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Hospitality Workers Strike at McMaster University

Voices on its Causes and Conclusions

by Mayday Staff

Patricia Townes, Isabella Felinczak, and Joan Jones
Patricia Townes, Isabella Felinczak, and Joan Jones

From Mayday Magazine


Joan Jones, a hospitality worker at McMaster University and a union steward with SEIU Local 2, described the success of the recent hospitality workers strike at McMaster to Mayday: “They really hoped they could push us to settle. They didn’t think we were strong enough to do what we did.”
This is how Izabella Felinczak also works in hospitality at Mac and elaborated on the same idea:  “I believe Human Resources were convinced they’d get their way and we’d lose our jobs. I don’t think they expected women, single mothers, and little old ladies were going to stand up to the university. They thought the university would have power over us.” It is estimated that three-quarters of hospitality workers at McMaster are women.

The strike lasted just ten days, from January 6th to the 16th, but that was all the time it took to convince McMaster that the hospitality workers would not accept the massive concessions that were being demanded of them. “The issues were job security,” said Jones. “These things didn’t just affect me, they could have affected everybody. The way the university wrote their proposal we could have all been let go the next day.”

In McMaster’s hospitality sector, there are three types of employees. The full-time and part-time workers are both unionized with SEIU Local 2, but working alongside them are a large group of what are termed “satellite” workers. These workers are short term, informal, and usually temporary, with little job security, lower pay, and no access to benefits.

McMaster was trying to eliminate guaranteed hours for full and part time positions, and to dramatically cut the number of full-time positions. They would simply expand their satellite workforce to compensate. This is a common strategy by bosses in this city, like US Steel, to replace stable, full-time jobs with precarious, minimum-wage labour.

Patricia Townes is a part-time employee with three children and nine years of experience at McMaster. “I don’t know what I would do if I lost my position,” she said. “My head won’t even go there. I’d probably have to sell my house and rent a small apartment; sell my car; I couldn’t help out my daughter who’s at university. I wouldn’t be able to do the things that every parent wants to do for their children. Even the basic needs, I don’t think I could provide them that.”

Both Townes and Felinczak started as satellite workers and managed to secure part-time positions after a few years. Many part-timers are counting on some day getting a full-time position. But as Townes points out, “There are part-time people who have been waiting for full-time positions for eighteen years.” The deal offered by McMaster would have eliminated any chance of part-timers accessing these positions, and greatly reduced the number of satellite employees who could hope to gain the relative security and stable hours of a part-time position.

When the university refused to negotiate on this key issue, the worker’s moved decisively to strike. An overwhelming majority of the unionized workers participated in the strike, and support for the strikers was widespread throughout the university and community. “I could not believe the support we got from the community plus the staff from other departments and the students,” Townes said. “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 [a campus bar and restaurant] kept coffee going for us all day, so we had a warm place and fresh coffees.”

However, in spite of the strength of the strike, McMaster was able to maintain a fairly normal level of service in its restaurants and cafeterias. This was done by calling in all the satellite employees to cover the shifts of the striking workers. This sort of practice is often called “scabbing”, and scabs are frequently scorned by supporters of a strike. But the workers we interviewed offered a more nuanced perspective. “I don’t really consider them scabs per se, just unfortunately people who are not in our unit yet,” said Jones. “Most of them work alongside of us every day, but they aren’t in the union.” Townes elaborated, saying, “The university does what is best for their bottom line; they don’t care about us. Ultimately, to them it’s about the business. The casuals are the people who worked because they have to. They’re not in the union and have no job security. They have families. They were told they’d lose their jobs [if they didn’t report to work.]”

Although Felinczak understands the position the satellite workers were in, she expressed disappointment that more of them did not participate in the strike. “I believe if our union members would have had more help from the casuals we would have won more. If the casuals had joined our strike we’d all be in a better position. I understand many of the casuals are even in a worse situation than I am. Many are on the brink of poverty making only minimum wage and this was their opportunity to get some more hours.  Many said to me ‘I am with you, but I can’t afford not to work.’ I believe if we are all united we could make it better for all of us.”

In fact, one of the key gains of the strike was the elimination of the satellite class of workers. Under the agreement, these workers will join the part-time worker class, with the option of joining the union. As well, all part-time workers will receive a thirty-three percent increase in hours, going from 18 hours per week to twenty-four hours per week. Under the old contract, full-time workers were limited to one third of unionized employees, but that cap has now been removed and McMaster has committed to “maximize full-time positions.”

Hospitality workers at McMaster are now protected by strong job security language, and full-time positions are protected from becoming part-time or casual. This new contract was passed with more than ninety percent approval. By banding together and acting with the needs of all workers in mind, unionized McMaster hospitality workers were able to push back efforts by their bosses to strip them of their benefits and job security.

Increasingly, bosses are echoing the rhetoric of politicians who call for austerity, trying to reverse gains that workers and poor people have made while preserving their own privilege. Isabella Felinczak immigrated from Poland about twenty-five years ago. “I always thought, that coming to such a rich country with so many businesses, there would be a niche for everybody, regardless of education and physical ability,” she said. “I never expected things to get like this. All these businesses moving to Asia and other places. The Prime Minister better not tell me that lost jobs are being replaced. Are we all going to work at McDonalds? Replacing full-time jobs with benefits with part-time jobs at minimum wage and no benefits is not good enough.”

Downwards pressure on wages, benefits, and social services is increasing in every part of society, from cuts to welfare to the lockout at US Steel. Worldwide, the university is an important site of struggle, because the degrees it sells are the gateway to the middle class. At McMaster, we see that in the past year, the three main unions there (CUPE 3906, CAW 555, and SEIU Local 2) have all either struck or been on the verge of striking.  In these struggles where the university is the employer, we can see clearly how it has positioned itself to decide who will be financially stable and who will be poor.

It is essential to recognize that there is a group of people who are profiting from the financial crisis and the ensuing austerity regime at the expense of poor and working people. Every struggle against these cuts benefits everyone in this city, something that the striking hospitality workers clearly understood.  Joan Jones sums up her opinion of the strike in these terms: “I was very proud of all my co-workers for sticking together and doing what we had to do to protect decent paying jobs for working families in Hamilton.”

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