February 11 marked the first joint action of Ontario college union locals, part of OPSEU, and university faculty associations to demand fair working conditions for contract faculty.
Contract faculty (CFs) make up over half of the faculty in universities and up to 70 per cent in colleges. These workers have four-month contracts—the length of one school term, with no guarantee of future work and minimal to no benefits. Many CFs have worked under these conditions for years. They teach the same courses and must have the same qualifications as full-time unionized faculty.
The Ontario Coalition of University Faculty (OCUFA) and a new college union-sponsored organization, Contract Faculty Forward, organized the action. Faculty, students and supporters from across the province posted and tweeted messages of support throughout the day. OCUFA held a press conference on the day at its coinciding conference on precarious post-secondary faculty.
Also, on the day, Fanshawe College and the University of Western Ontario put out a joint press release. “The status quo in the Ontario college system is erosion,” said Fanshawe OPSEU local president Darryl Bedford. “More and more students are being taught by professors who are poorly paid.” At Fanshawe , a staggering 61 per cent of all faculty are on contracts that typically cover just a single 14-week semester. There were 33 per cent more contract faculty at Fanshawe in 2015, compared to 2006.’
Ontario colleges and universities tout themselves as progressive social leaders that promote human rights, diversity, environmental stewardship, etc. But, the conditions of the people that work in these institutions has been described as "Dickensian." “It is shocking that in 2016 that a group of workers in the Ontario public sector is essentially laid-off and rehired every four months”, said one contract faculty. “The uncertainty and fear this produces effectively silences our voices.”
Indeed, a human rights on-line training module for faculty in one college, even includes a warning against equating workers rights with "human rights."
Bloating administration, new building projects, and private enterprise adventures are trumping the delivery of public education. A recent study of Ontario colleges found that non-teaching administration positions had increased 55 per cent in the past 10 years, at the same time as full-time faculty increased only 22 per cent.
Fanshawe recently purchased a private company for $1.6 million. Algonquin and Niagara colleges were recently forced to shut down satellites colleges in Saudi Arabia financed by Ontario student and government money. Former international students at Niagara College are launching a class-action lawsuit against the school and seeking more than $50 million in damages for false promises that they would receive necessary credentials.
As a recent socialist.ca article on corporate interests in universities asked: "Are our schools to be run like public institutions devoted to the public good or like businesses devoted to profit? Do students and faculty have a right to know how their schools are run, or are decisions to be treated like state secrets? As with the rest of our public services, the battle for the soul of our education—how we train and inspire young people—hangs in the balance."
Strikes and union drives
Strikes by contract faculty and teaching assistants at U ofT and York in the spring of 2015 brought the issue of precarious post-secondary employment to the mainstream. The strikes made gains and sparked new initiatives in the colleges, including Contract Faculty Forward and the February 11 day of action.
Currently part-time support workers in Ontario colleges, who work side by side with faculty, are in a union organizing drive to try to rectify this unfair situation. Hopefully the faculty will follow suit and students and faculty will keep the pressure on to push back the corporatization of post-secondary education.
Register today for the conference Ideas for real change: Marxism 2016, including the panel discussion "Unions organizing in a time of precarity."