OPSEU ramping up efforts to organize contract college instructors

Centennial College - HP Campus. Photo: JasonParis/flickr

The summer months are providing little reprieve for staff and representatives at the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) who work with college instructors.

The union recently filed to represent contract academic staff at the province's 24 colleges.

It's a "historic event of really incredible proportion," said RM Kennedy, the union's representative for college faculty. There are tens of thousands of contract academic staff at Ontario's colleges.

While each college is an independent body, they are considered one entity for the purposes of bargaining under the law, said Kennedy. This means the union has to organize all colleges at the same time.

OPSEU has been unsuccessful in organizing contract academic staff in the past. But Kennedy is hopeful this drive will work. Unionization, he said, is essential for contract staff.

"We really are at a tipping point," the professor at Centennial College in Toronto said. The vast majority of academic staff at colleges -- about 70 per cent, Kennedy said -- are on contracts. That means only 30 per cent of academic staff have full-time jobs.

This reliance on part-time, contract work threatens an already underfunded college system. Instructors can't give students their best when they're working from contract to contract. They often may not know they're teaching until days before classes start. In Toronto and the GTA, instructors may teach at several schools in the same semester. Students may not be able to find their instructors to ask for help. Professors may not know students well enough to provide reference letters.

Instructors may not have dedicated office space, or a working telephone. Kennedy, who said he is lucky to have never been a part-time instructor, said he shares his desk with part-time colleagues who can use the space when he isn't there. For many instructors, he said, their most stable office is their car -- if they can afford one. While the union has hired many organizers for this drive, Kennedy said a lot of work has been done by full-time faculty, who know where the part-time staff are and how to reach them.

Contract academic staff are grossly underpaid. They don't have access to benefits or pensions, even though they may have the same teaching load as their full-time colleagues. While rates of pay vary across schools, what is consistent is that staff are only paid for the hours they spend teaching -- not time spent marking or meeting with students.

"If you were to actually calculate it, it falls well below the minimum wage," said Kennedy, noting educators enter the profession because they love it, not to make money.

The financial stresses cause some to leave it.

JP Hornick had contract positions at George Brown College for years. Constantly reapplying for the same position, despite having won awards for teaching excellence was "demoralizing."

"My investment in the college actually wasn't returned," the labour studies professor said.

She got a full-time position at George Brown in 2002, but after she'd decided to leave teaching because of the uncertainty.

College administrations, and governments, like to say part-time staff are necessary for creating innovative education. Because instructors work in the industries they're preparing students to enter, the thinking goes, they provide industry insight.

This is a "myth," said Kennedy. Instructors who teach on top of their full-time industry jobs are the exception. "The vast majority of contract staff need jobs," he said. He's told students they could earn more after they graduate than their instructors, even though these people are preparing them for the industry.

"Education is not a business. It's a process," said Hornick. A quality education "can't run on a strict business model … on the backs of precarious, contract workers with no rights and low pay."  

Contracts also limit academic freedom. Instructors work in "fear," not knowing if criticizing the school's administration could jeopardize their chances of being re-hired, said Kennedy.

"If you don't have a secure job," he said, "academic freedom is meaningless."

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.

Photo: JasonParis/flickr

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