Watching a professor teach a large lecture hall full of students, one would hardly assume that they struggle to make ends meet. But for many sessional faculty members, the prestige of being a lecturer at McMaster University does not equal a steady income.
In July 2017, the local division of Canadian Union of Public Employees, CUPE 3906, began bargaining with McMaster University to improve working conditions for sessional faculty and hourly-rated sessional music faculty. Their main focus is on better wages and job security.
A sessional faculty member is a professor without tenure, who is expected to reapply for their positions once their short-term contract has ended. It is common for sessional faculty members to be hired on a semester-by-semester basis, meaning they must reapply for their job every few months.
“If you take 40 per cent of whatever the average assistant professor is making and how many classes they’re teaching, usually two to four classes, it ends up being twice what our sessional are making, and it’s the same work.”
“When you think as well about the idea of equal pay for equal work, which is a standard we hold onto as a local [union], you have to think about what other faculties on this campus are getting paid to do the same work sessionals are paid to do,” said Graham Baker, CUPE 3906 president.
Baker argued that once their income is broken down into segments, it is clear that contracted faculty are paid much more for the same work sessional faculty do.
“When you look at what the workload looks like for a tenured professor, the usual breakdown is that they’re expected to devote 40 per cent of their time to teaching,” he said.
— CUPE Local 3906 (@cupe_3906) September 20, 2017
“So if you take 40 per cent of whatever the average assistant professor is making and how many classes they’re teaching, usually two to four classes, it ends up being twice what our sessionals are making, and it’s the same work,” he added.
McMaster’s current rate for sessional faculty members is $7,050 per three-unit course. In comparison, University of Toronto’s starting rate is $7,304.56 per three-unit course and York’s rate is $8,389.50 per course. It should be noted, however, that the latter schools are considerably larger than McMaster, with their student populations well above 50,000. McMaster’s student population currently sits around 30,000.
There are approximately 300 sessional faculty members represented by CUPE 3906 currently teaching at McMaster. Of those 300, the majority teach in the commerce and engineering faculty, particularly in the B.Tech program, where 70 of their sessional faculty lay.
McMaster’s current rate for sessional faculty members is $7,050 per three-unit course. In comparison, University of Toronto’s starting rate is $7,304.56 per three-unit course and York’s rate is $8,389.50 per course.
“There’s a misconception that sessional work is like this “gig” that recent PhD graduates do until they can land that permanent position,” said Baker. “People who’ve been working here since the 1970s and 1980s have no more job security now than when they started. The sessional faculty member is the definition of a precarious worker.”
Currently, the union is not poised to strike, and both parties are taking the necessary steps to avoid it. According to CUPE 3906, at the last bargaining meeting with the university, they made progress on smaller issues and did not address the major concerns of better wages and increased job security. Their next meeting is slated for early Oct.
As the union continues working with the university, everyone involved hopes that there is no work stoppage, ensuring that undergraduate students are not affected by these negotiations.