In the last 20 years, we've heard the advice "don't try to make a career out of it" applied to an ever-growing field of jobs, including teaching at university. Should we listen?
One of the arguments I most frequently hear in defense of the low wages and insecurity that contract faculty face is that these jobs aren’t meant to be a career. I've heard this from students, from CUPE colleagues, and from university administration. In this perspective, sessional teaching work is akin to an apprenticeship—something you spend a year or two at, honing your skills, before becoming a fully fledged academic journeyman.
At some point, this may have been true. However, over the past three decades we’ve seen a steady increase (corresponding roughly to other trends such as the steady decrease in funding and increase in enrolment) in the percentage of courses taught by non-tenure-track faculty. At Trent the number is approximately 30%, but at many universities it’s much higher. Even at Trent, it must be noted that years of decline in the TUFA ranks were finally addressed recently in a ‘faculty renewal’ policy that aspires to replacing only 1 out of every 2 retirees with a new tenure-track hire.
What's important is that this isn't just happening at Trent, or at universites. We see the same argument has been extended to all sorts of work, including many jobs that were once secure and well-compensated. Workers at Electro-motive in London heard it when parent company Caterpillar sought to cut their wages by 50%, then closed the plant. Wal-mart workers hear it when they talk about organizing to improve their conditions.
OPSEU President Warren "Smokey" Thomas put it this way: "The demolition by employers of the standard full-time job is the biggest labour-market story of this generation". We're going through a second phase of 'scientific management', where work that was previously considered 'skilled', and necessarily done by in-house employees, is being broken into pieces. New technology makes it possible to turn such work into temporary and part-time jobs, to outsource it to workers in low-paid, 'remote' locations; and to automate it, with sophisticated algorithms increasingly replacing experience and judgement. If you want a glimpse of what this might look like at Trent, have a look at Clay Christensen's vision of the way technology will 'disrupt' our 'industry'. (Christensen is considered the #1 Management Thinker, by the same people who voted our own Don Tapscott #4).
As unionized workers, we have the ability to push back against this. We can refuse to accept the "Jedi mind trick" that would have us see job security and adequate compensation as unrealistic or impossible demands. When we do this, we’re playing our part in the larger struggle to ensure that work is fairly compensated and that workers aren’t forced into precarity.
If we simply accept this new norm, we can be sure that the pendulum will continue its swing. What will things look like in another 20 years? As organized workers, we've got the strength to grab the pendulum and send it swinging back the other way. But not if we don't see it. Not if we accept the advice to move along, continuing to search in vain for something we've already allowed to escape.
--Stephen Horner, President CUPE3908.