By Brenda Austin-Smith
The first full pandemic term is almost over as I type this column. Looking around the largely virtual post-secondary landscape as classes end and exams begin, what I’ve seen over the last few months is an incredible amount of effort on the part of CAUT members to provide high-quality, public education in the middle of an on-going global disaster. We can all by now list a ton of words and phrases we are sick and tired of hearing from administrations to describe our collective scramble to adjust to the COVID world. We have pivoted and relaunched; we have over-hauled and uploaded; we have weighed the merits of synchronous and non-synchronous instruction. With a variety of makeshift home studios set up across the country, cameras and laptops perched on top of books and cartons and counters, we have all become broadcasters.
But the most irritating phrase from the past term for me remains “We’re all in this together.” Because we are not. The virus may be global, but its effects are systemically uneven in our sector, as in many others. Contract academic staff members in universities and colleges especially bore the brunt of the emergency re-tooling the post-secondary system endured over the summer and into the autumn term. Many CAUT members pulled extra unpaid shifts as care providers for children out of school and without childcare. But many part-time academics did this and also worked completely off the clock in the summer because their contracts had ended weeks before. And as CAUT research on the makeup of the teaching population shows us, members of this precariat are more likely to be women, racialized and Indigenous academics.
Even as these colleagues worked evening and weekends designing lessons and assignments and later, teaching, mentoring, and marking, administrations began to balance COVID budget cuts and adjustments on their backs. A CAUT crowd-sourced survey on the early effects of the pandemic revealed that while a third of academic staff were working ten or more hours a week, one in ten part-time staff had reduced hours, or had lost work altogether, as well as the benefits that went with it. At an on-line discussion event in mid-November hosted by CAUT, association presidents expressed frustration at administrations refusing to compensate contract academics for that extra work, or saying “No” to requests for childcare and dependent care supports and funding. Some institutions also dismissed requests for reimbursements for the cost of teaching essentials like a decent chair, some headphones, and upgraded internet access for part-time academics.
Association leadership shared more than anger at that meeting though. They also traded insights and strategies for action on these issues. For example, some have used group and association grievances to make that process a mobilizing one, even in this virtual moment. Bargaining too can take creative forms online, and political action is possible, even in a pandemic. At my own association, honk-a-thons and co-ordinated social media actions with other provincial unions gave us many ways to voice our objections and make some noise as we entered a tough bargaining round.
We will all have many more chances, I’m sure, to carry our noisemaking into 2021. As talk of austerity inevitably surfaces, the deep connections we have with other labour groups, with our students, and our communities will form the basis of more collective action against it. While we pause over the winter break, and with the prospect of more work ahead of us, I want to thank CAUT members, member associations, provincial affiliates, associate members, and CAUT staff for their commitment to that effort. May we all find some time for rest before we return. Stay safe, everyone.