest of the capitalist class. University administrators are looking for ways to increase their revenue stream. The strike of food service workers is therefore another example of how cuts to post-secondary funding has resulted in a more privatized and corporatized university. The University’s goal was to extract the greatest concessions from workers to add to its bottom line. McMaster’s actions are now indistinguishable from any large profit-seeking corporation.

Labour Relations at McMaster University

In previous labour disputes (for example, with CUPE 3906 and CAW 555), McMaster’s efforts to bargain could at best be described as minimal. In last year’s labour dispute between the university and CUPE 3906 (teaching and research assistants), the university’s strategy for weakening organized labour at the campus was on display. By dragging its heels at the bargaining table, the university was successful in appealing to a campus of passive students (and often quiescent CUPE 3906 members) to pressure the divided union to return to work. Weak organization in some academic departments and reinforced by an anti-union culture amongst professors and administrators in those departments limited the disruptive impact of the teaching assistant strike. Teaching assistants were encouraged to cross picket lines and continue working throughout the dispute. By appealing and informally encouraging this divide, McMaster was strategically looking to undermine and wait-out the union at the bargaining table through a divide and conquer tactic.

McMaster’s approach to the food service workers’ strike appeared to follow a similar pattern of stalling and waiting for the union bargaining position to collapse. Human Resources put out biased accounts of what was reality at the bargaining table. Daily updates were vague; many on campus criticized them for their lack of meaningful information. There were also conflicting reports, stating that the union was unwilling to bargain. Much of this is par for the course in the way that management operates during a strike. In reality, the union was ready to bargain arguing that they wanted to minimize disruption for students. Attempting to harvest many students hostility toward unions and the long waits at the picket lines, some students bought into the university position. But, as the dispute went on many other McMaster students became aware of the bullying tactics used by McMaster, leaving many questioning the ethics of the institution that they attend.

Basis of the Conflict

At McMaster, Food Services employs predominately immigrant women. Of these workers, a large majority of them are single mothers making job security an especially important goal in their battle. SEIU member Izabella Felinczak explained it best by saying that McMaster’s human resource department didn’t expect “women, single-mothers, and little old ladies were going to stand-up to the university. They thought the university would have power over us!” Food service workers are approximately 40 per cent full-time and 20 per cent part-time staff. Another 40 per cent are ‘casual’ or what at McMaster are described as ‘satellite employees.’ These ‘satellite’ workers are the lowest paid within the bargaining unit, with no benefits or pensions. Efforts by the union to increase the wage for these workers have had some success, allowing workers with enough hours to live in conditions that are slightly above poverty.

The key to the dispute was, therefore, job security. The previous contract contained a clause that set out a minimum number of jobs in the workplace which would be deemed as full-time (40 per cent). Under this provision, higher wages and benefits (including vacation) were included as remuneration for full-time for food service workers. With the stated aim of increasing ‘efficiency’ with all facets of McMaster employment, management set out in bargaining to remove this clause from the contract. McMaster wanted to bring the conditions and pay into line with the private sector. If this clause was eliminated, full-time workers would lose hours, pay and benefits as they were reduced to part-time and causal status.

Due to the aggressive concessionary approach to bargaining by the university, food service workers held a strike vote in early January which displayed their resolve to sustain full-time, fair-wage employment. After the ballots were counted, a 91 per cent strike mandate by nearly three-quarters of the membership sent a strong message that workers were committed to fight off concessions.

The food services industry at McMaster brings huge profits for the university. McMaster exists within a ‘food desert’ where food options are limited. A captive audience of thousands of first year students eat on campus every day, along with off-campus students. A goal of increasing the profitability of this university service was behind the attempt to eliminate full-time employment in favour of lower-paid part-time and causal positions. The university would supply students with the same food for less operating costs. This profit-seeking mania is reflective of a shift at McMaster from what was once a more equitable public institution to a neoliberal university that regularly attacks the living-standards of its employees with regularity. McMaster was also attempting to use the depressed economic conditions in Hamilton to their advantage to further increase the profitability of an already lucrative food service.

