OCUFA conference on contract faculty, a precariously employed majority

This article is from the WLUFA Advocate April 2016 4.9.

By Anne-Marie Allison, Mathematics and member of the CAS Negotiating Team

The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) hosted a conference in Toronto on February 11-12. Confronting Precarious Academic Work brought together students, tenure-track and contract faculty, journalists, policymakers and union representatives. As a member of the 2016 CAS Negotiating Team and as a contract faculty member, I was thrilled to be immersed in an atmosphere that recognized and respected my contributions as—take your pick!—a “sessional,” a “part-timer,” a “gypsy lecturer,” “adjunct faculty,” “contingent faculty” or an “invisible majority.” I was also somehow reassured that contract faculty are not alone—we are a fast growing sector of the workforce not just in Ontario universities, not just in Canada, but around the world.

That is definitely not a new statement. (See “Contract faculty: An international challenge” and “Precarious employment is becoming a way of life & academia is no exception.”) But it is most certainly an abysmal and frustrating truth. Speakers and attendees came from across Canada and around the world—the US, the UK and Australia—to address the employment precarity of contract academics. The exploitation of the contract faculty workforce and the ever-growing challenges thrust upon universities to the potential detriment of student education is a worldwide epidemic. Dr. Guy Standing, Professor of Development Studies at the University of London, describes an emerging class of people, the “precariat,” who face lives of insecurity as they cope with jobs that are far from guaranteed, temporary, low-waged, and/or part-time. In her introduction for Dr. Standing’s talk, the moderator, Grace K. Stephenson, PhD candidate from OISE, University of Toronto and University World News contributor, joked that she was a “sessional in training,” and said Dr. Standing believes that contract faculty are part of the most educated underclass in the history of humanity. He gave an impactful and eloquent keynote address titled, “Global trends in precarious labour and international responses.”
Dr. Andre Turcotte, Associate Professor, School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University, dis-cussed results of an OCUFA public opinion poll that charted Ontarians’ perceptions of precarious academic work. The survey reveals that Ontarians gave nearly full support to modifying current university practices to convert part-time positions to full-time positions.

Also, Ontarians think that universities should be model employers and support good jobs in their communities. There is near universal support among the respondents to the survey for fairness in hiring, equal pay for equal work, provision of health and pension benefits, assurance of adequate course preparation time and the first option to teach familiar courses. Results of the poll can be found on the OCUFA website here.

In a panel discussion asking, “What do we know about the impact of precarious academic labour on contract faculty and our university communities,” Dr. Jamie Brownlee, Department of Law and Legal Studies, Carleton University, recounted his struggle to obtain data on contract faculty from various universities. Even after exercising the Freedom of Information Act, he was still stonewalled by Administrators. Dr. Brownlee likened the veiled threats and questions about how he intended to use the data to the sorts of techniques used by mafia bosses.

In the UK, many contract faculty are hired under “zero–hour contracts.” These contracts offer no fixed hours or income. See the article by Jonathan White, “Zero-hours contract and precarious academic work in the UK.” White, who is the Bargaining and Negotiations official from University and College Union in the UK, highlights the prevalence of faculty on fixed-term contracts, many of them hourly-paid.

Maria Maisto, an activist and organizer for contingent faculty and for the integrity of higher education is the president of the New Faculty Majority, a non-profit national organization in the US that advocates for contingent faculty. Maisto spoke about the formation of the organization and the growth of “so-called part-time faculty” who have little to no union support. “Faculty,” she argued, “are actually subsidizing very wealthy institutions that are making questionable decisions about resource allocation.” She said that her “group has ad-dressed the health implications and the costs that are associated with the stress of contingent faculty work and the costs that that imposes on the state.” Although her group has had some success building solidarity with tenure-track faculty and gaining the backing of some Administrators, it has been challenged in reaching out to parents of students. The group’s findings about the delusions of higher education held by parents seems to echo other results of the OCUFA survey mentioned above.
Dr. Robyn May from the University of Melbourne report-ed on the casualization of labour in the academic profession in Australia. Her description is eerily similar to the situation in Canada: a decline in government funding, devolved budget models within universities, and the rise of managerialism. She quoted a university manager who said: “It’s a curious way to run a university that the teaching—the core business—is done by the most marginalised members of the community, and this impacts on both the casuals and the ongoing staff.”
In a panel session on why university governance is important to addressing precarious academic work, Erin Black, Vice Chair, CUPE 3902, University of Toronto, provided some insight in the words of her local’s members: “It is difficult to imagine what being valued and respected might mean in a system that systematically marginalizes an entire segment of its workforce. The fact that marginalization does not necessarily translate into hostility is commendable, but even so it is hard to feel valued and respected when one is on the outside looking in.” Contract faculty need to get other faculty and Administrators to “Involve us in key decisions as they affect us and the well-being of our students.” Laurier professor, Dr. Jim Gerlach, Chemistry and Biochemistry and CAS Chief Negotiator, rounded out the first day of panel discussions by summarizing the lack of representation at governance levels at WLU, citing an example that contract faculty cannot partake in the search for a university president.

The final keynote address was given by Dr. Karen Foster, Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, and Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Rural Futures for Atlantic Canada, Dalhousie University. Foster polled the contract academic staff at Nova Scotia universities about the stresses and insecurities of precarious academic work. Her findings are similar to those in WLUFA’s CAS Negotiating Team survey. Key challenges (ranked in order of importance) are: (1) job insecurity, (2) time (notice of contracts) and (3) compensation. A majority of contract faculty find the precarity of their work stressful (mostly because they do not know whether they have steady employment). The majority do not think they are paid fairly: when they do the math, they realize they are paid below minimum wage.

The conference concluded with a panel on the way forward. It was both evocative and empowering.


Dr. Frances Cachon, Department of Sociology, University of Windsor and OCUFA Contract Faculty/Faculty Complement Committee, gave a motivational speech about her experience as a contract faculty member. She urged tenure-track faculty to use their tenure to help the cause of the precariously employed contract academic. Precarious labor is not just affecting contract academics. Pam Frache, an organizer with the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign, gave an energized speech about the unfortunate re-placement of decent jobs with low-wage and precarious work.

The overall message of the conference is clear: universities need to be more accountable to their employees, students (and the folks who pay tuition, parents), and to the public; more and more post-secondary education is being delivered by contract faculty who have little to no job security and are paid very little for their industrious efforts; and building solidarity among faculty, students, university Administration and the broader community is vital to changing the working situation for the precariously employed at our universities.
I have only touched on the scope of the conference. I urge you to peruse the conference materials (agenda, slides, audio) available on the OCUFA website.

You can listen to Dr. Standing’s speech (as well as those of other presenters) by clicking on the relevant Sound Cloud on the conference website.

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