It was interesting for me, a long-time contract worker in the academicsystem, that the seven-week CBC lockout made contract labour front page news. Thelocked out CBC employees, full-time unionized employees, were justifiablyconcerned that their jobs might turn into temporary positions.

But whatabout the working conditions of those hundreds of contract workers alreadyin the system? In an era of cutbacks, contract work is here to stay. Thedilemma, as I see it, is this: how do we recognize the rights of contractemployees while also protecting full-time jobs?

My official job title is sessional instructor. I’ve been teaching at variouspost-secondary institutions for about 12 years. I’ve never in my lifehad a paid vacation, or paid sick days. No contract has ever offered medental benefits. I re-apply for my job every four-to-twelve months.

Recently, I calculated all the hours I spend, not just in the classroom, butduring mandatory office hours, preparing lectures, responding to email fromstudents and other faculty, running around town renting videos or buyingbooks (all out of my own pocket), doing research in the library, preparingassignments, grading papers, writing reference letters, responding to gradeappeals, student crises, and late paper submissions. My hourly wage clockedin at about $11 an hour, and I think I was being generous.

A sessional instructor is a university or college contract lecturer, engagedfor four-to-eight month periods, with the same teaching responsibilities per course asfull-time faculty, but earning a quarter to a third of their pay. Few, ifany of my students are aware that many of their instructors work for lesshourly pay than they themselves made during their summer jobs.

Departmentchairs and administrators, generally hard-working, decent people, are forcedby the system to put fundraising, departmental prestige, and enrollmentconcerns ahead of labour conditions. And I wonder if maybe they don’t feel alittle bit guilty, too. After all, it’s our low-cost labour that affordsthem research time in the form of sabbaticals, summers off, and generousleaves.

These days, as retirement of the baby boom generation peaks, sessionalinstructors are teaching an increasingly large proportion of classes inCanadian universities and colleges. In my department, at the university where I teach, over half of the course offerings are taught by sessionals. An increasingnumber of under-employed Ph.D. graduates are, in desperation, takingsessional employment. And — no surprise here — it’s also a sector dominatedby women.

While conditions vary from institution to institution, most sessionals are — as I am — highly skilled and educated, working without benefits ortransparent hiring practices, paid vacation, status, seniority or jobsecurity. We save universities millions of dollars, but our work isscandalously undervalued. As cutbacks to education continue, sessionals arean attractive option for cash-strapped post-secondary institutions.

Paradoxically, however, we are a largely invisible workforce, isolated fromregular faculty and the university at large. If unionized, sessionals areusually merged with graduate students, which makes organizing difficult.Independent organizing efforts are almost non-existent; without jobsecurity, no sessional wants to be seen “causing trouble.” Indeed, ourfragility within the system constitutes yet another troubling aspect ofsessional work: the loss of academic freedom of speech.

Some organizing initiatives

Recently, the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labour, (COCAL), a NorthAmerica-wide organizing effort, set up shop on the UBC and University ofToronto campuses. At its 2004 annual conference, held in Chicago,sessionals from across North America marched through the downtown core. A“Progressive Report Card” was presented to five Chicago institutions thatemploy large numbers of sessionals. The marks were not impressive. Theirfinal grades ranged from C+ to F.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) have alsoattempted organizing drives. It remains to be seen whether this will impactupon the troubling exploitation of sessional instructors within theuniversity system. It does seem clear that a coalition of sessional-onlyunions, focusing on sessionals’ specific concerns, is the answer.

Fiveyears ago, all of Quebec’s university sessionals’ unions adopted a jointplan of action. They conducted a province-wide publicity campaign,highlighting sessionals’ contribution to the university and demanding equalsalaries for work of equal value. Because of this initiative, most Quebecuniversities have raised the standard sessional rate-per-course from $5000to nearly $6000. It’s not nearly enough. But it’s a start.

Conditions worsening

In the meantime, contract work is not going away, and, where I work, conditions are getting worse. I’m now teaching larger classes for the samewage I got ten years ago. And I’m travelling more, commuting betweenuniversities and even between cities. My back goes out more often, and I’mprone to depression and a constant feeling of fatigue. Some times, I can’tsleep at night, as feelings of helplessness and anger descend. I love thework I do, but dismal working conditions jeopardize both my own and mystudents’ well-being

I recently acquired a Ph.D., in the hopes of finding full-time tenuredwork. But sessional work takes up most of my time, preventing me fromkeeping up with my area of research and building up that all-importantpublication record. My colleagues and I talk endlessly about these issues,and occasionally dream up big, utopian ideas, like the fantasy of acountry-wide walk out, all sessionals, every university, every province. Thewhole university system would close down. They’d finally take notice.

Butfor now, there’s another lecture to prepare, a student to meet, and hundredsof essays to markâe¦

The system is broken, and it’s leaning on me to keep it alive.