Part-time contract technicians in the fine arts department should be thrilled. Last month, Concordia vice president Michael Di Grappa promised to increase their hourly wages, but the technicians say many questions still remain unanswered.
These technicians run supervised workshops ranging from ceramics to woodworking, demonstrating the operation of machinery and teaching students the technical aspects of their crafts.
Prior to 2004, the part-time technicians were members of Concordia’s technicians union. But after a legal battle between the university and the union, the part-timers were removed from the union.
Last year, the technicians union signed a collective agreement with Concordia, increasing their salary. Union members also received retroactive pay for the period between 2002 and 2004, based on the new pay scale. Since the part-timers were then part of the union, they also received retroactive pay. Then the problems started.
“We got our retro pay, but when we got our paychecks, our salary hadn’t increased. They calculated our retro pay based on the new pay scale, paid us that, but then didn’t continue paying us a salary based on that same scale, meaning our wages were comparable to the year 2002,” said Gary Cherkas, a part-time contract technician specializing in woodworking.
With no union to protect them and to ensure pay increases, Cherkas and Shelly Low, a technician specializing in ceramics, began expressing their outrage with letters to the university.
“We sent letters to human resources and to the dean of fine arts, and there wasn’t even any acknowledgment. Finally, we were so frustrated we decided to attend the town hall meeting,” said Low.
The meeting, last May, gave the technicians a chance to speak directly to the university’s top brass. Much to their surprise, Di Grappa publicly announced he would personally look into the matter, and in August he wrote them a letter guaranteeing a raise, retroactive to 2004.
But the technicians say the raise isn’t enough.
“We have to give the university some credit. Di Grappa said he would look into this and he did, but if we had stayed in the union we’d be making more money,” he said.
The technicians are also worried about job security. Because they are contract employees, they must sign a new contract every September and again every January, and are unemployed during the Christmas break.
This is particularly disheartening for technicians like Cherkas and Low, who have been employed at Concordia for 15 and 16 years, respectively.
According to Cherkas because they aren’t unionized part-time technicians can also be fired without notice.
The lack of union representation presents another problem, Cherkas said. Many part-time technicians would like to have fulltime positions, but because union members are first in line for open positions, he said it’s practically impossible to make the switch.
“If a job opens up in my shop and someone from a union in a different department is qualified for it, they’ll get it even though I’ve been at my job for 10 years and it would seem natural that I should step up to the fulltime position,” said Cherkas.
But according to Concordia spokesperson, Chris Mota, this is business as usual.
“It’s normal for staff collective agreements to include a provision that gives some priority to members of the bargaining unit when an opening comes up.”
Meanwhile, for many part-time techs, the reality of years of frozen wages is sinking in.
“The cost of living is increasing and I’m thinking that soon I won’t be able to afford to work part-time,” said Low.
Elaine Denis, a fibers technician in the fine arts department and a member of the technicians union thinks contract technicians are generally undervalued, and sympathizes with them.
“These specialized employees are absolutely essential. A fulltime technician who has worked for years with a contract technician always has the fear in the back of his mind that their colleague will leave the job because they are fed-up with the low wages, lack of security and lack of recognition by the employer,” said Denis.