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At the time of writing, CUPE 3903, which represents contract faculty, teaching assistants, and graduate assistants at York University, have been on strike for six weeks. Without a contract since last August, the union has been negotiating for better pay and job security for vulnerable workers, and asked the university to reverse the elimination of more than 700 graduate assistant jobs. Although contract and part-time faculty at York collectively provide over 60% of teaching, they are underpaid, can lose their jobs at any time, and have no voice in university governance. Far from an exception, their situation has become the norm for an entire class of anthropologists at Canadian universities.

To learn more about precarious employment in Canadian anthropology, a roundtable was convened at CASCA 2017 in Ottawa. Experiences of precarity are incredibly diverse, and many contract and part-time faculty are comfortable, even thriving, in their profession. But roundtable panelists also spoke about the sense of alienation and hopelessness that suffuses the non-tenure track experience. Many scrape by on meagre teaching stipends, are disconnected from their peers and from the field itself. Some have had to choose between attending a conference or paying rent. Others take second jobs, sometimes working alongside the very students they teach. Scholars who have received prestigious awards and grants, published widely, and gained valuable teaching experience still find themselves with no permanent academic home; and worse, very few prospects for ever finding one. And it became clear that the traditional model of academic employment – in which young scholars spend a few years after their PhDs in either a postdoctoral research position or teaching in sessional or part-time positions before finding permanent employment – is broken.

At the 2017 CASCA Annual General Meeting, a motion was put forward and overwhelmingly approved to form a Labour Committee that could examine these issues, educate the membership, and put forward recommendations to encourage fair employment standards for all Canadian anthropologists. The committee, formed last summer, has already met three times to discuss a range of labour issues and put forward concrete strategies to address employment inequalities. It includes the following members who represent a range of experiences and employment statuses from across Canada:

Pauline McKenzie Aucoin (Concordia University)

Véronique Béguet (Université d’Ottawa)

Eric Henry (Saint Mary’s University)

Shiva Nourpanah (Dalhousie University)

Deirdre Rose (University of Guelph)

Marty Zelenietz (Saint Mary’s University – retired)

We have established three goals:

  1. Collect and publicize to the CASCA membership information on labour practices and precarious employment in Canadian anthropology, particularly in higher education.

  2. Coordinate with other scholarly and labour organizations that are working on these issues to develop strategies that promote fair labour practices for anthropologists. These organizations include the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), World Anthropological Union (WAU), American Anthropological Association (AAA) and a host of other national, provincial and institutional organizations and labour unions.

  3. Advocate for precariously employed anthropologists in Canada. We believe CASCA should take a more active role in representing the interests of part-time, contingent, and non-tenure track faculty, as well as anthropologists outside the academy.

Gathering information is our first priority. As a discipline, we need both quantitative and qualitative data about anthropologists working in sessional and part-time employment, and will be seeking information from departments across Canada. In the coming months we will also be circulating the results of a large-scale survey being done by CAUT on academic precarity in Canada as well as information about other labour issues. For instance, we plan to look at the role gender, class, and ethnicity play in current hiring practices, how evaluative criteria such as course evaluations affect non-tenure track faculty, and the expansion of non-research lecturer positions.

As the contingent faculty and graduate students at York are teaching us, complacency in the face of the continuing erosion of fair employment standards will serve to weaken our discipline and our profession. For more information on the academic labour situation in Canada, please refer to the working bibliography compiled by Deidre Rose. We hope all will join us in working towards a fair labour environment for everyone.

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