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LETTER: Wangersky column struck a nerve

Some students joined members of the Lecturers’ Union of Memorial University of Newfoundland (LUMUN), who belong to the Public Service Alliance of Canada, on Nov. 1 for a rally to denounce the latest final offer tabled by the university’s administration. LUMUN represents two bargaining units and roughly 330 per-course instructors and about 90 post-doctoral fellows at MUN’s St. John’s and Grenfell campuses. —
Some students joined members of the Lecturers’ Union of Memorial University of Newfoundland (LUMUN) on Nov. 1 for a rally at MUN's St. John's campus. LUMUN represents two bargaining units and roughly 330 per-course instructors and about 90 post-doctoral fellows at MUN’s St. John’s and Corner Brook campuses. — Telegram file photo

Russell Wangersky’s column of Nov. 13 (“Universities should pay up”) highlights a problem that should worry everyone who cares about higher education: the unrelenting casualization of university teaching in this country and this province.

As Wangersky notes, the majority of instructors at Memorial University now work on limited-term contracts. Some are hired “per-course,” the university’s version of piecework. Others are salaried “term” academics on contracts ranging from four months to — in rare cases — three years. Many move between per-course and term status depending on the available work.

Some contract faculty have worked at MUN for 15 or 20 years with no job security and little hope of being made permanent. Some of them get no pension or health benefits; others lose benefits as soon as their contracts end. They often rely on EI between contracts.

Perpetual insecurity is not good for anyone. Contract workers struggle to make such important life decisions as starting a family or buying a home. Contract academics also suffer from restricted opportunities for professional development. Of course, students also lose when this year’s inspiring instructor is not available next year to offer advice and mentorship. And the whole university is poorer when so many faculty can’t participate in developing and running programs over the long term, or when they lack the security needed to take risks and innovate in their teaching and scholarship.

Contract workers struggle to make such important life decisions as starting a family or buying a home. Contract academics also suffer from restricted opportunities for professional development.

Wangersky’s advice to contractual faculty is: “unionize, and if you are unionized, strike.” At MUN, both sets of contract faculty are unionized — per-course instructors in Lecturers’ Union of Memorial University of Newfoundland (LUMUN) and term academics in the Memorial University of Newfoundland Faculty Association (MUNFA). Both unions have proposed to address insecurity via the collective bargaining process. Unfortunately, both unions reached an impasse in bargaining with the university's administration.

In MUNFA’s case, the final sticking point was the administration’s refusal to provide seniority rights to qualified contract faculty who have no documented record of unsatisfactory performance. Such a provision would give experienced faculty some assurance of a claim on work that they have already proved they can do.

By this point in bargaining, the parties had made progress on many important issues that would strengthen our university. Among others, these included a mechanism for addressing gender-based pay inequities, protection for professors’ intellectual property rights, and some provision for leave time in situations of domestic violence. The faculty union had also agreed to a three-year salary freeze.

Under these circumstances, the administration’s refusal of MUNFA’s offer to settle if they agreed to a small extension of job security for contract faculty is not only disappointing. It is also puzzling.

Granting seniority rights to contract faculty would cost Memorial nothing. But it would make a huge difference to the lives of those directly affected. MUNFA regularly hears from contractual faculty who are afraid to claim what rights they do have for fear of not being rehired. Indeed, the lack of job security is the single most frequent reason contract faculty ask for our help.

Wangersky ends his column by advising contract instructors that universities are “first and foremost businesses” and warning them not to “confuse the business of running a university with any love of knowledge, fairness, collegiality or higher purpose.”

MUNFA does not accept this vision of the university. Our top priorities in this round of bargaining all centred on equity issues that would protect and strengthen Memorial’s core values and mission and improve the education and scholarship we provide in this province. Fighting for the rights of our members working on contract is a key part of this effort. Contract instructors are some of the most dedicated teachers at Memorial. They deserve better.

Robin Whitaker, president

Memorial University of Newfoundland Faculty Association

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