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Contractually Bound

Contract faculty and the union

Working with your faculty association can reap rewards.


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.

Kane X. Faucher
Dr. Faucher is an adjunct with the title of assistant professor of media, information and technoculture in the faculty of information and media studies at Western University.
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  1. Robert Tamilia / April 23, 2014 at 18:01

    what is said here is unreal. The same faculty union cannot represent both full time faculty and part timers. In fact some schools have 2 separate unions and both bargain independently with the administration. Also to get involved in a faculty union will not change much, given the history of the union and its culture. By definition a union treats administrators as bosses and in turn administrators look at faculty members as blue collar workers. I’m convinced that a full fledged union which is linked to a larger union outside the university having non academic members means that university will have lots of trouble with respect to hiring, promotion and tenure, research funding and so on. I don’t know how many schools have such an arrangement but I hope it’s a small number.

  2. Kane / April 25, 2014 at 18:49

    Hi Robert, thanks for writing! Actually, there are quite a few joint unions across Canada, some of which have succeeded in securing enviable gains for contract faculty such as Victoria Community College. Yes, there are also many institutions that have separate bargaining units, and they may also work effectively. I want to respond to your claim that union culture is somehow monolithic, that all are somehow identical. This is not the case, actually, for some joint unions do fight hard for its precarious members. Some do not do so and should be called to the carpet, or the sessionals should mobilize and separate. But a faculty union is composed of individuals, and as such we cannot generalize that all have the same culture, values, or interests (for to say that might risk committing a fallacy). I am not personally averse to sessionals forming their own bargaining unit at all if the culture is toxic. I am not saying one arrangement is necessarily better than another in all cases. What I am saying is that we sessionals should at least participate in an existing bargaining unit and do our best in improving our working conditions, and if that fails, it is time to consider our options bargaining separately. If, by our best efforts, a faculty union fails to serve our interests, we collectivize on our own.

  3. Doug Mann / May 2, 2015 at 16:41

    Hi Kane. As you well know, I disagree with the substance of what you say above. Here’s the way I see the class system that universities have evolved into.

    Everyone is self-interested to a degree. Some are naively self-interested, some are conscious of their being self-interested. Some follow an ideology that promotes self-interest (e.g. new liberals), others follow one that checks it in part (e.g. social democrats). There are six constituencies within the post-millennial university: well-paid senior administrators and tenured faculty, staff, contract faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students. Each inhabits its own interaction order (e.g. contract faculty have almost nothing to do with graduate programs) and has its own set of interests (e.g. tenured faculty worry about salary points and vacations and sabbaticals, sessionals worry about having a job in September).

    Most faculty today are naive “new liberals.” So it is no surprise that joint faculty unions represent the interests of those who run them, for the most part tenured faculty. Our most recent round of negotiations here at UWO have proven that most tenured faculty will not walk in the snow for us – for contract faculty. The absence of any increased job security in our contract, tied to the absence of a strike, proves this (though there was a minor provision where the administration could cherry pick a handful of politically acceptable people who were already making hefty salaries to promote to full-time limited term contracts).

    My own experience over fifteen years as contract faculty in ten departments is that solidarity between tenured faculty and contract faculty is a myth, even if there are a few personal contacts that are more jovial. Wishing something to be true won’t make it true. Instead, I suggest that contract faculty need a strong independent union like those in seen in Toronto schools to represent our clearly distinct interests. Feelings of solidarity and collegiality quickly fade away if we contract faculty were ever to try to stop the extraction of the surplus value from our labour that supports the inflated salaries of senior administrators (I guess I couldn’t avoid mentioning the Chakma Affair after all) and the chunky salaries of senior tenured faculty.

    So to your youthful idealism I’d like to oppose some hard-headed materialism. Outlining hard facts isn’t cynicism. It’s a starting point to understanding the way things work. For we contract proles, the system is broken, both materially and politically. We need less Kerensky, and more Trotsky.

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