Stronger Together: Achieving Fairness for Contract Academic Staff


From October 20-21, co-Chairs Dougal MacDonald and Ronnie Leah attended the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ (CAUT) conference on contract labour held in Toronto, called Stronger Together: Achieving Fairness for Contract Academic Staff.  October 20-21, 2017.  Unfortunately Dougal lost his detailed notes on the LRT when he was back in Edmonton.  In any case, below is his general report on the conference. Co-Chair Ronnie Leah thankfully did not lose her notes on the LRT.  So her report is much more detailed.  Together, the two reports should give members an idea of what transpired at the conference.  Note that when CUPE 3911 sends people to conference the attendees are responsible to report back to the members.


Co-Chair Dougal MacDonald’s CAUT Conference Report:


Conference Overview

Academic staff have spent many years building workplaces characterized by secure employment and dedicated to research, teaching, and service. But this model is being taken apart by administrators, politicians, and business leaders pushing a discourse of austerity and an agenda that undermines economic security, devalues the combination of research, teaching,and service, and erodes the public good.


With one out of every three academic staff in Canada in contingent, precarious positions,

this conference was very timely. Contract academic colleagues from across Canada joined together at this important event to boost our ability to fight for core employment rights, achieve parity between contract and full-time colleagues, and intervene in broader public policy debates.


Day One examined bargaining, grievance handling and mobilization issues.

Day Two incorporated hands-on skills-training to equip participants with the campaign tools

necessary to restore good jobs and pursue the public good.


Day One, Session One — We Know What is Wrong

This session briefly examined the challenges faced by academic staff and discussed in more depth the necessity of collective action to create positive change.  Conference attendees were in agreement with the structuring of the conference to emphasize developing solutions to the problems faced by contract academics rather than just describing the problems. 


Session Two — Core Struggles I - Bargaining

Academic staff associations have bargained for Contract Academic Staff (CAS) rights for the past two decades. This session looked at the results of these efforts to achieve fairness, equity, conversion, pro rata, and other gains. A panel of experienced CAS-bargainers discussed breakthroughs and continuing challenges.


(Note:  After Session Two, we bussed to Humber College and joined the OPSEU picket line during our lunch break.  Our arrival was much appreciated by staff and students.)


Session Three — Core Struggles II – Grievance Handling

The casualization of academic staff has meant that employment security is being fundamentally transformed at colleges and universities across the country. A panel of experienced grievance-handlers discussed the challenges of representing diverse, contingent, precarious labour in the grievance arbitration process.


Session Four — Core Struggles III: Mobilization

Successful unions, while building strong bargaining and grievance handling capabilities, have also adopted a mobilizing model that engages and includes all the membership and external allies in political campaigns to create fairer, more diverse workplaces and a better  society. Advocates of this strategy made their case for this approach.


Session Five — Fair is Fair: A Critical Examination of Fair Employment Week

Fair Employment Week (November) is a major focus of CAS political advocacy. But how successful has it been at moving our agenda forward? A panel of front-line CAS activists reviewed the history, achievements and future of the event.


Session Six — Overview of Saturday’s (Day Two) Activities

Conference facilitators explained the logistics of Saturday’s hands-on, skills-building agenda:  Participants would form into 5 groups.  The groups were to review a scenario designed to highlight CAS challenges.  The scenario concerned the non-renewal of 26 contract academic staff due to “financial pressures”.  Each group was assigned a different project that would assist in confronting and solving the problem. 

  • Group One:  Create collective agreement language and formulate a bargaining strategy to address the issue.

  • Group Two: Write a grievance and formulate a grievance strategy to address the issue.

  • Group Three: Prepare material (poster, flyer, button, etc.) to educate members and the public on the issue.

  • Group Four: Produce a two-minute video on the issue and the association’s response to it.

  • Group Five: Prepare a press release and hold a press conference to publicize the issue.


Session Seven — Breakout Groups

Conference participants met in their breakout groups, reviewed the scenario that formed the basis for Saturday’s activities, and discussed their assigned tasks.


