1. What is a union?
Perhaps you have heard the story of “the bundle of sticks” or the phrase “united we stand, divided we fall”. That’s basically, what union means. Union (or more precisely trade union), copying from Wikipedia, is an organization of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. You might also be familiar with the term ‘syndicate’ in some other languages.
The idea is that employers (intentionally or unintentionally) do not consider the best possible conditions for the workers. Therefore, workers form a union so that each individual does not have to deal with the employer directly, they can go to their union and work with others to achieve a better result; then, they will have the help of other workers and professionals working in the union to solve their issues.
2. Then, what is CUPE 3906?
CUPE stands for Canadian Union of Public Employees. CUPE is a general union of employees across all Canada, and actually the largest one in Canada. Similar to any other organizational structure, there are different levels and the lowest level includes the ‘locals’. CUPE 3906 is the local that we are part of, which includes TAs (Teaching Assistants), Sessional Faculties (the faculty members that are usually not permanent), and postdoctoral students. CUPE 3902 is for example for TAs of University of Toronto.
3. Who is a member of CUPE again?
So basically we have three units in our local:
- Unit 1 – Teaching and Research Assistants (in lieu of* a TAship) that have a contract of 130 hours in a school year (from September to the next September)
- Unit 2 – Sessional and Sessional Music Faculty
- Unit 3 – Post doctoral Fellows
*) In lieu of a TAship means that when you were offered your admission to McMaster they promised that you will get money for doing X hours of TAing, but the department for some reason cannot or does not want to give you a course to TA for, therefore, they pay you the same amount of money as RA (Research Assistant). The other forms of RA that you receive from your professors do not count for this.
4. Ok I got it, but how does the union work?
The effort here is to have a complete democratic system. To put it in simple forms, all the members can attend General Membership Meeting (GMM) and vote for any decision being made in the local.
Every meeting has an ‘agenda’ that is prepared by the executives for talking about and, if needed, for voting for “businesses” (business referred to anything that is being considered in the meeting). In addition to the agenda, all the members have the right to raise other relevant issues and if needed, other members vote on that issue. Almost everything in this system requires voting to represent the members.
5. Who are the executives and other people at CUPE?
Well, there are many roles in a union. Executives are elected from the members during meetings for various positions. Each of the executives has certain responsibilities. For example, the international officer who is your representative and is preparing this FAQ, should attend ‘executive meetings’ and make sure that international members’ needs are discussed.
You might ask what are executive meetings. Since it is not possible to have general membership meetings (GMM) for all the decisions being made, executives, who are selected by the members from the members themselves, normally every other week meet to discuss issues that are not with the highest importance. More important issues will be brought to GMMs.
Here is the list of executives at any time and you can contact any of them if you have any question that is related to their responsibilities.
Besides executives, we currently have two ‘Staff Representatives” that are experienced professionals who are hired by the local to advice our local and make sure CUPE’s regulations are followed. Staffs are like normal employees and have their salary and benefits.
There are also other committees elected by members from the members for performing some particular job. For example, the most important one, ‘Bargaining Committee’ is formed for bargaining and negotiating the ‘collective agreement’ with the employee.
6. Wait it’s getting complicated, what is a collective agreement?
Collective agreement is like a contract between employer and employees, but employees as a whole. What happens is that the bargaining committee that is elected from members, usually once every two years meet up with employer (people from university in our case) and discuss the issues we as employees expect university to do for us, and the same for employee, they write their expectations there.
The result of this bargaining (a series of meetings usually) results in signing a collective agreement, in which for example says how much the university has to pay us per hour, what are the responsibilities of the employees and what are the conditions of working environment and so on.
The current version of collective agreement is also on the website.
7. I have heard about something else called ‘by-laws’, what is it?
So you know laws are everywhere like the laws every country or state has. Similarly, every local can have its own laws that are referred to as ‘by-laws’. By-laws of our local is prepared by the members and it has to follow certain guidelines of general CUPE and be certified by them. If you are interested you can find the by-laws here.
8. What can union do for me?
The most obvious advantage of having a union is the benefits that we receive by being a member, which include dental and vision care. The detailed information is available on the website. Don’t forget that as an international student you can apply for a $100 rebate every year that is related to money you pay for health insurance (which is deducted from your pay checks already).
Besides that, if you have any concerns regarding your TA works or you have any problems with the employer or anything like that, your union is definitely the first place that can officially help you.
9. Can I still use my GSA (Graduate Students Association) plan?
Good point, as you know you pay some fees for GSA membership that is deducted from your paychecks already. So yes, you can still use your benefits from GSA as long as you are not receiving the similar benefits from CUPE. For example, if you have $1000 dental insurance with CUPE, then you cannot use the GSA dental plan. But you can use GSA drug rebate and other stuff that you can find here.
10. Anything else?
Well, not much. If you are wondering what a certain thing means you can refer to the website. or feel free for anything else to contact the international officer.