Contract Faculty and the Collective Agreement

By Guy Obrecht

The collective agreement is interesting not so much for its carefully eloquent and sometimes overly lawyerly language, but more as the lynchpin that that allows the university to function and change. In principle, it is the terms and conditions of employment, which is true, but buried in all those terms and conditions we find the living articulation of the values of the university. These values are not found not as the articulation of ideals but as the acceptable ground between multiple competing interests. 

Because of the precarious nature of contract faculty employment, it is often assumed that the collective agreement doesn’t really apply. But if the document makes the university tick, then it applies all the more to contract faculty who make up half of our members and do a large share of teaching. 

Over my term as the MRFA Contract Faculty Representative, I tried to draw attention to some of the many places in the agreement that are important for contract faculty. It is more than the reappointment process and salary; everywhere in the agreement that refers to the rights of an employee refers to rights that contract faculty have: these include a harassment-free workplace environment, academic freedom, copyright of intellectual property, and many benefits. 

The bargaining round before me made significant gains in terms of correcting the pay differential between contract and full-time faculty by adding a differential increase to the contract grid. It also saw a greater pool of money for contract service, contract professional development funds and the health spending account.

Although there were no salary gains for anyone in the last round, there was an increase to the contract professional development amount (up to $1,200) and there were some significant gains to job security for contract faculty. In fact, the round might well be called “contract-faculty centric”. 

From the beginning, the negotiating team put together a survey that asked all faculty to weigh in on the relative importance of meaningful employment for contract faculty. During our departmental visits we heard that contract faculty job security was important to everyone. We also established an advisory committee with contract faculty representation to help us define some of the most important issues. In the end we went into bargaining with a clear mandate to tackle the over-reliance on contract faculty at MRU.

Some of the biggest achievements of that round were regarding job-security for contract faculty. Going forward, contract-faculty will know what they are teaching for Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter in March of the preceding year. Knowing teaching commitments a year in advance will allow contract faculty that much more financial stability and time to balance schedules and plan for other commitments. 

A frequent source of concern for contract faculty was the lack of transparency in the allocation of work. In order to try and ensure fairness, the agreement now has a clause that allows faculty members to request a rationale for the standing committee’s decision– i.e. how the selection criteria were implemented. Also, after a contract is assigned, the faculty member can make disability accommodation requests to the Chair. 

Although it was formerly an “unwritten” benefit granted to all contract faculty, a strict reading of the CA along with a new computerized access system saw contract faculty excluded from the rec centre when they didn’t have an active contract. We managed to get the formerly “unwritten” benefit into the new CA. Now all contract faculty have year-round rec centre access (‘till September) at the moment that they have a contract.

The biggest change was the creation of the Senior Lecturer as a full-time category of employment that currently gives priority to eligible contract faculty. This category allows contract faculty the chance to obtain permanent employment and benefits including access to List A funds and internal research grants. As a recipient of one of the Senior Lecturer positions I can vouch for how they bring a stability and predictability that opens up a horizon of possibilities in terms of research, teaching, and course development and contributing to departmental service.  

The collective agreement is a “living” document, it is always responding according to changing situations at the university and in law. Behind all the changes to the agreement outlined here was a concerted effort to move forward in a way that recognizes and values the diverse interests of contract faculty. I am confident that we will continue to chip away at the agreement to support and realize these interests.