“If you understand what is happening in society, you understand what is happening in our universities”. Wayne Lewchuk opened the forum about the changing nature of academic labour with a powerful statement that in every part of our economy, including our universities, there is a growing number of precarious jobs. A recent study, which he jointly authored, called “It’s More than Poverty” documents that working these short-term contracts or temp jobs has negative social and personal impacts, such as heightened anxiety and limited community connection. Lewchuk argued that as universities increasingly mirror the corporate sector, employees are seen as liabilities rather than assets.
Ontario universities have seen an explosion in the number of contract faculty members – paid by the course with little or no job security and few benefits. CBC radio producer and contract faculty member Ira Basen talked about the reality facing young academics who, after more than a decade of university studies and often laden with student debt, end up caught in a trap of stringing together temporary contracts. Still hoping to get a full-time permanent job, many contract faculty also attempt to keep up with their research and write articles on evenings, weekends and between contract jobs.
Winnie Ng turned our attention to equity – a key challenge for our universities. Young scholars are more likely to be women and people of colour, who Ng suggested continue to bear great injustice as universities join in the race to the bottom. Ng challenged the audience to work towards solutions by renewing union representation with an emphasis on sectoral bargaining and solidarity; creating employment equity bridging programs to ensure contract faculty and faculty from historically marginalized groups are not left behind; collecting data to substantiate and sharpen our claims; and building coalitions with students, parents and the public that link fair employment and quality, affordable education.
These presentations were followed by a passionate discussion focused on the personal and professional costs being borne by contract faculty members. There was anger and disappointment about the current state of academic labour, which were followed by calls for building more solidarity in our university communities and for students and faculty to work more closely together to develop solutions to the challenges facing contract faculty.
It’s clear that being a contract faculty member – with no job security, difficult working conditions and few benefits – is a problem that should concern all of us whether we are students, fellow faculty, or the public who fund universities.
The issues facing contract faculty are not unique to the university sector, and our response is part of a broader agenda for good jobs for all – a movement to create good jobs that can support our families and build our communities.
Thanks to CUPE 3902 for organizing the event at the University of Toronto as part of Fair Employment Week.