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Working towards fair employment

– By Sandra Hoenle, Faculty Association President –

Fair Employment Week (FEW) takes place this year from October 23 to 27, 2017. Each year the Faculty Association participates in this national event that raises awareness of the difficulties inherent in being a member of the Contract Academic Staff (the primary group at the U of C being sessional academics). Universities continue to lean on Contract Academic Staff as a cheap, flexible workforce. At the U of C sessional instructors are typically hired to teach individual courses; they are not expected to do research and they are not offered long-term or even medium-term commitments beyond the individual courses. These academics often work for low pay, and with the uncertainty of whether or not another short-term contract will be extended to them.

Sessional instructors are members of the Faculty Association and voted to join the Association in 1994. Since that time, the Association has consistently worked to negotiate representation rights and protections for sessionals. We believe one strong reason for these gains has been due to the united front the Faculty Association is able to maintain through representing both ongoing and sessional academics. The Association has worked to strike a balance between trying to slow the casualization of academic work while trying to improve the working conditions of those academics while they are in sessional positions.

The Collective Agreement states that continuing appointments are to be used to meet the continuing staffing needs of the University whenever reasonably practical (Article 23.1). A copy of the Collective Agreement can be found on our website here. The Faculty Association regularly reviews the use of sessionals in Faculties and departments, paying particular attention to where there are sessionals with substantial teaching loads, who teach year after year. We have been able to work with Faculties to achieve ongoing limited term or in some cases tenure-track appointments for these members, who thereby gain increased job security and access to benefits and a pension, among other things. In this way, and through challenging sessional use generally in Faculties, the Association is working to secure ongoing appointments for as many academics as possible.

We do realize that there are situations where sessionals are likely appropriate. A professional who holds specific expertise may be hired for a particular course or there can be situations in which a Faculty requires an instructor to fill a short-term vacancy. The reasons a sessional appointment can be used are outlined in the Collective Agreement under Article 23.2. However, situations in which the bulk of courses that are required for a program are taught year after year by sessionals need to be addressed.

In the Collective Agreement we have also worked to improve conditions for sessionals. After a sessional teaches eight (8) half-course equivalents they gain the right of first refusal for courses they apply for, provided they have taught within the last five years and subject to having a good record of performance plus the requisite knowledge, skills and professional qualifications for the position (Article 23.12). Salary rates have also been set as minimums only, so although sessionals must be paid at least the minimum they can also be paid more. Salary rates for sessionals are set up as steps on a salary grid. After a sessional teaches 8 half-course equivalents they are automatically moved up to the next step on the grid. We have also negotiated a professional expense reimbursement fund for sessionals, similar to the one for ongoing academics. Sessionals are eligible for $175 per half-course equivalent up to $1,750 per academic year. Information on salary and benefits for sessional academics can be found in the Collective Agreement under ‘Schedule B’.

When negotiating the Collective Agreement, the Faculty Association has traditionally worked to ensure sessional academics receive increases to salary rates which equal or exceed those of ongoing staff. This is done in the spirit of fairness but also with the recognition that sessionals do not have the same job security and benefits that ongoing academics have.

The Faculty Association believes that sessional academics should be seen as colleagues, as fellow academic staff members, and as such should be fully supported in their work. The Collective Agreement outlines access to facilities, resources, and participation in department meetings (Article 23.8). Further support is provided by the Faculty Association Sessional Travel Grants to assist these members with making scholarly presentations and participating in other scholarly activity in their field. This type of support is not offered to sessional academics elsewhere. The application for these competitive grants is currently open (and more information can be found here).

All of this said, sessionals here and across the country inhabit a very precarious position as these academics work from contract to contract, being paid for piecework with few benefits.  The problem of reliance on casual work is not unique to the U of C. According to the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), contract academics make up approximately one-third of all academic staff in Canada. These academics are paid on average one-third less per course than an ongoing academic staff member or roughly 67 cents on the dollar.

The Faculty Association will continue to work within our institution and with our national organization, CAUT, to improve the working conditions of sessional academics and to reduce the casualization of work in the academy. I encourage all academic staff, in your Faculties and departments, to discuss these issues with each other to help create awareness of the issues faced by our sessional colleagues.​

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