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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2012

Defending the Most Vulnerable among Us

By Wayne Peters
The importance of Canada’s universities and colleges is greater than ever. Yet, they are now facing some of the most difficult times in their history. Significant government underfunding, casualization, corporatization, privatization, marginalization of basic research and scholarly work, and a diminishing academic voice all threaten the qua­lity and integrity of the academy and its ability to serve in the public interest.

In all of this, our contract academic staff colleagues are the most vulnerable among us. Unchecked casualization of our academic staff ranks has produced an unprecedented number of contract members working in extremely precarious, poorly-paid positions in our sector. In fact, post-secondary education has become one of the major casualized sectors of employment in the country. In some institutions, one half or more of undergraduate courses are taught by contract academics.

Of course, employers like casualized employees because they are a cheap, vulnerable workforce that in times of austerity and retrenchment has few rights and protections. The only protection contract aca­demic staff members have is that which is negotiated into their collective agreements — a difficult process considering the employers’ desire to keep them as cheap, flexible labour.

At a time when we are seeing a major assault on labour rights and collective bargaining in Canada, contract academic staff members have the most to lose.

Unionization and the labour rights that accompany it are necessary conditions for eliminating the current exploitation of contract academics. Their working conditions include: little or no job security — and, hence vulnerability to infringement of their academic freedom; no health or pension benefits; no access to support staff or funding for scholarly work or service contributions; no professional development funds; and little or no access to offices and equipment.

By the very nature of their contracts, these members have no access to the full scope of the academic profession. They are not paid to do scholarly work or for service contributions, which are accepted as part of the academic job. However, there is an unwritten demand to pursue these activities to ensure that academic credentials meet tenure standards should a tenure-track job become available. So, contract academics do scholarly work and make service contributions on their own time anyway, effectively subsidizing the academy with unrecognized and unremunerated academic efforts.

Some gains and improvements have begun to be made by individual academic staff associations through collective bargaining. At some institutions, there are provisions for multi-step, stipend scales that increase over time, and for longer-term, renewable contracts that provide some security. There are examples of provisions for seniority and right-of-recall. At a few institutions, there is access to grant-based funding support for scholarly work and research and to professional development support. But all in all, the situation for contract academic staff in this country is still inadequate.

At the end of the day, collective bargaining has been and will continue to be the most effective tool for improving working conditions for contract academic staff. Academic staff associations across the country must continue to work hard at the bargaining table to make gains for their contract members. In particular, it must be understood by all academic staff that such an effort is in the best interest of the academy in general.

As described in my column last month, our ability under labour law to protect our members’ working conditions and rights is now under a full economic and legislative attack at both the national and provincial levels. Our ability to represent our members and to collectively bargain on their behalf is threatened as labour laws are undermined and new legislation restricts our col­lective actions.

Without this long-standing capa­city, simply protecting the hard-fought gains garnered for all our members over the years will be a difficult challenge — and making further improvements in this context will be even more difficult. Making them for contract acade­mic staff members, in particular, will be next to impossible.

My message in September was a simple one: we must all work to defend the labour movement in Canada if we are to continue to benefit from collective bargaining. My message in this article is equally simple: during especially challenging times like these, we must ensure the most vulnerable among us are protected and are not unfairly impacted. It is no surprise that the necessary precedents for this are strong labour laws and robust rights to collective bargaining.

One good example of how legislative change driven by economic policy can impact one group of members and not another exists in the recent changes to the Employment Insurance Act. EI claims among contract academic staff members are commonly used as a bridge between contracts. However, the recent legislative changes now mean these individuals will likely fall into the “frequent claimant” category, requiring them to accept job offers outside of their usual field of expertise at wages up to 30 per cent lower than their stipends as contract academics.

With Fair Employment Week taking place around the country later this month, it is incumbent on all of us to recommit to bargaining for better working conditions for our contract academic staff members. It is not a cliché to say that what is bad for the most vulnerable among us is also bad for all of us. This begins with a pledge to reaching out to our sisters and brothers in the broader labour movement to cooperate in fending off the current assault on the labour movement in Canada. If we are committed to making gains for our contract academic staff members then it is paramount that we protect our labour rights.

Fair Employment Week is an annual campaign designed to draw attention to the situation of contract academics on our campuses. It unites themes of equity, justice and recognition for these individuals. I would encourage you to take note of the week’s activity taking place on your campus. If there are none, then I would encourage you even more to contact your association to plan events.