Heather Neun, Union Counsel
Enforcing the rights of precariously employed FSA members
Most Canadian post-secondary institutions generally employ some form of instructional “contract academic staff”, whose employment is of a short-term nature. In the FSA’s bargaining unit at BCIT, these members are employed as Part-Time Studies (PTS) instructors on short-term auxiliary employee contracts, sometimes referred to as “yellow contracts”. Over the last few decades, an increasing proportion of the FSA membership in this employee category earns either all or a significant percentage of their income from PTS instruction (Article 4.3.1). Some programs in departments like Interior Design and Digital Arts are staffed largely using PTS instructor contracts. ISEP and PELD are staffed entirely through such contracts.
It’s an FSA priority to mitigate and redress the undue precarity and insecurity that characterizes the employment experience of far too many FSA members, like PTS instructors. Precarity is the term commonly used within the post-secondary education sector and beyond to signify a form of employment that is ‘flexible’ for employers but leaves employees with limited supports and uncertainty about what work they can count on. In ISEP, for example, there was a time in the not too distant past when our members didn’t know until days before the term start date what contracts they’d be awarded. Imagine finding out the week before that your contract hours were going to be significantly less than expected, and not knowing if you would need to seek other sources of income. How is this fair to any professional expected to deliver high quality educational services, let alone one dealing with the reality of the high living costs in the Lower Mainland?
Enforcing the right to normally be rehired
The right “to normally be rehired” to teach a course is the cornerstone of PTS instructors’ right to a modicum of secure employment (Article 22.214.171.124.7). What this means in any given situation isn’t always clear and the FSA’s representation work is focused both on clarifying the scope of this right and enforcing the right whenever it is violated. We do this through union grievances and by supporting employees who want to file employee grievances. At any given time, the FSA has various grievances on the go: there are always grievances centered on the rights of PTS instructors and we will continue to press hard on this particular representation lever. We also engage in representation that takes other forms, such as working with managers who value and are concerned about these employees, and who understand that the rights and interests of our members dovetail perfectly with the interests of BCIT.
Fear about “rocking the boat”
Many members who approach the FSA to inquire about issues such as their right to teach courses they’ve taught before express fear about being seen to be “rocking the boat”. We’re often asked to refrain from taking further steps to enforce our members’ rights and this concerns us because fear is not conducive to employee morale, psychological health and engagement, or to the delivery of high quality educational services.
Educating members about their rights as PTS instructors
For the FSA’s part, we try to meet fear with improved understanding. We do member education through publications and events like Fair Employment Week, at our monthly Tech Rep meetings, and through direct education in high PTS-concentrated programs and departments. Our objective is to empower these members to come forward early on when concerns and questions first arise. In one department, we’ve been inspired by several members who, in pressing for redress of their own rights, have put the interests of their colleagues at the forefront and acted in solidarity with other PTS instructors. If you or a colleague has a question or concern, don’t hesitate to contact the FSA.
Educating Faculty about the scope of their PTS colleagues’ rights
The FSA also works to educate our members who are regular employees (Article 4.1) and enjoy rights of ongoing employment and seniority. It’s been encouraging to witness the growing interest and concern expressed by this group and to see individual members undertaking direct representation of their colleagues. We are particularly heartened by Faculty who regularly advocate in this way on behalf of PTS instructors. Consider how you can get involved through direct efforts to support your colleagues and by participating in BCIT’s recently announced Ed Talks 2017, a forum that will hopefully address issues in PTS and the concerns of PTS instructors.
Message to BCIT students and BCIT Student Association
We also have a message to share with BCIT students and the BCIT Student Association. In an economy characterized by growing precarity – including for those who are have stellar educational and other credentials – there are hidden and not so hidden costs when institutions rely on these short-term and ‘flexible’ terms of employment of instructors. BCIT students might want to consider the following challenges and gaps experienced by PTS instructors:
- the lack of support and opportunities for their ongoing professional development
- insufficient time and resources to consistently prepare quality educational materials
- the lack of office space and paid office hours for private consultations with students
- contracts that don’t cover the hours needed to meet course and program learning outcomes
Calling on BCIT
Our members who work as PTS instructors sometimes tell us they feel treated and regarded as “second class employees” even though they deliver many of the same courses and programs as regular instructors. This sense of a secondary level of employment does not come from the quality of their expertise or the work they do. It shows up in areas like the gap in benefits and facilities, and management’s failure to listen or consult with them about matters that have educational significance. PTS instructors should not feel like second class employees. The fact that many do indicates that BCIT needs to support those managers and the management direction that recognize the value that PTS instructors bring to BCIT. Employees owe a duty of loyalty to their employer and the reciprocal of this is for the employer to invest fully in all of its employees. This shift towards mutual consideration will inevitably result in high returns at the level of employee engagement and, in turn, for the quality of BCIT’s educational programming. When employees feel heard and valued they are usually willing to go the extra mile. Let’s advance together through serious dialogue!Leave a reply →