After the college strike: is York next?

Jon Short and Michelle Mawhinney

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Ontario colleges just experienced a five-week-long strike by faculty members. Could York be facing the same situation this school year? Maybe.

York’s contract faculty, teaching assistants, and graduate assistants—all members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3903—will be holding a strike vote come January. CUPE 3903 members went on strike back in March 2015, and continue to face many issues similar to those of the college faculty across Ontario. A central issue is the prevalence of precarious, contract teaching, and the lack of job security.

Contract faculty and teaching assistants do upwards of 60 per cent of York’s undergraduate teachingwe are central to York’s teaching mission, as well as its revenue streams. Even though we do the same teaching work as our full-time colleagues, our working conditions are significantly worse.

Most of us have to reapply for our jobs every year, we don’t know how much money we’ll make, and we often don’t know what we’ll be teaching from one year to the next. Even senior contract faculty members may have courses they’ve taught for years get cut by the administration, or even taken over by tenured or newly hired tenure-stream faculty. This situation has a direct and long-term effect on us, but it also impacts the quality of your education.

For example, despite the significant amount of work needed to create a new syllabus, construct balanced and fair assignments, and to choose appropriate course material, many of us won’t have the opportunity our tenured colleagues have of improving and refining our courses over time. Even though many departments try hard to include us, because we are positioned by the university as “short-term” employees, we can’t be fully counted as members by the very departments many of us have taught in for years; few of us even have permanent offices. When students ask us for letters of reference, our letters won’t seem to carry the same weight. As we’re not considered “full-time,” many of our names don’t even appear on departmental websites.

In these and other ways, precarious academic labour results in a deteriorating educational experience for students who pay increasingly large amounts of tuition.

Our past contract had taken modest steps toward improving this situation through an expanded conversion (to tenure-track) programme. In the current round of bargaining, in spite of its public claims that it is not asking for concessions, the administration is proposing to gut this program, and at the same time, to significantly increase the amount of teaching done by less experiencedand even cheapergraduate student labor. When the university says it doesn’t want to “tie its hands” when hiring new full-time faculty, what it’s admitting is that, like the colleges, York is addicted to disposable teaching.

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