Fair Employment Week 2016

October 24

Over past three decades, changing economic forces have encouraged employers to erode job security, reduce real wages and benefits, and attack pensions.  Governments of all parties have aided and abetted these attacks on living standards and the quality of work.  From the outside, university professors and librarians appear to control their labour to an extent unimaginable for most workers, and to enjoy salaries and benefits that free them from worry about the social pressures squeezing everyone else.  What is not apparent to the outside world is that nearly half of the people teaching in Canadian universities are precarious labourers doing much of the same work as full-time, tenured faculty, but at much lower relative salaries and with no job security beyond their term to term teaching contracts.  They are vulnerable to changing enrolment patterns, to changes in course requirements, and to cuts to faculty budgets. 

Fair Employment Week is a yearly event in which contract academic staff (sessionals) give proud voice to the invaluable work that they do in universities across Canada, but also make political demands that faculty associations, administrations, and governments recognize and respond to the problem of precarious academic work.  All three groups have had a role to play in allowing precarious labour to replace tenure track positions:  governments, by continually underfunding post-secondary education, administrations, by choosing to save costs by shrinking the full-time, tenured professoriate, and faculty associations, for being slow (as was the rest of the labour movement) to recognize that a systematic shift towards low-cost part time employment was underway in the economy and that it would have the same effects within as without universities.  As a consequence, faculty associations did not move aggressively to counter those tendencies with creative proposals to expand the full time faculty complement.  If all three groups share some of the blame, all three of us must find ways to work together to solve the problem.

The costs of precarious employment in Canadian universities are high indeed.   The full development of the intellectual potential of contract academic staff is impeded by job insecurity; society is robbed of the potential insights and creations the full realization of that potential might produce; the collegiality of our campus is compromised by the reality and perception that the professoriate is divided into two distinct and unequal classes; and academic freedom and campus democracy are eroded when almost half of our members must worry about speaking freely, let alone giving offence, lest it hamper their ability to secure the next contract.   

Sadly, the truth of the matter is that precarious academic work is now a structural reality in Canadian universities and it will not be easy to solve.  In the short term, faculty associations must try to improve the day to day working conditions of contract academic staff.  The WUFA Executive recently agreed to look into the practicalities of creating a small grant to support contract academic staff’s research.  We must also, through collective bargaining, find novel ways to improve job security.  Over the long term, we will have to work together in our local, and in our provincial and national unions, to force governments to reinvest in post-secondary education so that opportunities for full time employment are broadened. 

In closing, I urge all of our members to Support CAUT’s Fair Employment Week by visiting WUFA’s Fair Employment Booth (Thursday Oct. 27th from 10am-1pm --CAW atrium), and to become part of the broader movement for change by signing OCUFA’s We Teach Ontario pledge and the CAUT Pledge of Solidarity.  The issues of contract academic staff--  job security, the unity of teaching and research, academic freedom, and campus democracy--  are WUFA issues.

In solidarity

Jeff Noonan

President, WUFA