CUPE: Giving Workers a Presence in Campus Politics

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Until recently, one of the best kept secrets of the university world was that the people who do most of the teaching are actually not professors in the strict sense, but contract faculty and graduate students. It’s a trend that has been growing everywhere (though Trent faculty still teach a lot) and it’s finally starting to get noticed.

In education, as in a lot of other fields, employers are looking for ways to get work done more cheaply and with more flexibility. They don’t want to have permanent staff, and are relying increasingly on casual labour. For workers, this means less job security, less pay, and fewer benefits.

Here at Trent, all academic workers who aren’t full-time professors are represented by Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3908. The union gives workers, who are not only underpaid and undervalued but also often invisible, a presence in campus politics.

So who are these workers? And how does their presence on campus change the educational experience?

Contract faculty are people who are hired on a course-by-course basis to teach at the university, unlike permanent faculty, who are employed full-time on an on-going basis. Contract faculty are paid less and have to re-apply for every course they teach, even if they’ve been teaching it for ten years.

Because of the labour market, and also because of rules limiting their employment, contract faculty often teach at more than one university at a time, commuting between up to four different campuses in different cities every week in order to make enough money to live on and support a family.

It’s a common assumption that contract faculty are young people who are starting on their career and are teaching on contract while they wait for a permanent position to open up. Sometimes that’s true, but it’s not necessarily the case.

In fact, many contract faculty at Trent have spent their entire careers teaching university courses. Some combine teaching with some other professional or community activity, and others are teaching after retiring from another career. Contract faculty are a diverse bunch with lots of different stories of how they got into education and why they do it.

On the other hand, Teaching Assistants (TAs) are mostly graduate students, studying either towards a master’s or doctoral degree. As part of their funding, they work for the university providing teaching support, usually in the form of leading discussions and marking assignments. TAs are hired as part of their admission to grad school, and are assigned courses each term.

Although some people are in graduate school for a long time, generally universities only fund students for the first few years of the degree. After that they sometimes work as contract instructors, so there can be overlap between the two groups.

Over the past few years, universities have lost a lot of permanent faculty to retirements, and haven’t replaced them. At Trent, entire new programs and schools have been added without hiring any new permanent faculty. The university relies more and more on contract faculty to teach students.

Because contract faculty often teach at more than one school, it can be hard to build a sense of community. It’s not easy to establish relationships with students, to engage in extra-curricular activities, to generally be a citizen of the department or school. More and more those tasks are falling on contract faculty, or not happening at all.

With an increasing amount of teaching staff at universities in precarious employment, the public voice of faculty is a lot quieter. Universities have historically been places of critical engagement, places where social movements thrive, but casualization, by putting everyone’s job always on the line, makes everyone more cautious.

On the positive side, casualization breaks down a lot of the barriers between faculty and students, and professors and other workers that have historically divided universities. As more students and workers experience the butt-end of casualization, our shared sense of grievance and our belief that things should be different brings us together.

Back when universities were primarily staffed by permanently faculty, when students studied full-time in preparation for a career in permanent employment, contract faculty were a quiet exception; now that precarious employment is the norm, when students work part-time during school, contract faculty are being noticed as the new face of university teaching and a growing force in campus politics.