October 22, 2017

Hamilton Spectator: Precarious work at Ontario colleges and universities

By Graham Baker and Brad Walchuk

Over the past year, the Ontario government has undertaken an expansive review of provincial labour laws. Important gains proposed under Bill 148 include a $15 per hour minimum wage, 10 personal emergency leave days per year (of which the first two are paid), providing up to 17 weeks off (unpaid) when a worker or their child has experienced or is threatened with domestic or sexual violence, and ensuring at least three weeks vacation after five years with an employer.

The Bill recently passed its second reading at the Ontario legislature and requires a third and final reading before it becomes law.

While those changes will provide important gains for those working across all sectors in the province, including post-secondary education, there remain critical issues with the legislation that are likely to limit the gains for a highly-educated, yet highly precarious group of workers: Sessional (or contract) faculty at Ontario's colleges and universities.

Sessional faculty are indistinguishable from their full-time, tenured colleagues. They often have doctoral degrees and significant research achievements, have considerable industry experience (often more than their tenured colleagues), and provide excellent, high-quality teaching to undergraduate students.

They are, however, different from their tenured colleagues in some important ways. Their compensation is significantly less on a per course basis (roughly two-thirds of what their tenured colleagues receive at universities) and have limited access to benefits. Sessionals have little job security, often applying and working on a term-to-term basis.

Sessional faculty are also increasingly common at universities across Canada, including McMaster. The Canadian Association of University Teachers has found that sessional faculty teach nearly 50 per cent of undergraduate university students.

No longer are sessional faculty short-term employees brought in to cover a research leave or a parental leave.

In fact they are long-term employees, working a series of short-term contracts. Indeed, many sessional faculty need to string together contracts at multiple institutions just to survive at or above the poverty line.

The current strike at Ontario's 24 colleges is happening, in large part, due to the precarious nature of partial-load employees (the college equivalent of the university's sessional faculty). And the inability of the proposals in Bill 148 to address their concerns.

Two of the three main issues that have prompted 12,000 instructors to hit the picket lines — a 50/50 ratio in the number of full-time faculty to the number of faculty members on contract; and increased job security for those on contract — are related directly to the rise of precarious employment post-secondary teachers.

JP Hornick, chair of the college faculty's bargaining team, refers to this as the "Walmart approach" to higher education, in which low-wages and job insecurity characterize the reality for a growing number of precarious instructors.

While Bill 148 provides important gains for many workers, sessional faculty at colleges and universities are not likely to benefit from many of its provisions, and consequently are looking to secure job security through collective bargaining.

The proposed legislation fails to address the ongoing use of short-term, sequential contracts and thus fails to provide increased job security to these precarious workers. The proposed language also provides a loophole that is expected to continue to allow universities to pay part-time sessional faculty significantly less, on a per course basis, than their full-time tenured colleagues as the work is considered "piece work."

As Ontario's MPPs continue to review and debate the amendments in Bill 148 in advance of its third and final reading, it is imperative that they address the underpayment of sessional faculty and the precarious work conditions that they face. We are hopeful that a further amended Bill 148 will improve the lives of a highly-educated yet highly precarious group of workers.

Graham Baker is president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3906; and Brad Walchuk is staff representative of Local 3906

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