by Steve Arnold, THESPEC.COM
McMaster University is being accused of hypocrisy for giving its top directors and managers salary hikes of up to 28 per cent over the past three years while the union representing its lowest paid workers say they get less than a living wage.
Documents obtained by the Building Union of Canada (BUC) show that while the university has been building a reputation for research into the harmful effects of poverty and the need for a living wage, it has paid out more than $2 million in severances to 100 employees over three years.
The annual provincial Sunshine List also shows hefty raises to top earners while the lowest paid are told to wait five years to reach the $14.95-an-hour living wage for Hamilton. The sunshine list also shows the number of McMaster staff earning more than $100,000 a year has grown.
The BUC is negotiating a new contract for 262 cleaners, custodians and skilled tradespeople at McMaster. The documents were provided to The Spectator as a pressure tactic.
“Are we trying to embarrass the university? Absolutely,” said BUC president Craig Bromell. “McMaster has more than 1,000 people on the sunshine list, but they are still browbeating us over small raises for the lowest (paid) people there.”
In November, BUC replaced the Service Employees International Union as bargaining agent for workers angry with miniscule wage hikes and benefits concessions in their last contract. Under that deal, wages for 38 mostly female cleaners are $13.75 an hour while custodians, who do the same work, get $17.77 an hour. That rate, however, has been frozen since 2009. Full-time cleaners get another $2 an hour in lieu of benefits. The 71-member trades group, mostly men, get up to $34 an hour.
The union has asked for raises of 12.5 per cent over two years while McMaster’s last offer was 5.69 per cent over five years.
Both sides say their goal is to get the lowest paid workers to the $14.95-an-hour living wage identified for Hamilton by the Social Planning and Research Council. The dispute is over when that goal will be reached.
“We’ve been at the table with this union for several months and have identified reaching the living wage as our goal,” said Roger Couldrey, McMaster’s vice-president of administration. “You can presume that gap has been closed, but the union has not accepted any of our offers.”
The union, however, says many of those offers would take the lowest paid workers to the living wage by taking money away from others in the group – a trade the union refuses to make.
McMaster’s leaders have long admitted employees at the bottom of its wage pyramid are suffering. Minutes of the Oct. 21, 2010 board of governors meeting note “this group of employees, who are amongst the lowest paid on campus, appear to have been harshly treated by the university …” and that “wage rates in the region of $13 per hour fall below the poverty line.”
Despite that, Couldrey said, McMaster can’t afford to raise its lowest wages any faster.
“Our core business is research and teaching and it’s really important for us to get the best value we can for every dollar we spend,” he said.
Bromell, however, argues the money needed to reach the living wage is little more than pocket change to the university.
“We’re only asking for nickels and dimes here,” he said. “We’re kind of embarrassed at how little we’re asking for.”
To back its position, the union charges that while McMaster asks its lowest paid workers to wait half a decade to reach the living wage, it has been much more generous with its top earners.
The 2013 sunshine list, the compilation of public employees earning more than $100,000 a year, shows 1,034 names for McMaster, 17 more than the previous list, and 16 employees who earn more than $300,000.
A list of 17 names chosen at random by the union, all with titles such as director, executive director, senior manager or vice-president, shows salaries ranging between $121,600 and $278,600. They have split more than $608,000 in raises since 2010 – increases ranging between 11 and 28 per cent.
“I really didn’t understand what a hypocritical organization McMaster is,” Bromell said. “We want them to show the same attitude to the people at the bottom that they show at the top.”
Couldrey defended the number of high salaries as a necessary cost of doing business.
“We are competing globally for talent and one has to pay competitive salaries to attract talented people,” he said. “I don’t think we’re at all unusual in that.”
Couldrey added some of the management increases reflected changed responsibilities as a wide-ranging restructuring forced more than 100 staff cuts costing McMaster more than $2 million in severances.
While it struggles with wage increases for its cleaners, McMaster has also been striving to establish a reputation for itself as a leading poverty research institution, funding a professor to research the living-wage question and financing the McMaster Community Poverty Initiative, a group of students, faculty and staff who research, advocate and educate on the benefits of poverty reduction. McMaster researchers were also behind a report on the dangers of precarious employment and other poverty issues last year.
No new bargaining dates have been set.