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The faces of precarity

The faces of precarity

Their names are Tom, Sarika, Noureddine and Émilie. But they could be Rachel, John, Taylor and Mike. It could also be the colleague you just passed in the busy corridor on campus. It might be you. They are all highly-qualified professionals and, like all other academics, extremely busy preparing classes, teaching, researching, publishing and serving their community.

The big difference is that they’re underpaid, and don’t know from one semester to the next if their services will continue to be required by their employer. Like a third of their colleagues in universities and colleges across Canada, they are contract academics and represent the faces of the growing casualization of work in the post-secondary sector.

“I’ve been working part-time for three years. I started teaching when I was doing my PhD,” says Émilie Bernier, who teaches four to five political sciences courses a year at the University of Ottawa and the Université du Québec en Outaouais. “My employment is precarious because of my low level of seniority. I’m allotted anywhere between two months to three weeks of preparation time for my classes, and I’ve become expert at putting classes together at the very last minute. I find existence very stressful, particularly because I lecture primarily in French and every year there are more classes in English and less in French, so there are fewer jobs for Francophones.”

Tom Boogaart has twin boys. He’s been teaching history since 2004. He just landed his first long-term agreement: a renewable, three-year contract that guarantees at least a seven course load over the academic year. “It’s really hard to do research when you are constantly teaching new classes. I’ve been writing two books, but I never have sabbatical time to finish them,” he says.

“I need regularity and I need the administration to show more concern for what it means to produce knowledge and the conditions required to do so,” adds Émilie. “It’s not a job like any other. We need the proper space and care to do it. I want to believe that our mission is valuable. The university is structured like a business, despite having a completely different mission. We are training people for careers, not building skills.”

Ten years ago, CAUT launched Fair Employment Week, an annual event to raise awareness about precarious employment. Contract academic staff are often invisible. In many institutions, they teach half of all classes, but go unnoticed. In many cases, they don’t have offices or telephones, and are not invited to participate in committee and service work.

Data from Statistics Canada’s labour force survey shows that since 1999 the number of contract staff in Canada has increased by 200 per cent, while the number of regular professors grew by 14 per cent. Contract academics are paid a third less per course than regular professors. The common contract length for contract staff is one semester and they teach about 50 per cent of all undergraduate classes.

“It’s important that contract academic staff have a chance to share their stories with their colleagues, students and the broader community,” says CAUT executive director David Robinson. “This is why CAUT launched the Make it Fair campaign. It’s about all of us and how we can all work together to make life better on our campuses.”

Make life better for people like Noureddine Mouelhi. He’s been teaching philosophy at a rate of eight to nine classes a year at different universities in Montreal and Ottawa since 1986. “After 31 years and a full course load, I still can’t make a living wage,” he says. “In the lead-up to every semester, I’m constantly checking the website to find out if my classes will be offered. Students will ask if I’m teaching. They want to take a class with me. Students don’t see the difference between part-time and full-time. I would love to be able to stop thinking about the money and instead focus on my students’ education.”

Tom agrees. “I’m very committed to my students’ growth, but it’s really a type of volunteer job that I do because I care about their success. They say my work is part-time, but it’s not the reality. I wake up at 5 AM and work 60 hours a week.”

This is the kind of conversation that CAUT expects at a contract academic staff conference later this month in Toronto. Stronger Together will focus on achieving fairness for contract academic staff through advocacy, bargaining, grievance handling and mobilization. “Our goal is to not only build a strong network, but also to equip participants with the campaign tools necessary to restore good jobs and pursue the public good,” says Sarika Bose, chair of CAUT’s contract academic staff committee.

Sarika knows a thing or two about organizing and casualization. She’s been teaching on contract at the University of British Columbia for 18 years, while organizing events and raising awareness around precarity. “I was always subject to precarity. I find I don’t have enough hours in the week to do everything I’m supposed to do. I teach a lot and I sit on different committees and it’s hard to find time to do research. I often have no evenings or weekends off,” she says.

“I’m not compensated for committee work or new course preparation or to do my research,” she adds. “We need to build a long-term vision of what the university looks like. We’re wasting resources because individual scholars are seen as replaceable. They’re not.”

One approach CAUT advocates for progress is collective bargaining, and it pays off when members unite. In 2016, contract faculty at Wilfrid Laurier University voted in favour of strike action to improve working conditions. Their mobilization efforts succeeded in closing the wage gap with other Laurier employee groups and accessing employer-paid benefits.

“We need to use our collective bargaining strength to improve the working conditions of contract academic staff and increase the pathways to regular employment,” says Robinson. He says a key challenge is obtaining reliable data to form a complete picture of the extent and impact of precarious employment. CAUT has launched a national survey to fill in some of these gaps, but Robinson says more will be needed.

Sarika agrees that having data is key, as well as building a solidarity network. “We’re all in the same boat and have the same objectives; we all want to preserve the role of the university as an institute of higher learning. Not having job security restricts what I say and forces me to make middle-of-the-road choices in what I teach. It limits our academic freedom and makes us vulnerable to student interpretation of who we are,”she says.

“I’ve been on the road for years, teaching between Montreal and Ottawa,” says Noureddine. “I’ve taught dozens of courses. Each semester I have a full load, but I see no respect for contract faculty. It’s very stressful to constantly wonder if you’ll have a job and how long you can sustain this. It’s time for universities to invest in people instead of buildings.”

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