The Ontario government has enacted legislation ending the York University strike — the longest by academic workers in 30 years. As a York faculty member I find it difficult to ignore the events of the 12-week walkout, especially since the conditions that gave rise to the conflict are present or coming soon to other institutions.
At its heart the strike at York has been a struggle over the nature of academic work and the increasing division between full-time academics and all other classes of academic workers. Contract faculty, teaching assistants, graduate assistants and research assistants, represented by Local 3903 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, went on strike on Nov. 6. A key issue was job security for contract faculty, a number of whom have taught at York for more than 10 years.
At York, more than 50 per cent of the teaching is carried out by contract faculty and teaching assistants and a similar situation prevails across Canada. CUPE members may teach a single course at York, but many teach two or more courses each year or teach at more than one institution.
Their conditions of work typically involve low wages relative to full-time academic staff, limited opportunities to participate in collegial governance, restricted access to academic research and conference travel funds, and inadequate office space. What CUPE members report as particularly galling is having to reapply year after year for the same job.
The phenomenal growth of contingent teaching is the result of two trends, the development of mass post-secondary education and underfunding. Since the 1950s, post-secondary education has been transformed from a few small, mostly elite, institutions to a massive system serving more than half of all high school graduates. But public funding has been insufficient to maintain growth and high quality programs.
As a result, institutions have increasingly been forced to turn to private sources of revenue, mainly in the form of higher tuition, but also research funds and endowment funds. In this context a cheap and flexible labour force, one that can respond quickly to market demand, growth or declines in enrollment, becomes important at every institution. Of course, it is at the expense of secure employment with reasonable wages and benefits.
But underfunding in the face of expanding participation does not tell the whole story. Less spending has not led to lower expectations. Rather, over the past 20 years, academic staff have been exhorted to do more with less to ensure access and high quality programming. Our institutions have evolved to suit this situation, becoming more like corporations, and in the process transforming relations between teachers and students.
York students organizing a lawsuit on Facebook have this to say about their education: “York University takes our money in exchange for providing a service, namely our education, and then fails to complete the transaction by allowing third parties to hijack our education.”
Especially in the last decade, the effects of expanding demand have been exacerbated by governments’ growing emphasis on research and dramatically increased and more conscious competition for research funding between institutions, coupled with what seems like increasing inequality.
Caught in the middle and disadvantaged in this competition are the “new” universities in the big centres, established or dramatically expanded from the late 1950s to cope with the aspirations of baby-boomers — Carleton, Concordia, UQAM, Simon Fraser and York — each focused on the humanities and social science and in most cases without the financial and prestige benefit of engineering, law and medical schools, which were monopolized by elite institutions in the same city. These became natural sites for the conflict that has riven York.
At York, the employer has proposed to solve the issue of job security with the creation of a “teaching intensive stream.” Academic staff in this stream would be paid less than their full-time colleagues, have fewer benefits, no sabbaticals and would teach more. They would not be expected to participate in collegial governance nor carry out research. The cost of job security would be the creation of a permanent two-tier workforce where the privileged minority will create and mobilize knowledge, but leave the responsibility for the bulk of the undergraduate and college teaching to a large “casualized” group of academics who have no formal access to research opportunities.
In the face of employers who will divide us, full-time academic staff must join their contract colleagues in the demand for well-paid, secure, tenured jobs. CAUT members have adopted a policy that every academic job, whether part or full-time, should include teaching, research and service. CAUT’s position is that unions should bargain “pro rata” appointments — a part-time appointment that is equivalent to some percentage of a full-time appointment.
In a recent bargaining advisory CAUT argues that “the creation of positions that do not involve a range of academic activities in the pursuit of knowledge and its dissemination and application, undermines the mission of a post-secondary institution, which must remain committed to critical enquiry and learning.” It is a simple matter of fairness.