Walking the Line Week 2: Contradictions of Contract Labour

When I completed my PhD in 2009 there were certain things I didn’t anticipate having to deal with, and a strike is one of them. (Of course, that may have been because I went to school in Alberta where one now risks punishment if you utter the word “strike”) I was far more concerned about finding sessional work in a boom town in the first fall of the recession. I landed my first contract position in the spring of that year and for the first time became a member of a faculty union. I had very little idea what that meant. In fact, I took the advice of a mentor and sat down to read the entire collective agreement. Let me tell you: it was worth the time.

Today is Day 8 in the second week of the strike at Mount Allison. The faculty and librarians have walked the picket lines in subzero temperatures. Most contract faculty, myself included, have been given strike duty at headquarters. The thinking here is that many of us are on the job market. Indeed, some of us are in the process of applying for positions at this university. Working inside keeps the most of the precariates out of the spotlight. I appreciate the thoughtfulness that has gone into this scheduling.

And yet, there’s no protecting precariates when the union is on strike. Not really. We are both in the union and one of the very issues on the table at negotiations. Some of the central issues my union is striking over have to do with attempting to get living wages for sessional workers. It is impossible not to be in a contradictory position as a contract laborer on strike. Do you keep a low profile? What does that mean? Do I stop writing blog posts about academic issues that are currently affecting me? Or not?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, nor do I have a clear path for navigating the ever-increasing complications of contract labour. But today I made a decision for myself. It was a small one and of little consequence, but it matters to me. Today I did my first picket line duty outside. I walked the line with my colleagues (not all tenured or tenure-track) from faculties and departments I may never otherwise have met. We talked about the strike. We talked about our lives. We had an incredible interdisciplinary conversation about rape culture on campuses, how to talk about it in the classroom, and how to combat it in daily life. It felt good to meet these people. I learned things from them and was reminded yet again of the vital kinds of work university professors do everyday. 

I support the union. I depend on the union to stand up for my rights and the rights of others. Would I rather be in the classroom? Of course I would. So would everyone. But faculty and librarians are on strike because they are fighting for the academic mission. So here are my final (brief) thoughts from the picket lines: being on strike is hard on faculty. It is hard on the students. And as someone working very hard to gain a more stable foothold in the academy it feels both risky and necessary.