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Letter to the Editor / Mobilizing CAS — engaging the hidden support

Letter to the Editor / Mobilizing CAS — engaging the hidden support

By Karen Harper

At the recent CAUT Contract Academic Staff (CAS) conference, attendees were eager for ideas on how to engage precarious members. Here I share my experience and call for more communication among CAS across the country.

It is challenging to engage CAS because we are different ages, have different job situations, and are available at different times. CAS include recent graduates trying to maintain a research career, full-time workers or retired professors doing extra teaching, and instructors trying to make a living.

Results of a survey I conducted on engagement highlight difficulties faced by CAS unions. Uncertainty about the future hinders member engagement, and members noted that work-life balance leaves little time for additional commitments. About 85% of the 140 members surveyed did not attend union events because of a lack of awareness, time or interest. Professional development workshops were twice as popular as other events. There was no clear preference for location or time. Almost all respondents preferred being informed by email than other methods.

Our union has offered a range of events including meet-and-greets, pub nights and family picnics. We organized workshops as part of Fair Employment Week on CAS and research, job security and a living wage, benefits, and what to do in a strike. Community events included tabling to highlight our working conditions and a display of our members’ academic achievements such as books, journal articles or artwork displayed in university libraries. Despite low attendance, I believe our efforts drew attention to issues and promoted awareness. I think that one-on-one conversations had an impact despite finding few members in their offices.

Since online communication is important, we kept our website, Facebook page and Twitter up to date. Our bi-annual newsletter included reports of events, bargaining updates, and informative articles such as on explaining precedence. As president I sent weekly emails about relevant events, news and updates on labour issues related to the pandemic, bargaining and grievances. Thank-you emails I received from members grateful for these updates and talking to members who appreciated these emails made me confident that I reached a large portion of our membership.

For bargaining, we held campaigns with posters to raise awareness leading up to our bargaining survey. We held information sessions about bargaining proposals and the tentative agreement before ratification votes. I organized CAUT training sessions before we selected our bargaining teams. The test for our efforts came with our strike vote. We used all means of communication to get out the vote: email, snail mail, text, phone calls. We put up posters, sent an information letter, maintained a FAQ web page and posted a video. We were successful!

Although we still have low attendance at meetings, we were able to engage the hidden support when it mattered. It is important to keep up efforts to engage members even when it doesn’t seem to be working. CAS are often genuinely too busy or feel too precarious to help, but many have time and motivation to read emails, answer surveys, vote on crucial issues, and stay aware of union activities.

We need to share our experiences with member engagement and other issues nationally. A forum for CAS to share our stories would help us mobilize our members to Make It Fair for CAS in Canadian universities.

Karen Harper Former Communications Officer and President, CUPE 3912 Member, CAUT CAS Committee


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