Working together for fair employment

by Faculty Association | Filed under Fair Employment Week, October 2016, President's Message.

– By Sandra Hoenle, Faculty Association President –

This week, October 24 to 28, 2016, is Fair Employment Week. It is a time when we, along with Faculty Associations across the country, put a spotlight on those colleagues who work contract to contract, often for less pay, with few benefits, and with no job security.

When I started working at the University of Calgary it was as a sessional. The number of courses I was contracted to teach on a year-to-year basis, I believe, were not one-offs but were needed to meet the continuing staffing needs of my area. Because of this situation, the Faculty Association negotiated to convert my appointment and others like mine from a variety of departments to ongoing positions. This is how I entered the continuing ranks of the University and how a number of other now senior members have transitioned to ongoing appointments. There have been multiple rounds of conversions of sessionals to continuing appointments which have been typically tied to the Association’s bargaining or grievance work.

Under the Collective Agreement, Article 23.1: “Whenever reasonably practical, the Governors shall use Continuing appointments to meet the continuing staffing needs of the University.” This is the basic principle the Faculty Association works towards. Having an ongoing appointment means the academic staff member has greater job security, access to benefits, and automatic membership in the Universities Academic Pension Plan, among other things. These conversions are one of the ways being a sessional member of the Faculty Association has been a definite benefit to the academic work of the institution as a whole. I recognize that there is legitimate need for sessionals in some situations, for example to bring in expertise from the community or to fill last minute vacancies. However, the ultimate goal of our Faculty Association is to push for the creation of regular full-time positions as appropriate under the Collective Agreement.

This being said, we know that the general reliance on sessional contracts has proliferated throughout the post-secondary sector in North America and beyond. According to the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), approximately one-third of all academic staff in post-secondary institutions in Canada are hired on a per-course or limited-term basis. Information is limited in Canada but I am happy to report that Statistics Canada has announced it will be collecting data on part-time and contract academic staff in the future. In the United States, according to an American Association of University Professors (AAUP) 2015-16 report, 70 per cent of all academic positions are not tenure-track and 54 per cent of the entire academic labour force is part-time. The issue of using part-time contracted academics to teach in our institutions is not going away any time soon.

I believe including sessional members within the Association provides greater strength for all of us. Part-time sessionals at the U of C voted to join the Association before they were designated academic staff in 1994. As we had outlined in our submission to the Post-secondary Learning Act labour review (available on our website here), the Association has been able to negotiate over the past 22 years certain representation rights and protections for those academics working as sessionals. This includes the right of first refusal for courses, regular increases to salary steps, a pro-rated professional expense reimbursement, access to facilities and participation in department meetings, among others. Further, when there have been financial cuts to other staff we have been able to shield the sessionals from the full impact. By being part of the Faculty Association, we have tried to encourage sessionals to be seen as colleagues and fellow academic staff members. To support this, the Faculty Association has developed a travel grant for sessional academics to assist them with making scholarly presentations, attending conferences, or other scholarly activity in their field. The application for these grants is currently open (and more information can be found here).

I feel that if sessional members were not part of our Association but represented separately there would be what we call an inherent (and somewhat perverse) incentive to keep the sessional academic staff in this exploited employee category. There would be some incentive to preserve the union membership of sessionals in this separate group, rather than securing ongoing employment. Keeping both academic types (ongoing and sessional) together helps us work as a united front – working together to ensure our students can benefit from a strong academic workforce. We have had sessionals chair the research ethics committee, supervise graduate students, and engage in various forms of research. In other words, the roles played by sessionals are diverse, and are fully integrated with the academic work of the University.

We recognize that there is still much work to do. There are some Faculties and departments in the University where sessionals have been relied on more than others. Sessionals still make up almost a quarter of our total academic staff and there are Faculties where reliance on sessionals is nearing or over 50 per cent of their academic workforce. We also see an ongoing trend where over half of sessionals are women whereas women make up just over one-third of ongoing academic staff. More information on sessionals across the institution can be found here.

Fair Employment Week is a time to draw attention to the fact that many colleagues work contract to contract, often for many years, indicating a need for an ongoing position. We ask all academic staff to think about these critical issues. Even as I am no longer a sessional, I continue to be involved with various initiatives such as active membership on the CAUT Contract Academic Staff Committee. CAUT works nationally to bring attention to the issues of the reliance on sessionals and currently has a pledge of solidarity available for signature here. The Faculty Association will continue to strive to improve the work life for sessionals not only this week but throughout the year.

I would like to conclude by issuing a challenge to the University to provide more institutional support and recognition for our almost 600 sessional members. Every year some funds earmarked for sessional professional expense reimbursement remain unclaimed. I would like to see those unclaimed funds added to the Faculty Association Sessional Travel Grant Fund to enable us to provide more grants to support  scholarly activities by sessionals.


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