The SEIU was also fighting the pervasive effects of neoliberalism on workers. With its stress on downsized, flexible and casual employment relationships, McMaster was following many employers’ attacks on job security. McMaster wanted to implement an employer-employee relationship dominated by the employer’s ability to hire minimum-wage, casual employees. The battle for the food service workers was also to break the string of labour defeats at the university after the CUPE 3906 contract that worsened wages and conditions shortly more than a year ago.

McMaster’s Proposal: A Recipe for Poverty

The McMaster proposal included severe wage concessions, decreasing some workers’ incomes twenty-five to fifty per cent. As an example, those making $17 an hour would take a pay-hatchet to $10.50 as a casual employee. Not only would these workers get less an hour, but significantly less per paycheque as the number of hours would be cut per week. The size of workers’ paycheques and job security in terms of hours worked was therefore a key issue as food service workers are often the sole wage-earners in their family. Issues surrounding benefits were secondary, and the union attempted to hold onto the employer-paid benefit package. The union bargaining position identified vacation entitlements and sick leave as areas which concessions could be made to make gains in job security and hours worked.

Once the strike began, communication of their positions become a key strategy of both sides. Media releases, Facebook groups and blogs were vital to SEIU’s success. Students could read a concise summary of the issues that the food service workers were attempting to win. Students were a key part to the SEIU’s educational efforts, as they could enter onto campus for the purpose of leafleting and informing fellow students on these workers’ battles without fear of trespass charges. The union also organized solidarity rallies where students could join the picket line to display their sympathy with the workers’ stance. Student support was useful to help pressure the university back to the bargaining table and, in turn, to bargain in good faith.

Worker-Student Relations

Countless McMaster students walked through the picket lines, but the work stoppage was also of concern for many students. Many undergraduate students see these workers as their parents away from home; carrying on a running conversation everyday when they pick out their pizza or pasta selection. For students, these workers are like family, an older generation of workers who lend a listening ear in times of stress. And importantly for students, unlike other labour disputes at McMaster, these workers were never in a position of authority over them.

Some food workers continued their conversations with students as they crossed the picket line, apologizing for the inconvenience and showing genuine sympathy that was helpful in gaining student’s support. Joan Joans, a hospitality worker who walked the line, said:

“I could not believe the support we got from the community plus the staff from other departments and the students. Students were walking on the picket lines with us, honking their horns when they were coming in; people dropping off coffees and doughnuts; professors inviting us to speak in their classes. All the unions were great. They came to ask us what they could do to help and came out to join us on their breaks. A woman from Divinity College arranged for volunteers to make soup and they brought it to us in the lines. The Phoenix [the graduate student pub] kept coffee going for us all day, so we had a warm place and fresh coffees.”

When we talked about the strike with food services workers, they were happy with the discussions in their union during the strike. They explained that because of the process of open discussion that took place to debate union positions and tactics, each member felt like they were part of the labour dispute. Because of open communication, many workers were energized to be active members on the picket lines to display their support for their bargaining committee.

A key element in good communications can be attributed to a strong and active blog. Workers who were not on the picket lines could feel part of this open dialogue of updates and issues of the dispute. Local 2 did not fall into the problem that other unions have had with a lack of communication, where workers either do not understand the issues or cannot be constantly updated on the progress of the union’s efforts. Due to a small membership, it was much easier to convey information and updates to workers. The union executive was also very active and constant e-mails and updates were sent out to the membership. An open union environment appeared to be the key to this fight, ensuring that all workers were not only informed on the issues, but willing to fight to sustain dignity in the workplace. Students were also important in this fight, publishing articles in the weekly student newspaper to express their opinions and through encouraging words to the food service workers. A successful communication strategy rallied the support of the membership and the student population around issues of dignity and respect for workers.

