Precarious Labour in the Era of Neo-Liberalism: CUPE reports on a recent conference in Kelowna, BC

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On behalf of CUPE 3911 and the Association of Academic Staff University of Alberta, I attended and presented at the Precarious Labour in the Era of Neo-Liberalism conference held in Kelowna BC at Okanagan University May 5-7, 2017.  The main organizer was Steve Webber, a sessional in political science at Okanagan College. About 50 people attended the conference, mainly from western Canada and the western US.  Some of them had attended the August 2016 COCAL Conference held in Edmonton in August 2016.


The conference consisted of five panels with several presenters scheduled for each panel.  Two presenters failed to show.  A keynote address was given by Dr. Jaime Brownlee of Carleton University, author of Academia Incorporated:  How Corporatization is Transforming the University.  The film, “Contract Faulty: Injustice in the University”, produced by Professor Garry Potter at Wilfred Laurier University, was shown.  The proceedings were filmed by a former sessional from MacEwan University, with the permission of the participants.  Aside from the content of the conference, it was a good opportunity to visit again with contract academic colleagues as well as to meet new ones, and to share experiences.


I spoke first as part of Panel One.  I presented on a scheme to create rankings of Canadian universities, similar to the Maclean’s rankings, but totally focused on how each university treats its sessionals.  The rankings are used to pressure the universities into making changes under the “threat” of public disclosure.  Already, some organizations in Canada and the US are taking up the idea.  Ed Kroc of UBC presented next on the use of undergraduates as TAs for undergraduate courses in some BC universities, a highly questionable practice. Rob-Roy Douglas from University of Northern British Columbia then traced some of the history of the post-war rise and fall of the use of contingent academic labour in Canadian universities. The panel finished with a presentation by Elliott Rossiter of Douglas College, New Westminster, on how the increasing reliance of universities on precarious forms of labour harms the practice of academic work by disengaging it from the good of an academic institution and by hindering the advancement of precarious workers in their profession.


Panel Two began with Herbert Pimlott of Wilfred Laurier who spoke on the myths of precarious academic labour and the need to challenge those myths. For example, the myths that precarious labourers are either residents of an ivory tower or just members of a temp agency.  Attention was paid to ways that precarious labourers can effectively get their message out.  Robyn Page, a co-organizer of the conference, then read a paper submitted by an absent Sarika Bose, head of the Contract Academic Faculty at UBC. Her presentation was about how the corporatization of the university has been accompanied by the deprofessionalization of those who teach on contract as well as by turning students into “clients”.  This mitigates against the development of critical thinking by both groups. The third scheduled speaker, Priscilla Lefebvre of Carleton University, spoke about mental health issues among contract academic instructors, which are a by-product of their position and the way they are treated by their institutions.  For example, the fact that they know they provide “cut-rate services”, the idea that those who teach in areas such as the humanities are “unimportant” because their students “don’t get jobs”, their general invisibility, and the failure of governments to take measures to improve their situation.


Panel Three began with Linda Elmose of Simon Fraser University who spoke about structural factors that impede precarious workers from organizing resistance in the neo-liberal university.  These include the hegemonic notion of “cost-saving”, the devaluation of post-secondary education as not “preparing students for jobs”, invisibility, atomization, lack of data on the situation, and the existence of a “reserve army” of other sessionals who could “take your job”.  John Martin, Chair of the California Part-time Faculty Association which serves about 40,000 contract academics in California’s community colleges, then spoke on how a united lobbying action aimed at members of the California state legislature succeeded in in raising the legislated workload cap for part-time faculty.  The talk included discussion of strategies to help make such lobbying efforts successful.  Georgann Cope Watson of Brock University then spoke on how the negative conditions of her contract academic employment undermined her efforts to implement her personal teaching philosophy, in particular, her dedication to critical thinking.


Panel Four began with Melissa Jacques of Okanagan College speaking on the privileges and challenges that arise in the event of the creation of an instructor or teaching stream at a post-secondary institution.  These include inadequate work description, workload (to stay “competitive”), and the rhetorical lip service the neo-liberal university pays to pedagogy.  Sam Popowich of University of Alberta then spoke on the specific effects of neo-liberalization on librarians and their occupation within the academy, including deprofessionalization, credentialism, perceived decline in the value of libraries, and an uneasy relationship with academia overall. This is intensified by the need to cope with the rapid pace of technological change and automation within the library.  The third speaker, Heidi Darroch of University of Victoria, was unable to attend.  Instead, Michael Markowsky of Emily Carr showed a brief video created by one of his fine arts student which predicted some of the features of future education that would result from neo-liberalization in academia.


Panel Five began with Frank Cosco of Vancouver City College, who is also the chief organizer for FPSE, the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC.  He described the “Program for Change” for contingent academic labour, which is a partnership between FPSE and sessionals in Washington State.  The Program for Change document provides a comprehensive program to start improving the lot of contract academics on a variety of aspects.  The document is available at  Jack Longmate, of Olympic College, Washington, then spoke on the question of whether there is a viable alternative to tenure, suggesting two main possibilities, increase the number of tenured faculty or improve sub-standard working conditions of contingent academics.  He mentioned the pros and cons of the idea of mandating a maximum percentages of sessionals in an institution.  He suggested that the VCC approach of regularization after a period of time of teaching, as outlined by Cosco, is one very viable option to tenure.  Keith Hoeller of Green River College, Washington, concluded the panel by making a case that the two-track system of professors and contingent academics is a form of “faculty apartheid” which has created castes of haves and have nots. This system of apartheid needs to be abolished.


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