At the CAUT Contract Academic Staff (Sessionals) Workshop

Last week, ULFA Executive Director Annabree Fairweather and I attended the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) Contract Academic Staff workshop in Toronto.

At the CAUT Contractual Faculty Workshop (my first selfie)

Contract Academic Staff (CAS) is CAUT’s term for employees who are paid on a per-course, short term, and contractual basis–the group known as “Sessional Lecturers” at the University of Lethbridge.

The struggles of CAS for fair working conditions and pay, as well as universities’ use of such contracts to replace longer-term research and teaching faculty is a major issue across North America. In many places, contractual staff now teach a majority of the credit hours on campus.

The programme for the workshop called for a day of presentations and then an all day workshop practicing various elements involved in representing CAS at the University.

Annabree was one of a select group of invited speakers who played a role on both days. On the first day, she discussed ULFA’s experiences in representing contract faculty, particularly in negotiations and grievance. On the second day, she was the expert invited to introduce the grievance workshop.

ULFA Executive Director Annabree Fairweather discussing best practice in grievances for Contractual Faculty

In addition to attending lectures and the workshop, participants also joined an exciting  lunch-time rally by and for striking college workers at Toronto’s Huron College.

Rapper Mohammad Ali rouses the crowd at the Humber College Rally


The programme

The conference began with session “We know what is wrong.” This looked at the well-known issues that can make contract work so demoralising and difficult. Lack of respect from administration (and often peers and students). Low pay. Lack of long-term certainty about employment and financial insecurity. Susceptibility to bullying from senior colleagues and administration due to the precarious nature of such contracts. Particularly moving and important in this session was the discussion from contract staff themselves about the impact poor working conditions can have on their research, health, family, and teaching.

The remaining sessions on the first day looked at the “Core Struggles” affecting this group of employees–Bargaining and Contract Language, Grievances, and Mobilization. Speakers discussed approaches they had taken in each of these areas to win improved job conditions and pay for contract staff. Most of the speakers were contract staff in their own right and it was very inspirational to see just how much they had been able to accomplish at Universities across the country, including several that are often compared to the University of Lethbridge or otherwise used as comparators by our administration.

On the second day, the participants divided up into breakout groups, each of which practiced a single skill involved in the representation of contract staff. I was assigned to the grievance group, where we discussed and prepared a grievance for contract staff at a fictitious Canadian University, Great Northern U. Annabree was assigned to a different group, who practiced making short, effective cellphone videos. Other groups looked at preparing negotiating language, writing press-releases, and preparing information fliers, posters, and websites.

Lessons learned

One lesson to come out of this workshop was just how far behind the norms in our sector the University of Lethbridge is in protecting and developing its contract academic workforce. Even compared to similar universities in similar jurisdictions and locations, our current collective agreement has fewer protections for our contract staff.

But perhaps most of all, it is clear that we lag behind much of the country in understanding who our contract staff are and why protecting their rights and improving their relationship to the university is in all our interests.

At the University of Lethbridge, we tend to understand CAS as a short term solution to emergent problems: the people we hire to teach courses when holes appear in our schedule or to replace people on leave. Throughout, the emphasis is on limiting our relationship to these employees purely to the time they are under contract.

While flexibility is an important aspect of CAS employment everywhere, the best universities in Canada tend to understand contract staff as a crucial part of their faculty: a group of professionals who can provide both flexibility and continuity and whose expertise and skills can be cultivated and developed in a mutually beneficial way. Recognising the important role sessional faculty play at the university and cultivating this relationship on a longer term basis improves the working conditions, job satisfaction, and effectiveness of the contract staff without compromising the university’s flexibility. The best collective agreements in Canada understand contract staff as valuable and uniquely flexible teaching professionals and provide reasonable professional support and continuity.

This is a place where we can do much better as a community! While at the CAUT meeting, we met a number of experts who will be able to assist us in reviewing our contract and thinking through the steps we need to take with the administration to ensure we really are a destination university for everybody who works and studies here.

~Dan O’Donnell