The SEIU-McMaster Contract: The Proof in the Pudding?

Following the nine day dispute, the food service workers were successful in protecting their jobs and the future of good-paid jobs at McMaster. Despite an employer attempt to gut their contract, workers made modest gains toward job security at McMaster. They were successful in maximizing full-time positions by protecting the clause within the contract that would not allow for their jobs to be replaced by flexible, part-time employment. Local 2 was also able to guard clauses that guaranteed a third of the workforce as full-time. Part-time workers would also be guaranteed an increase in scheduled hours, increasing from 18 to 24 per week. On the whole, the workers were able to make significant gains in the area most important to them: protecting and maximizing their working hours at McMaster.

Yet, efforts to sustain full-time employment and increase part-time hours came at a high cost. Wages were frozen for the first four years of their five year agreement. One-time lump sum payments were agreed to off-set the wage freeze, with payments in the first, third and fifth year totalling $3,750. A wage increase by three per cent within the fifth year of the agreement would be the only gain for these workers. As a result of this bargaining concession, the overall base wage rate of these workers will be declining, due to rises in inflation throughout the contract duration. It also sets up a future battle to convert the one-time lump sum payments into base salary or lose a significant chunk of their hourly wage to inflation. The university took advantage of the economic depression in Hamilton; many workers are simply grateful to have a job even if pay is frozen. The university is able to recoup some of the costs of gains of increased full- and part-time employment from the workers’ own wages.

In this public sector austerity context, concessions were also made to workers’ benefits (as part of the trade-off to hold onto full-time positions and increase hours for part-timers). Benefits will no longer be entirely employer paid and will be replaced by a co-pay system. Under the co-pay system, workers will have to pay 25 per cent of the monthly drug and medical benefits premium. And because workers’ wages will be eroded over the length of the contract due to rises in inflation, this premium will be increasingly difficult to afford.

Universal vacation entitlements which apply to all full-time workers equally were also sacrificed. New members will not receive full vacation benefits and instead will be governed by a two-tier set of vacation entitlements because they were not workers at McMaster at the time of the contract’s ratification. This strategy has been pursued by McMaster with other unions on campus. For example, long-time service cleaners have maintained their pay and benefits at the expense of new hires. This has resulted in an acrimonious split in the union along the fault-line of length of service. Many unions are fighting against this trend, seeing it as a factor that undermines union solidarity. As a result, it may be that in five years time (a long contract length) that the next time the food service workers bargain they will find their cohesiveness and solidarity weakened, as workers with longer service are pitted against those of less service and vice versa.

As students and workers return to their regular routine, the workers at McMaster’s main food cafeteria said they are, despite some of the concessions, delighted with the gains. They explained that this battle was not just for their families, but for future families that are employed at McMaster. These workers are quick to thank students for their support throughout the strike. Widespread part-time and flexible employment has been beaten back at McMaster at great cost. Let’s hope that the next group of workers who become the victim of McMaster’s intimidating bargaining tactics do even better.

This brings us back to the wider public sector struggle, particularly in the university sector. McMaster University is one of any number of examples of how Canada’s post-secondary education is being slowly strangled of funding and privatized. The neoliberalization of universities is being given further impetus by the turn to public sector austerity to bail out the banking system, after the biggest economic disaster in history. The lowest paid workers, typically in food services on campuses, are one group of workers being especially impacted. So are, in different ways, students and faculty. All are going to have to find ways to strike new sectoral coalitions to defend public universities. This is something that activists and unions in the university sector in Canada have been extremely poor at over the last two decades. This is the challenge that is posed in the militancy and particularities of the food services strike at McMaster, and in the larger struggle to overthrow the neoliberal vision of the university. •

Chris Dewar and Alex Ramirez are 4th year students in McMaster University’s Labour Studies Programme.

Articles by: Chris Dewar and Alex Ramirez

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