Part-Time Faculty Strike Looming

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[Update: CUPE 3908 and Trent have reached a tentative agreement.]

Contract faculty at Trent, also referred to as ‘sessional,’ ‘adjunct,’ or part-time faculty, have been working without a contract since Sept. 2013. Due to lack of progress in contract negotiations with the university, they will be in position to legally strike as early as March 28.

Negotiations continue, but according to Stephen Horner, President of the contract faculty’s union CUPE 3908, and a member of the negotiating team, substantial differences continue to stand in the way of an agreement.

Under labour law, these part-time faculty have been working under the terms of their previous agreement since its expiry. They are currently among the lowest paid faculty in the province—more than 10 percent lower than the provincial average.

To put this in real dollar terms, contract faculty represented by CUPE are limited to teaching 1.5 credits of courses per year, for which they are paid a maximum of $18,000. These faculty, most of whom have PhDs or are in the process of completing PhDs, must often hold down simultaneous contracts at multiple universities just to make a living wage.

Currently there are roughly 250 contract faculty at Trent, teaching approximately 25-30 percent of the courses offered here. These courses account for $28 million in incoming revenue for the university.

The rest are taught by permanent faculty who make a dramatically higher hourly wage than their part-time peers—as much as three times higher for tenured faculty, in addition to many other benefits contract faculty do not have access to.

Graduate student Teaching Assistants belong to Unit 2 of CUPE 3908. Their separate employment contract will expire in August 2014.

Whereas permanent faculty, represented by the Trent University Faculty Association (TUFA), have relative job security, contract faculty are only hired on a term-by-term basis and must re-apply for jobs every term.

Trent’s current labour agreement with TUFA calls for replacing only half of all tenured faculty retirees—so the proportion of classes taught by contract faculty is virtually guaranteed to steadily increase, as it has at other universities.

According to the union, Trent’s negotiators’ were asking contract faculty to accept a net freeze on wages, which means that any salary increases (even to match annual inflation) would have to be offset by cuts to their existing negotiated benefits. Contract faculty’s existing benefits already amounts to less than one percent of total compensation, whereas the average for public sector employees’ negotiated benefits is around 20 percent, and the average for other employees of Trent between 20-30 percent.

To put this in real numbers again, contract faculty can only receive a maximum of $600 in annual health benefits for themselves and any spouses or children they may have.

That’s drastically less than even full-time students can claim under their TCSA-negotiated health benefits plan.

Contract faculty’s current Health Benefits Fund has a maximum annual budget of only $30,000 – for all of its 250 members. Once that fund is exhausted, no more claims can be made. The university proposed a further reduction of this fund by 17 percent to $25,000.

Contract faculty’s wages are also not indexed to the rate of inflation, so a net freeze would actually amount to a one to two percent pay cut every year.

Trent’s Operating Budget for 2013-14—totalling over $91 million—included a projected $2,293,000 increase in the wages of instructional faculty. Contract faculty’s wages currently account for just over five percent of the budget total and only 10 percent of total faculty salary cost.

The university proposed in negotiations an increase of $16,600 in total compensation for all part-time CUPE faculty—total, not per person. The union countered with a proposal of three pecrcent, which would amount to just over 15 percent of the already budgeted increases to faculty wages.

A three percent increase (which after inflation would actually be less than two percent) for all part-time contract faculty would cost $150,000. According to CUPE, Trent already saves more than that for every retiring tenured faculty replaced with part-time instructors earning a fraction of the retirees’ wages: “savings […] for each full-time faculty member replaced by part-time faculty exceeds $150,000.” Under the previously stated agreement, half of all retiring faculty will be replaced in this manner.

The vast majority of funds slated for faculty wage increases will go to full-time faculty, under an agreement already negotiated by TUFA.

Meanwhile, Trent’s new incoming president alone will likely make over $300,000, before benefits. Compensation for senior administrators at Trent is slated to increase by an average of 4.5 percent annually.

Faced with this disparity, contract faculty voted resoundingly (92 percent) in favour of a mandate empowering their bargaining team to call a strike should the university and union negotiators be unable to reach an acceptable agreement.

That doesn’t mean there will be a strike—it just makes that a possibility.

Mindful of the chronic underfunding affecting all publicly-funded educational institutes, Horner suggested the union’s modest demands need to be understood in the context of a larger struggle to resist the increasing use of ‘part-time’ or ‘casual’ workers making dramatically less than the full-time employees they’re replacing. The university should not be trying to save money by short-changing already precariously employed workers.

Many of the issues still to be resolved are not about wages, but rather workload and access to marking support on par with what’s available to full-time faculty. According to Horner: “on a per-student basis, we receive less than a quarter of the teaching and marking support that is provided to our tenure-track colleagues.”

The union demands that faculty doing the same work be given access to the same level of support, regardless of union status.

Issues like these affect the quality of students’ learning environments and their education. Professors forced to take on more and more work on multiple university campuses have less time to spend with students, to provide detailed feedback or to make themselves available in person.

Low wages and restrictions on the number of courses they can teach also means the university has trouble retaining outstanding faculty members, a problem Horner said the university has at least acknowledged.

At the time of publication, the university has not responded to a request for comment on the ongoing negotiations and the prospect of an imminent strike. The administration’s last public comment spoke of “significant progress … on a number of outstanding language and monetary issues.”

Horner cautiously agreed with this sentiment, allowing there’s been “good progress on a number of issues and […] some productive discussions on those that remain.” Both parties appear to remain optimistic that a negotiated settlement can still be reached – hopefully without any interruption of the academic semester.

Who’s a Contract Faculty Member?

michaeleamonA Familiar Face in CUPE 3908

Michael Eamon, Principal of Lady Eaton College, is also a contract faculty member. He has a PhD and MA from Queen’s University and an M.Phil from Cambridge University in England, where he studied the history and philosophy of science. He is past editor of the history of science journal Scientia Canadensis. As a contract faculty, counting all the hours he actually puts into teaching courses and engaging with the students in them, Eamon estimates he makes less than minimum wage.

About Autumn Corvus 18 Articles
Autumn has a degree in Philosophy, Cultural Studies and English from McMaster University. After toiling as a lowly academic serf (read ‘graduate student’) for a few years I decided to follow my passion and do something I'd always wanted to: a B.Sc. in Computing and Information Science and Journalism. Returning to Peterborough – my adopted home – after long cross-country wanderings, I can tell you how it ain’t like it used to be at Trent, but also how it can be much better starting now. A student of the Internet, tech enthusiast, recovering political operative, and feline connoisseur.