This year marks the 125th anniversary of Labour Day as an official holiday. Back in 1894, the standard workday was 12 hours, and the standard workweek 6 days. It took years of fighting, but eventually a limited workday and 5-day workweek was achieved. But workers didn’t stop there: over the decades that followed, child labour was prohibited, safety standards were implemented, and paid parental leave was created.
These advances continue to change lives today – with one caveat. For contract workers, it’s too early to celebrate. The benefits many of us enjoy haven’t yet been achieved for these workers. Now is the time to raise what we expect, and what we’ll accept, from our employers.
Contract work is nothing new, but the labour market has undergone significant change in relatively recent history. Since the 1960s, union density has declined. Following that trend, inequality increased as wages failed to keep pace with cost of living increases. The minimum wage was not calibrated to provide a living wage, leaving many to work more than one job to earn enough to support one family. We also must recognize that workers of colour and workers with disabilities had (and continue to have) additional hardships in the workplace as they contend with these issues, in addition to systemic racism and bias.
The gig economy has exacerbated these issues: in the name of “disruption” workers are being pitted against each other to compete for doing the same work for a lower wage. It’s a race to the bottom, and we’re all losing.
Research shows that contract work can lead to lower wages for non-contract workers as well. It’s a corrosive force that has the potential to undermine past improvements achieved by workers. And no sector is immune.
This includes our post-secondary institutions. While contract faculty positions are not new, college, institute, and university administrations have stretched the justification for short-term, underpaid contract labour beyond recognition. For decades, faculty and staff unions have tried to solve this problem at the bargaining table, to no avail. That is, until 1998 when we refused to sign a contract until a pathway to long-term work was established. This was a huge milestone that made a life-changing difference in pay and stability for thousands of education workers.
However, it didn’t take long for employers to work around this language. We began to notice that contract faculty would not be re-hired just before they were given job security as a regular employee. Employers held out the promise of long-term work, all the while keeping contract faculty chasing a job that remained just out of reach.
Contract work in our institutions continues to blatantly exploit workers. Let’s leave aside the issue of the short-term contracts and the stress that uncertainty creates. We can find no convincing rationale that explains why an educator, who is skilled enough to be hired year after year, should continue to be paid less than their colleagues. When you’re doing the same work, you should receive the same pay. It’s pretty straight forward!
On Labour Day, you’ll often hear the J.S. Woodsworth quote that “what we desire for ourselves, we wish for all”. You’ll also hear enthusiastic applause for what we’ve gained. A decent wage, the weekend, and workplace safety, to name a few, have become minimum expectations for many of us. It’s clear that what we desire are jobs that are fair and give us the ability to enjoy the other aspects of our lives. Contract work doesn’t just deprive others of these rights, it threatens to negate the gains entirely.
So, where do we go from here? The first step is to remember that every gain won happened because workers fought for it. It’s never been easy, but it’s always been worthwhile.
The second step is to talk others and find out how contract work is affecting them. Are they paid fairly? Do they have benefits? And do they have a path to long term work? In post-secondary, the overwhelming answer is no.
Which brings us to the third step: continuing the fight for better working conditions. When we work together we have incredible power to create change that will last for these workers. We cannot accept the status quo that uses contract faculty as disposable labour.
This Labour Day, I urge you to support the fight for fairness for contract faculty and other contract workers. Let’s show employers how we expect them to treat all workers. Not just for ourselves, but for all.
The Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC is the provincial voice for faculty and staff in BC teaching universities, colleges and institutes, and in private sector institutions. FPSE member locals, represented by Presidents' Council and the Executive, represent over 10,000 faculty and staff at 19 public and 5 private sector institutions.