Our Bargaining Priorities: Workplace Respect and Inclusion
A Tale of Three Unis
Kristen Allen, PhD
Writing Instructor I, New College
I first came to Canada from the US in 1999 to start grad school at the U of T and have never looked back. After 9/11, I ruefully joked that they had changed the place while I was gone, but quite frankly, my time in Canada has changed me in turn. The way I see it, I’ve spent most of my adult life in Canada and intend to end it here. The truth about my allegiance became painfully clear during the Winter Olympics in 2002: I happily cheered “We won! We won!” after the men’s gold medal hockey game. “We?” my Canadian friends replied. “Kristen, you’re American, remember?” OK, sure, I’ll always be that, but I really wanted to be part of that “we” as well.
In my quest to become a Canadian, and oh yeah, to make a living too, I have taught as a contract education worker at three different Canadian post-secondary institutions: the University of St. Michael’s College, Carleton University, and the U of T (I know, I know, it’s weird, but numbers one and three are technically separate). I have applied to work at many more. I know I am not alone in this: our Unit 3 bargaining survey indicated that nearly 32% of our members have worked at other institutions, sometimes two or three at a time, to make ends meet. Managing all that commuting is only half the battle; once you get there, you need to learn the campus, a different set of departmental policies, and the institutional culture. (It turns out that despite what the U of T would like us to think, it’s not the only iteration of the university model that exists. Who knew?!) This compounds the stresses inherent in being a precarious worker: low pay, subpar benefits, and little space to call your own. At all three institutions where I’ve worked, I’ve felt respected in the vast majority of my interactions with my students, especially in those positions in which I deliver lectures. There’s just something about standing at the front of a room and leading a class of eager and open minds through a group thought experiment. My students usually call me “Professor Allen” and view me as a fully integrated member of the faculty. My employers, however, have often made it clear that I was neither of these things, and definitely not part of the “we.”
The first time I taught my own course, and by far the most challenging experience, was at St. Michael’s College in the fall of 2013. I was nervous, of course; I’d left teaching and academic life in general after finally finishing my PhD. I’d only decided to teach again when it seemed like the best way to renew my Canadian work visa and eventually become an official permanent resident. At the time, the Canadian government had just changed the rules on me and no longer considered the administrative work I’d been doing for the last three years worthy of being counted for immigration purposes. Sorry, harried administrators: “the Harper government” was not a fan of yours.
I’d been a Teaching Assistant for eight years while I was a grad student, but this would be my first time designing and delivering my own course. I wanted all my ducks in a row; I wanted to settle all the course’s logistical aspects, such as my Blackboard site, my office location and hours, and TA support, so I could focus on perfecting the syllabus and developing as a lecturer. I thought getting this stuff out of the way would be the easy part and would help me deal with my nerves. Boy, was I wrong.
At the time, there was no orientation for new Course Instructors at St. Mike’s, just an introductory email that was sparse on information. I had to hunt around the U of T’s Arts and Sciences website to get an idea of where and when my course was being held and the expected enrollment. Reacquainting myself with Blackboard as an instructor as opposed to a TA took far longer than expected. I only found out much later from a colleague that there was training and support available to us from the wonderful folks at the Kelly Library. I didn’t get the keys to my shared office until two weeks into the start of the course. As for a TA, well. . . .
My letter of offer specifically said “with no TA support,” but I did a little sleuthing and discovered that I had the highest enrolment in my program and was the only St. Mike’s Course Instructor whose course also had tutorials that year, i.e. I would be getting the same pay as everyone else, but expected to do more work because I’d have to teach my own tutorials. I wrote an email requesting a TA in July and got no reply. I tried again in the last week of August and was finally told during the first week of class that they would put out an emergency posting. My (excellent) TA was hired in the third week of class; that year, my students all did noticeably worse analyzing the readings from the weeks before my TA came on board. What a surprise! The following year, I taught the same course, but this time, they made it clear that I wasn’t going to get a TA, no way no how, so I did a lot more work for the same amount of money. I now know as an active member of my union that I could have grieved this ridiculous situation and very likely won, but I was new to the College and trying to immigrate to Canada. I knew I needed the support of my employer and thus didn’t want to raise a stink. Sound familiar?