DAY TWO: Group Work


Day Two: Session Eight – “Ten Minute” Experts: Activist Skills

To prepare conference participants for the day’s exercise, five ten minute presentations were given on, respectively, collective bargaining, filing grievances, creating attractive visual material, making effective smart phone movies, and communicating through the media.


Session Nine — Group Work I and II

The hands-on portion of the event commenced.  The hands-on portion of the event began with participants combining into their 5 assigned groups and completing their assigned work on their respective projects.


Session Ten — The Presentations

Having completed their assigned work, the five groups, in turn, presented their bargaining, grievance plans, campaign material, video, and media plans to the whole conference.

The conference ended with a wrap-up and concluding remarks by the organizers.



Co-Chair Ronnie Joy Leah’s CAUT Conference Report:


Core Struggles - Bargaining

  • Diversity of membership

  • What do members want? It depends on what you ask.

  • Important issues for part timers: job security, stability, predictability

  • University wants flexibility, agility, adaptability

  • Universities’ tales of woe – lack of money, have to budget, sector norms

  • Comparisons with other universities for compensation – to say “this is what we need”

  • Contract teachers are a small part of the total operating budget

  • There are other ways of getting dollars – e.g. benefits


Core Struggles – Grievance Handling

  • An “anti-union animus”, unfair labour practices

  • Right to become involved in the union, meaningful engagement in union for CAS

  • Language around information is critical.

  • We need statistical data and contact information

  • Protect the language, arbitration precedents


Core Struggles - Mobilization

  • From “defence to defiance”

  • Monthly bargaining bulletins – include financial information

  • U had “structural deficit” but ended up with a surplus

  • Inter-campus committee to “keep education public”

  • Solidarity – we’re in the same struggle together

  • Employer divides us at the table; we need to focus on what unites us

  • Improving working conditions improves the quality of education for students

  • Casualization of academic labour

  • Neoliberal university – need to address this

  • To students: “Our working conditions are your learning conditions”

  • Faculty union: prioritize CAS issues in bargaining – the more we work together, the better issues come to the surface, they are issues for us all

  • Structural issues – all had similar complaints – “de professionalization” – everyone is a professional regardless of status.

  • We are stronger together, we have shared professional values

  • Protection of quality education

  • If we don’t’ fight for improved compensation and working conditions for all, it undermines our foundational commitments and values.

  • Protect the core mission of the U – “we’re not a widget factory.”

  • U Budget document: “every budget is a choice”; board chose not to invest in teaching

  • Challenge university fiscal vulnerabilities, reputation, capital projects, US rankings.

  •  “Mistreating its employees this way is not giving its students a good education.”

  • Precarious work goes beyond PSE – it goes across Canada

  • Need democratization and open bargaining

  • “Campus United” at UWO – building relationships of trust

  • Pooling resources; sends a strong message to U. Relations with all employee groups

  • Reaching out early and often to student groups

  • York U strike – take the first steps, everybody’s fate is connected, find common cause

  • BC:  can make gains during NDP government – Take advantage of the opportunity with a friendly government. Changes to Board appointments –  affects hiring at the top of U


Fair Employment Week (November)

  • We have to go from “whining” to vision of education

  • Use of art and theatre to raise concerns

  • Employer can be our best organizer.

  • People are mad at what employer is doing; moral outrage

  • “Imposter syndrome” – invisibility of casualized labour

  • Need for research data – “we are only as good as our data”

  • Normalization of inequality – this is an equity issue

  • We have to own our professional status – “we make an important contribution to this U”

  • Insecure and unpredictable labour and pay (issues at AU)

  • Health consequences of precarious work

  • Strategies: have to make things visible. Posters, declarations, social media


Relationship Building & Member Engagement – Activist Skills


1. Look

Go to members, be where the members are, what draws people in – be there. Take advantage of pre-existing events (go early to meetings, social time after meetings) – it’s relationship building.


