CUPE decries proposal to cut sessional teaching staff

Thursday, July 9, 2009

  • CUPE said the decision to cut sessional teaching staff targets vulnerable workers and would negatively impact the quality of edu

    CUPE said the decision to cut sessional teaching staff targets vulnerable workers and would negatively impact the quality of edu

Written by Greg Beneteau

The union representing sessional workers and teaching assistants at the University of Guelph decried the possible loss of more than 100 positions for the fall.

At a meeting on July 7, members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees local 3913 urged the university  to consider alternatives to cutting sessional time slots, which would affect instructors in the College of Arts and the College of Management Economics at the Guelph and Guelph-Humber campuses.

Local 3913 chair Trudi Lorenz said the news came as a “shock” to its 290 sessional instructors, some of whom have taught at Guelph for more than a decade.

Sessional workers put together lesson plans, teach classes and mark assignments like their tenured counterparts. However, since they are considered contract employees, they must reapply for their position every semester.

As a result, Lorenz said many sessional workers teach multiple classes at different universities in order to make ends meet and are particularly vulnerable to underemployment and layoffs.

“Because of the nature of their work and the fact they do have to apply each semester for their jobs, the job security they have is very precarious.”

According to preliminary estimates sent to the union in May, CUPE estimated the cuts to course sections taught by sessional workers would result in a loss of 60 workers at the College of Arts and 28 at the CME compared to the fall of 2008.

Additionally, 35 fewer teaching assistant positions would be made available at the College of Physical and Engineering Sciences in the fall.

Toni Xerri, a union representative who attended the meeting, said the university was failing to live up to its commitment to providing quality education.

The university’s collective agreement calls TAs and sessional workers “valued and integral to the university’s teaching mission.” Instead, Xerri said they were being used as an expendable "stop gap measure" to deal with a lack of full-time professors.

“I believe that we live in a society where your values determine how people are treated,” Xerri said. “If you are so valuable and integral, this is not the treatment you would be shown.”

University administrative officials declined to answer specific questions about the cuts, saying they were the decision of the individual colleges and that they were merely presenting the proposal to the union.

Communications and Public Affairs spokesperson Lori Bona Hunt said it was “not a centralized decision” to cut sessional staff, but decided by the colleges based on enrollment numbers.

Calls to Dean’s officer at CME and CPES were not returned. Laurie Halfpenny-Mitchell, manager for finance and administration for the CME, said the number of sessional posts that would not be offered again in the fall remained “a moving target” that would depend on final student enrolment numbers.

She said the college decided fewer sessional workers were need following examination of the “efficiency of courses” offered at Guelph and Guelph-Humber and in response to budgetary constraints.

“Obviously, we’re in a massive structural deficit… that caused us to look at the efficiency aspects of what we do,” Halfpenny-Mitchell said. “Everyone wants to make efficient use of their resources.”

She noted that other factors, including the hiring the college hired four new faculty and the return of professors from research leave, meant there was less need for part-time instructors.

Xerri rejected the university’s claim that they were not involved in the elimination of teaching positions, saying the administration had essentially forced staff cuts by reducing the college’s budgets.

“I find it a bit disingenuous to say this did not come from the top, it came from the bottom,” he said.

He added that other schools in the area, including Wilfrid Laurier and Waterloo, have been able to deal with recently budgetary constraints without eliminating their part-time teachers.

“I have yet to meet one dean or one chair that says ‘I actually prefer to have less people teaching in my college.’”

The university has the final say on how many sessional teaching positions are offered each semester, and there were signs the union was bracing for the worst.

Since the university doesn’t consider the elimination of a teaching position to be the same as layoffs, Lorenz said the union had personally contacted members to inform them of the possibility their jobs wouldn’t be around in the fall.

At the July 7 meeting, the union also pitched to the university what Xerri called the “worst case scenario” – a series of 14 recommendations that would mitigate job losses in case negotiations failed. Xerri declined to say what the recommendations were, citing ongoing negotiations.

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