Reflection from a Full-Time College Professor on Strike, By Resh Budhu
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Ontario Public College System. And as of Monday October 16th at 12:01 a.m., 12,000 of us – full-time and partial-load faculty, librarians and counselors from across 24 colleges – have been on strike.
The last time college faculty went on strike I was a part-time teacher. I wasn’t part of the union: part-time faculty are not unionized. I had no benefits or savings to cushion a work stoppage: my part-time pay didn’t extend that far. Part-time faculty are only paid for hours standing in class, not for course development, lesson prep, assignment marking, meeting and communicating with students or rounding up and inputting end-of-term grades – an amount of work, when indexed to part-time pay, hovers around the provincial minimum wage.
Nevertheless some of us part-timers decided not only to not cross the picket-line, but to join it. This meant risking the displeasure of our managers, which might come back to bite us when we had to re-apply to teach our courses, as contract faculty have to do every term - even for courses they’ve developed and have been teaching for years. We also knew that this could jeopardize our application for Employment Insurance, a necessity for many underpaid contract workers when colleges and universities go on summer break - Because again, the money isn’t enough.
We were right to worry. EI did not recognize a legal strike as a legitimate reason for not completing the required mandatory minimum work period. Apparently one had to work despite the absence of work. Thankfully a merciful counselor understood this was inane and restored my benefit. But not everyone was so lucky.
A few years ago I was finally hired into a full-time teaching position. I laughed, shouted, toasted endlessly… can’t remember the rest… but it was great! Because it was the game-changer.
But let me be clear… What changed was that I now had job security, I had full benefits, I had a (more than) decent salary and I no longer had to worry about where I would be teaching, who I would be teaching and if I would be teaching from one term to the next. My blood-pressure and anxiety decreased, my happiness and sense of self increased. And I said goodbye to EI.
What did not change – was the amount of work I had to do. Only now, I got paid for it.
As bad as I thought it was then, it’s far worse now.
I am part of a shrinking group – Permanent full-time faculty with job security and benefits. I have the privilege of working with bright, ethical, compassionate and dedicated colleagues, a majority of whom now belong to steadily increasing numbers of contract, part-time college workers (well over 70%). All of us are trying to deliver quality education and service to growing numbers of students, even as Ontario colleges are experiencing drastic funding cuts (21% below the national average) – meaning higher tuitions for students, less secure jobs for workers and reduced resources and supports from classrooms to counseling services. And we are surrounded and managed by a ballooning bureaucracy of administrators (growing by 77% in a little over 10 years) to ensure the delivery of decisions by largely corporate Boards of Governors whose private sector interests and modus operandi are becoming the operating practices of public post-secondary education.
Education is transformed from a social good into a business and our students into its consumers. As classrooms swell in student numbers and in student needs, instead of investing in additional supports, colleges have increased the workloads of already over-burdened faculty who, in addition to teaching, are now engaged in student recruitment, service and retention.
The colleges’ failure and unwillingness to create more job security for part-timers leads to a cascade of negative consequences for our college communities and wider communities:
- Contract faculty hustling to find work (sometimes across multiple institutions) to supplement already fragile incomes and add to overloaded schedules, find it more difficult to meet the growing needs of students and expectations of management. And working without job security and union protections, contract faculty are less inclined to challenge the very managers who they hope will hire them in the coming term. In this situation, to engage in a “good work ethic” can mean self-exploitation, to take a stand on principle can mean self-sabotage.
- Vulnerable faculty lead to vulnerable programs. The lack of permanent, long-term faculty can mean the withering of institutional memory and an inconsistent delivery of programs. Teaching teams even partially comprised of contract workers, become destabilized and less cohesive in their ability to uphold principles of quality education and professional standards of practice. And we risk underserving the very fields into which we graduate our students, fields that many of us come from and to which we retain deep personal and ethical commitments.
- The erosion of working conditions for faculty leads to the erosion of learning conditions for students. Our students, who have made significant investment and sacrifice to attend college in a bid to escape patterns of precarious work in their own lives, lose out on the time, energy and focus of increasingly shattered college workers and depleted programs. Not to mention being caught up in the painful irony of being prepared for full-time permanent jobs by faculty who lack full-time permanent jobs.
- The greatest sacrifice is to the integrity of our public colleges and communities. The public college system was founded to provide training and education for those seeking secure employment. Because of its affordability and access, colleges provided a vital point of entry into post-secondary education for lower-income, racialized and otherwise marginalized communities for whom university was not an option. Education as a pathway to secure employment would allow graduates to pay it forward in the building of healthier, sustainable and just communities. As colleges become more precarious, so too does this vision.
Yet, as job insecurity is becoming the norm in all sectors of our economy, our increasingly neoliberal colleges seem to view precarious work as both the fuel and future of our college system. Suggesting that
entire programs can be run by contract faculty alone, they’ve even invented a new type of part-time position, the Orwellian sounding “temporary full-time” contracts that run a year rather than a term.
In their latest communiqué, the College Council has now sunk to adopting the rhetoric of the union-busting “Right to Work” movement in America by suggesting that union demands for more full-time jobs means condemning over 3,000 contract workers to unemployment. After all precarious work is better than no work at all. Apparently jobs with rights and dignity are too expensive for institutions that will only pay for a fraction of the bread and none of the roses.
The late UK MP Tony Benn once said that the best way to control people is to keep them demoralized, insecure and frightened and this is precisely what is happening to educational workers. Within this environment of precarity, workers are increasingly treated as unskilled and knowledge-less who belong to inexhaustible pools of exploitable and expendable labour. Complain too much, deliver “too little” or challenge on principles of academic freedom and quality education – no worries, there are always others who will do the job for less. Within this environment, administration doesn’t manage, so much as control.
And while there are many managers, administrators, chairs, deans (and perhaps even college presidents) who choose to support workers and stand up for education, there are also many who don’t. And in this new reality of growing insecurity, reduced consultation and the sacrifice of educational integrity to corporate ideology, it is only the most controlling, arbitrary and authoritarian management practices that will be allowed to flourish.
Ultimately this may be the point. Insecure workers controlled by growing bureaucracies delivering on corporate visions for public colleges will weaken two of the most powerful tools we have to resist neoliberalism: collective bargaining and education.
So I’m striking: Striking so that our colleagues will not have to choose between their integrity as educators and job security. Striking to give our students a quality of education that will sustain them in their professions and in their lives. Striking to maintain the vitality of educational institutions that are so essential to our democracies. Striking for the building of sustainable and caring communities where everyone has the right to both live and work with dignity.
How ironic that the founding values of the college system in 1967 have now become the demands of striking college workers 50 years later.
See you on the line!
Resh Budhu, Faculty George Brown College