Precarious Employment

Written by Philip Girvan, this article appears in the Spring 2016 issue of The Beacon

The general consensus is that the longer you spend as a contract academic, whatever you want to call it, part-time instructor the worse off it is for you.” – Anon

The Winter 2016 issue of The Beacon highlighted issues raised by part-time academic instructors (PTAIs) working at StFX University. The article can be found here. At that time, two information sessions had taken place that gave PTAIs space to meet, share common concerns and challenges, and begin to build solidarity and community. 

Part Time Is Real Time, a round table discussion on part time academic work organized by the StFXAUT, and featuring keynote speaker Karen Foster, Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Rural Futures for Atlantic Canada, and Assistant Professor with the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Dalhousie University, was held on February 26. Dr. Foster spoke to early findings from a survey of contract instructors working in Nova Scotia post-secondary institutions that Dr. Foster, in collaboration with the Association of Nova Scotia University Teachers (ANSUT), conducted at the end of 2015. A paper discussing findings from the survey is expected to soon be posted on the ANSUT website.

Dr. Foster in conversation with The Beacon noted that her research examining precarious labour led her to consider contract academic labour in that context. Though the survey’s sample size makes it difficult to extrapolate conclusions specific to the StFX context, Dr. Foster did note that the rural setting and the corresponding lack of other employment opportunities make the situation more precarious for contract faculty working at StFX than those working in Halifax.

Dr. Foster noted that those surveyed emphasized the lack of job and income security, feelings of marginalization, as well as the perception that contract work is not valued by university administrations or “well-meaning full-time faculty that just don’t get it”. An anonymous PTAI teaching at StFX (whose quotation also appears at the top of this article) echoed Dr. Foster’s observation:

Part-timers feel a significant duty to perform services that fall outside of their contracts so they’ll do things like serve on departmental committees when they’re not really obligated to do so; they’ll perform administrative duties; they’ll work over the summer when they’re not paid; they’ll supervise and edit honours theses…all sorts of things for which they’re not recognized or remunerated. They want to ensure that they get the next contract. Those kinds of things are framed by faculty members, by department chairs, as “I understand that this is not strictly part of your duties; on the other hand, this is good for the department and, without the department, you don’t have a job”.

Anon suggests that the precarious employment “is a longstanding problem at StFX [which] hasn’t been addressed because part-timers are …dispersed all over campus and given really no opportunity to get together as we have been recently so we’re basically an invisible sort of quantity. It makes it easier for the university to exploit this underclass”.

If nothing else, the forums and Part Time is Real Time have helped to reduce the part-timers’ invisibility and heretofore scattered nature. A working group has been formed, concerns raised during the forums have been synthesized, other collective bargaining agreements have been examined, and a paper has been produced that is designed to keep the needs of contract faculty front and centre as the StFXAUT begins contract negotiations. Collective bargaining priorities include strengthening the PTAI’s income and job security. One specific proposal shared with me is to formalize part-time staff as contract faculty in the new collective bargaining agreement. As Anon puts it, “we want to emphasize that we’re faculty and limited precisely by how the university limits us which is by contract”.