I suppose it’s possible that I could have been stuck in this situation if I was tenured or tenure track, but I doubt it. In 2015, my partner was hired to a tenure-track position at a major Canadian university. I got to see first-hand how much effort his department put in to make sure he was welcomed, supported, and had all the tools he needed to do his job well. I think most sessionals feel this sense of disconnection from their departments. As a friend and colleague once said to me when she was a sessional teaching at UTM and Guelph, “You’re just there to plug a hole.” However, my experiences at Carleton University and New College at the U of T were not nearly as disorganized and exploitive, and I have several theories as to why that was so. In the case of Carleton, I was picking up a course for an old grad school friend who was going on leave. He and his colleagues made sure that I had everything I needed to get oriented and to be comfortable teaching. New College is the home of Equity Studies at the U of T, so I’m not surprised that I’ve been welcomed there as a Writing Instructor with respect for my needs as an employee and my abilities as a pedagogue. However, I feel that the most key difference is the established presence of union advocacy in the workplace. CUPE 4600 has represented Carleton University Sessional Lecturers since 1997. CUPE 3902 has represented Unit 3 (Sessional Lecturers, Sessional Instructional Assistants, Writing Instructors, and Music Professionals) since 2000. Each local has represented TAs for far longer. St. Mike’s first Collective Agreement was only ratified in 2012, and administrative resistance to the effort was so strong that it took a one-week strike to seal the deal. I’ve taught five other courses at USMC in subsequent years, and the situation got slowly but appreciably better. I think this is a direct result of being accountable to a strong, united body of employees who have worked steadily to bring St. Mike’s into line with the rest of the U of T.
I’ve also noticed a striking difference between my experiences as a sessional in Canada and those of my American friend, an adjunct professor at a SLAC (“small liberal arts college”) in Virginia. (I hereby acknowledge that the difference in terms referenced here is common but by no means de rigueur. I will absolutely believe you if you tell me you know an adjunct professor from Saskatoon or a sessional lecturer from Colorado.) She is usually required to attend departmental meetings, especially the tedious start-of-term ones, and to do other academic service work, such as sitting on committees. I have no idea what those are like, and I used to resent that I was never “invited to the table,” never made aware of the department’s pedagogical and administrative priorities: the latest academic integrity efforts, enrollment woes, the ever-present budgetary restrictions, the new initiative from the Vice-Provost of Academic Policy Circulation, etc. What’s not to love?
Since I became more involved with my union, however, I now understand that this particular brand of inclusion is actually a curse, i.e. more work for no pay. American contract faculty are much less likely to be represented by unions, whereas it’s the norm here in Canada. The numbers clearly show the difference: as of 2013, the average salary for a three credit-hour course in the US was $2,987. Benefits of any kind are rare. (http://www.chronicle.com/article/Adjunct-Project-Shows-Wide/136439) I have a union that ensures that I make over twice that salary, that I have halfway-decent benefits, and that I get paid for any academic service work that I do (such as attending tedious meetings). Meanwhile, my American friend in Virginia is responsible for a big chunk of the first-year pedagogy at the anthropology department and yet has to work as a server to make ends meet. Even though she occasionally gets recognized by her students (“Aren’t you Professor So-and-So?”), she’s come to love her work serving drinks and waiting tables more than her work as a scholar and pedagogue because of all the respect and support she gets from her service colleagues. I feel the same way about my union, which is why I’m so thrilled to be on the Unit 3 Bargaining Team. My union has invited me to a very different table, one at which I can participate in real improvements. This is a “we” that I am proud to be a part of. As our members have identified, “workplace respect and inclusion” is one of the areas that needs serious work. Let’s roll up our sleeves and do it together. #weareunit3