OCUFA’s new President Nigmendra Narain, a Lecturer in Political Science at Western University, started his two-year term in July 2023. In recognition of Labour Day, he talks about the labour issues faculty and academic librarians face today, and how we can work collaboratively to improve working conditions for all workers across our campuses and our province.
What are some labour issues that faculty and academic librarians in Ontario face today?
All faculty—whether they are full-time, tenured faculty, contract faculty, academic librarians, or other academic professionals—face burnout. We are doing a lot more with way less. We’re seeing this in terms of exploding class sizes, the increase in workload from the pandemic era that has not receded, and a lack of resources from the government and universities to improve and expand teaching and research. So overall, this means that our faculty or librarians have less time for professional growth to improve teaching and devote to research output, which is necessary as a part of the university’s academic mission as well. Faculty mental and physical health has significantly suffered from this burnout, and we haven’t seen enough funding or support to assist with these issues.
Another area of concern is the situation for contract faculty. The job of a contract faculty member is precarious and non-permanent, and many are overworked and underpaid. I have been contract faculty now for over 20 years, so I’m well aware of the problems and pitfalls of trying to navigate a career as a contract faculty member, and to build a life in the face of instability.
A further concern is cuts to resources, including some recently announced ones for libraries that came through this summer. Librarians are under tremendous strain in this regard, as cuts mean there are not enough hirings of academic librarians, and still more work to do amongst those who already stretched in their librarian positions. We need librarians at our universities because they support faculty researchers, produce academic research themselves, and preparing students for the information economy of the future. The work of librarians includes research, teaching, and supporting roles, and all these roles are growing in scope.
Thus, the aforementioned are all troubling issues that we face in our workplaces, and we’re calling on the Ontario government to invest robust, sustainable funding into public universities so that we can improve these conditions and therefore enhance student learning conditions.
Why is it important to connect the concerns of faculty to the larger movement for workers’ rights?
The concerns and the challenges we are facing as faculty are similar for workers across other fields. We have faced attacks on our collective agreements and collective bargaining Charter rights, as well as universities’ increased reliance on precarious contracts instead of permanent positions for faculty. Some faculty and academic librarians are paid well after working for many years to research, teach, and publish in their field of expertise. But many are not paid well and face a great deal of job insecurity. We are all part of the labour movement as faculty, academic librarians, and academic staff. We and our allies in the labour movement want to build a stronger and fairer Ontario. Public universities are undoubtedly centers of communities beyond teaching and learning—they have significant social and economic impacts as well. We saw this during the crisis at Laurentian University.
Faculty and academic librarians—as employees and as members of the Sudbury community—came together with labour allies in their city and beyond to get justice for the community. OCUFA understands this and knows well that by working together with allies in the labour movement, we know we can accomplish big and important changes and improvements, such as successfully challenging Bill 124 in court as an unconstitutional infringement on workers’ rights. We must continue to do this collaborative work for the future of the postsecondary sector and the future of Ontario’s workers.
What are you looking forward to working on as President of OCUFA?
OCUFA has grown and engaged in many areas over the last couple of years, so I hope to continue and build on our past efforts and address new challenges. We will be supporting our member associations as they mobilize on their campuses for fair and equitable collective bargaining agreements and the advancement of their labour rights. We’ll also be growing our alliances across the labour movement. It’s important for us to see ourselves as workers, and to engage visibly with the labour movement to be seen as part of the struggle for workers’ rights.
I like to point out in my own workplace that if we look at the old Roman structure of the aqueducts that have lasted nearly two millennia, those aqueducts are still standing and strong because they’re built on bricks who don’t work on their own, but rely on the strength and the power of leaning on every other brick. Those archways have worked together for hundreds of years to hold together, and to uphold bridges and buildings. We must see our alliances in this same way: we pull together, we lean on each other, and thus, we are strongest together. All of this is to help each other, and to improve workers’ lives, and continue to enhance the formidable and world-class public universities our faculty, academic librarians and academic staff work and fight to build every day.
In every part of our advocacy, OCUFA will be working with all sector stakeholders and allies to invest in Ontario’s postsecondary future. This means calling on the government to protect our public universities and invest in the faculty and academic librarians who make them run and generate impactful research and well-educated students.