Most universities have a certified bargaining unit for faculty that may include contract faculty. When a university’s faculty association doesn’t represent part-timers, there usually is a separate bargaining unit that does. For those institutions where contract faculty have no union representation, the road to certification can take a very long time, and it involves mobilizing other contract faculty.
There are advantages and disadvantages to a separate union dedicated to part-time and contract faculty. A separate union might be better positioned internally to advance the issues of the “precariat,” but it probably won’t enjoy the network of support offered by the Canadian Association of University Teachers. Joint unions representing both part- and full-time faculty may dilute the emphasis on contract faculty issues, but this is outweighed by such advantages as developing a united front that doesn’t permit employers to play one side against the other, broadening collegiality across the ranks, and better understanding of the shared values and concerns of all faculty. A faculty association is only as strong as its most precarious member, and so a joint association should ensure that issues facing contract faculty are adequately represented within the structure of the association and at the bargaining table.
Many contract faculty have little time to spare for extracurricular activities, especially if they teach at multiple institutions. But even a small amount of time spent towards improving the working conditions for contract academic staff is vitally important to our collective mission to ensure fairness and, hopefully, achieve academic freedom.
There are some criticisms of joint unions, such as the belief that a faculty association may only look to protect its full-time members, paying only lip service to part-timers. In such instances, bargaining goals for part-timers might be traded off at the negotiating table. If that is the case, it’s all the more reason to get involved to ensure fair representation. There may be factors why contract academic staff issues are under-represented, and these do not always involve malicious intent. Often it is simply a matter of not getting any input from adjuncts. There may be some faculty associations that do treat adjunct interests poorly, but it may be ill-advised to continue such practices, given the increase of adjuncts overall as well as their increasing political leverage.
Fear and apathy
If you choose to mobilize your constituency, one of the challenges is overcoming two factors that may be all too common among adjuncts: fear and apathy.
The cure for apathy is to begin curing it in ourselves first. Go to general association meetings, talk to your steward about contract faculty issues, or volunteer for positions on one of the committees. If you want to see significant change, apathy is not an option; you must take an active role to catalyze change and ensure that your interests are properly represented.
The cure for fear is determining whether the fear is founded on something factual or perceptual. People may fear reprisal or punishment for becoming involved in union activities, most often by not being renewed to teach the following semester. Who is responsible for hiring in your unit – the administration or your unionized colleagues? How likely is it that an administrator will be keeping tabs on your activities if you already feel invisible?
Moreover, if your faculty association already represents contract faculty, it is your right to participate. As a dues-paying member, you should make the most of your membership through direct participation. If you are deeply dissatisfied with the status quo, suffering deplorable working conditions year after year is not a definitive solution: either navigate a way out, or chart a new path with a faculty association to improve the working conditions of adjuncts. Although tenure can be likened to citizenship, we might reframe the discourse to say that union coverage and democratic participation may be its own distinct kind of citizenship.
Faculty associations want you
You may feel that your faculty association is a closed shop, an old boys’ network. In fact, most faculty associations are generally far more inclusive than you think. They understand that renewal is of strategic value in carrying out the mission of ensuring and enhancing the working conditions of all academic labour. If some residual biases against contract faculty remain, then participation is the key to changing attitudes. Not every issue will find resolution in a single collective agreement; better working conditions for adjuncts will happen incrementally, one collective agreement at a time.
Faculty associations have a responsibility to represent the interests of all dues-paying members, and sometimes the interests of different constituencies conflict. At times, issues being discussed may have no direct bearing on your interests. However, being part of an association is very much indexed on the principles of solidarity and shared purpose.
Solidarity is predicated on compromise, understanding and respect. Solidarity also excludes coming to the table with angry cynicism, making overarching claims that “we part-timers are just an easy source of union dues.” It doesn’t mean that you cannot raise issues that are specific to your circumstances and those of your constituency, but you can do so in a way that is informative and collaborative rather than defensive. As a working academic colleague, you are entitled to representation and are an important stakeholder in the future direction of the university.