2. Loosen and listen

Celebrate successes, even the little victories, one on one connections, share stories and experiences. Listen in the moment, people need to be listened to – their experiences are invisible. Hint: “listen like the person is breaking up with you.”


3. Legitimize

Education and understanding on the issues. Know where people are on the issues. Internalized shame and fear. “I hear you” – this is why we are mobilizing.


4. Let them in

Multiple entry points – different ways to engage with your union. Equally valuable participation, different skills and experiences.  Validation and appreciation – for valued contribution. Follow up is as important as outreach. Take notes after contact and send email to follow up.

Anti-oppression framework: different intersecting systems of oppression.  Who is not participating and why? Who are we asking? Who are we engaging?


Grievances – Activist Skills

  • Dispel the notion that grievance is a failure. It’s a way of dealing with the issues. Normalize the right to grieve and anchor it in the CA.

  • Grievances enforce the CA. Bargaining deals with gaps in the language.

  • Types of grievances: individual, policy, group. Can be simultaneous.


Creating Attractive Creative Materials – Activist Skills

Graphic designs, E-posters, handouts, flyers.



  • Less is more:  Objectives, purpose, clear message

  • Rule of thirds:  Focal point

  • Find the font that fits:  Imagery and text – communicates message. Keep it simple, contrast, formal or casual, big font

  • Create contrast:  Add interest with focal point. Add colour (less is more). Your logo.


Effective Smart Phone Videos – Activist Skills

  • Communicate with members, give big projects to experts.

  • Quick ones can be simple and effective

  • Shoot wide – horizontal. Good lighting, less distracting (no windows).

  • Get closer. Stop moving camera. Framing. Try different backgrounds.

  • Captions (video program). Music. Mikes pick up all sounds.



  • Short (1-2 minutes).

  • Simple

  • Scintillating, captivating, serves a purpose.

  • Horizontal, background, close, simple titles.


Communicating through the Media – Activist Skills

  • Talk to the media, minimize anxiety.

  • Remember: reporters are precarious workers, short staffed, stories are all they care about.

  • Goal: make it easy to tell your story.

  • Never explain – tell a story. Have your story ready.


Stories have structure

  • Problem – crisis

  • Protagonist – who

  • Forces in the story – obstacles

  • Resolve crisis



  • “Here’s the facts.” We’re on the side of truth. We leave you to decide. Know your audience.

  • Different frames for messages:

  • Our story – our preferred version, the story we tell. They also have their narrative

  • Ways to control the narrative frame - Get them to respond to your narrative frame.

  • If the other side responds to your narrative frame, you’re winning.

  • Example: U administration has a narrative of austerity.

  • Our frame: we can do other things, there are choices.

  • News conferences are public events

  • Have “talking points.”  You’ve got to have a story.

  • As academics we are trained to make arguments (this can be a problem).



  • Tell our narrative of job loss. Leads to loss of courses, programs.

  • Core values are quality education. We need experienced faculty, affordable education

  • U makes choices for funding – we find this troubling.

  • Tell our story defending core values.  You have to “feel” the story.

  • U’s ideology: “there is no other way.”  That’s their story.

  • Our story – there is another way!

  • Group discussion to shape our talking points.

  • Protect our members. Contrast about choices.

  • Framing – want to give our narrative. Statement of support from allies.


Example of Press Release

  • Core values – in the lead

  • Recent layoffs put quality education at risk.

  • U makes bad choices.

  • Premise: University makes choices. 

  • Don’t buy their narrative. Don’t accept their premise.

  • Make clear pointed statements, we should not be defending ourselves.


Post-Conference Reflections on Strategy

  • Contrast administration and executive salaries (sunshine list and new hirings) with closures to courses and programs and precarious work of part time instructors.

  • Demonstrate how barriers between students and instructors have negative affect on student learning.

  • Emphasize our narrative: We protect core values of quality education. AU makes budget choices that harms education. 

  • Renew meetings with other bargaining units at AU.  Find student allies.

  • Use videos to connect with our members.  We could do a video introducing the new Executive and put this on our website, with a link in the next Newsletter


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